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.

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Guardians of Liberty: Part 16

16.

Two for Flinching

From the outset, Daniel Ozell never flinched. Vids didn’t lie. Now, N1T3 had become fascinated with it. Ket was chewing an imaginary thumbnail, a supplement for stress when her real nails were too valuable to damage. Riter stared off in thought at some place in the middle distance.

It was the first time they’d been together in eleven years– until Dru topped that by walking in, making it the first time the four had ever been together. It occurred to no-one. Only the slight hints of awkwardness belying otherwise total intimacy made any inclination toward it.

They sensed they were all unaware of it then.

Nonetheless, N1T3 was obsessed with the vid. The sound was off, had never been on. He was too expert at reading both text and lips to care much. His life was lived in thrumming fans, clacking keys, yet somehow he knew and understood this man– this creature– better than even himself. This modern man, whom instantly and totally adapted. In one breath.

That was the essence of the postdigital child. Yet this one had evidently been working to destroy itself. Knowingly.

Ozell’s eyes said it all: The scene. The slight hesitation. The stop. The breath of recognition. Of acceptance. Of inhalant abuse on the intoxicant of power. The one that meant SQ.CMDR – DIV\I OZELL, DANIEL was a hell of a model employee and about to become the new standard to be set by.

Not a prototype in the strictest sense but a showroom model, the expectation for mass-production perfection, its ultimate goal and purpose. One that, at all costs, knew the system would fuck him given even wind of need.

So, he’d fuck it right back, every chance he got.

N1T3 watched for the sixth time: Ozell instantly adapted. No hesitation. The mental process was autonomic. Muscular, micro-facial movements. The breath of a slump smoothing itself easily into squared shoulders, relaxed arms and torso, legs, and eyes. All of it relaying that every component had processed the same information and the mode-switch was made.

Only one such as N1T3, the others, could have seen or understood it.

It went something like this:

Start. Sensory boot: intake.

The first steps inside: POST.

Hardware/environment assessment.

Mode-cycle switch: engage.

N1T3 downright admired Ozell’s abilities. There was absolutely no lag. His mental system for adaptation was more advanced than N1T3 had ever seen from corp-sec. Let alone a jack-boot. Then he opened his mouth, and N1T3 wished to erase him from Time-Space; past, present, or future.

“People, please, I will speak to you shortly.”

Such nonchalance and smug arrogance.

N1T3 read it there; Ozell knew the score. It was the entire point to his mode-cycle. He knew five people had been hit. Two murdered. Now, he realized he’d have to answer for it– and instantly knew how to benefit– twist it to.

Ozell could squeeze someone else’s balls for a pay-raise over this. Or more. That much was obvious, but so was something else.

Ozell’s adaptability told N1T3 all he needed to know: he was a leader, would’ve put the bullet in An33$a’s back– another prototypical postdigital child. Her lover, “Clockwork” Mike Andover, former world chess-champion, bad-boy, and wunderkind-turned-rogue.

He let them cook her after he pulled the trigger. Daniel Ozell’d known it all along what was happening, had been okay with it. Why, was obvious: personal gain wasn’t just for corps anymore.

N1T3 read all of it in his eyes. in his evolution. Like him, Ozell was a predator. More practiced, practically speaking, but one-half the predator’s coin nonetheless. He could only exist because people like N1T3 did– hackers, rogues, sexdolls, freedom-exiles and vagabonds.

However, unlike N1T3, Daniel Ozell was a predator’s predator. A specialist and assassin not found save in the deepest niches of predatorial nature. Everyone in the room felt it then:

Daniel Ozell existed to kill them.

Ket was calm but firm, “It’s getting too hot. We should get you out of town.”

$trydr argued, “No. Too dangerous. Re-locate in town and lie low. We–“

Dru interrupted, “Can do no. more. than we are doing now.”

He looked about to argue but N1T3, unfazed and still mesmerized, interrupted, “He did it.”

Silence. Confusion. He paused the vid, skipping its UHD-res back frame-by-frame until where he needed it. He flicked at Ket’s server, left as he’d built it for now, and keyed up a few lines of custom code. The script engaged.

Animated, frame-by-frame stills of Ozell’s face: The gleam in his eye. Thoughts. One at a time in his head, cycling him from prey to predator with the releasing of skeletal muscles, posture. All of it habit. This was a creature made to hunt men, and once more being forced to when it had lost the taste.

They all saw it. The gleam. That almost imperceptible tic of the right eye’s outer-corner that spelled guilt. It slacked as the switch flipped, the mode cycled, and the predator re-emerged.

More than that, he wasn’t about to deny anything. He would admit a truth, however tacitly, and another after that– that he was about to do even worse this time ‘round. This, he knew, came as orders of overlords he knew valued him less than dirt. Overlords he, himself, would back-stab if ably suited.

Because that was the game he and they knew– knew, and didn’t mind.

N1T3 spoke, “Daniel Ozell put the bullet in Anisa’s back.”

Ket was least affected. Dru, most. Riter found himself ailed from it. Through them, N1T3 did too, however dully. Ket couldn’t be allowed to feel it. Even two for flinching in her line of work could permanently damage the goods. Good for business, bad for friendship.

“Anisa’s dead. Get riled up over her, it’ll only make you stupid. It’s what they want.”

$trydr looked ready to snap in defense of Dru. She interrupted before he could, stunning all but N1T3. A sudden silence hung in the air before he began to take notice of it. He sensed what was happening, ignored it. His mouth opened, Dru simply spoke faster.

“Ket’s right.”

That stopped N1T3 in his tracks. Mostly, because he was surprised how deep his and Dru’s connection still went. They were both irritated; one because they knew they were running out of time; the other because he was running out of time. In-fighting and debate was unacceptable right now. Feelings could wait.

“Knowing Ozell’s the one is important for one reason,” Dru said, sensing N1T3 nod.

He finished, “It gives us a target. Someone to pin this on. Someone aware.”

Ket and $trydr were frozen. Ket had heard but never seen the double-think Dru and N1T3 were capable of. It was no doubt what had attracted them to one another– even as children, they weren’t like-minded, but rather, one-minded.

If he weren’t so gut-certain N1T3 would soon be dead, $trydr might have been concerned. As much pain as it brought him to know, he knew too that N1T3 would be equally amused under better circumstances. Those were yet, if ever, to come.

Presently, circumstance dictated N1T3 and Dru were both right– but it pissed him off anyway.

“Should’ve known,” $trydr grumbled. He spoke aloud for the others, “Find what you can and get us all a copy.”

N1T3 was already typing, “Corp-sec Squad Commander Division One intell-strike. London Outpost. Married. Wife infirmed. Psychosis. Son adolescent. Man himself suffers PTSD from pre-takeover wars…”

Two hours and ten minutes later Ozell’s voice continued.

“… reprimanded twice in the field for acts unbecoming; assaults on fellow officers, and disorderly conduct. Signed Ret. Maj. Revyen McGuire; former C/o.”

Ozell wasn’t angry. He’d half-expected it. He respected the punk-shits for burning him like that. Class all the way. Well and truly worthy of the so-called paradise they occupied. That one amidst the shit-heap refuse that was their culture and world.

That was what he hated most of all; their utter immunity to irony.

They were kids, sure, but not really. They weren’t much younger than him in some cases, and nowhere near Paul’s age either. Caught in the middle of seemingly everything, they had no choice but to rebel. In a way, he pitied them. Almost sympathized.

Then, he read the last section of N1T3’s “release.”

Each syllable began to grate, his jaw setting further as he read, “Daniell Ozell, we have seen the lies in you. Answer for them. If not for your sake, then his.”

The image was innocuous. Almost mundane. Paul stood alone at a bus stop, waiting. It was the residential pick up. Fewer and fewer kids were attending Corp schooling these days, but it was generally agreed to be a result of less births in the corporate sector.

That was a pile of bullshit even Ozell’s less-perceptive colleagues had sniffed out.

Fact was though, the whole pickup area was under 24 hour surveillance. Corp-Sec was tightest there than anywhere. Even in the image, Ozell could see the subtle hints of his teams, watching, waiting, protecting. Doing their jobs– what they were paid to do. All they were paid to do. They made sure those kids were safe. If they weren’t, their parents didn’t work.

Ozell’d known that when he laid out the patrols, the angles. When he planned the surveillance. Everything in the image was a direct creation of his love for his son. It was his hope that others like him would do for his as he would theirs, when he wasn’t looking.

And from this, it looked like Corp-sec were sleeping on the job.

Worst of all though, it wasn’t the drone image meant to seem important. Rather, it was its ability to exist. It demanded examination, explanation; if Daniel Ozell’s child is so safe that he can walk to school alone, why is Martin Black a threat?

The question itself, required the full-scope of the situation be comprehended– that its’ social coding and conflict resolution be known:

If Martin Black was not a threat, then why was Anisa Blanc shot in the back, as tacitly admitted? The return-code question required to close the circuit and produce output then was; if Martin Black (threat 0+) and Anisa Blanc (threat 0) were equal, and neither’s death justifiable, is not your hunt simply murder-driven?

Then, the final return: If so, then why and on whose orders?

Ozell grit his teeth. The bastards as much as confirmed the war then and there, firing back as. Ozell knew would happen. He knew what would come next too; forced retaliation. From him.

The Corps had been itching for war. Nothing thinned the herd quite like it. Corps had never been to war. Not true war. They’d never seen what they could do. Neither had the modern man.

The Tree of Liberty would feed; blood or water, only the season’s star-shine could decide.

Until that moment, Ozell hadn’t known whom he’d be killing. He simply knew he’d be killing. Death, for an experienced dealer in it, was a mood formed of the depraved and their shadow games. Blood-thirst clung to air, thickening it. It stank like cooked bile on a hot summer’s noon. It made every breath taste of ash and fire with the intensity dictated by primal chaos.

Once it came, it would be Tantalus’ eternal thirsting forever more. Paradoxically however, it was not a thing’s existence that caused it. Rather, it was its total-need and utter-absence.

Blood on the air made Ozell rage. Figurative as it remained for now, he was still forced to calm himself. He did it the only way he knew how: analyzing what he knew had and would happen. Otherwise, he’d pop like a cork and take the whole damned post with him.

It would take time, but what little of the game and its players remained obscured was coming to light. The moment his kid showed up, Ozell knew that war was on. Moreover, he knew it was exactly what both sides wanted– however vastly differing their reasons.

Because both sides were terrorists, one just emotionally so. Hackers were the type that preyed on people’s hidden nature for their own ends. Corps were no less guilty. Whether altruistic or not in intent, it was predatory. Until now, he’d sympathized with the hackers personally, if little else

Then, they made his son the poster child for civil-war.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 15

15.
The Modern Man

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

“Go ahead.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More dead whores. That’s it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it mattered precisely dick to no-one anyhow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, he did.

Then, N1T3 released his images.

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

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

Something more than Human.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, they pounced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Story: The Pigeon Problem

It was the damnedest thing when it first began happening. To say no-one expected it was an understatement, but neither was there much surprise involved.

Understand the state of the world at the time: the whole damned place was on fire. Humans weren’t sure they’d live out the day, let alone a century or millennia. Of course, that led to a lot of short-sighted mistakes, but every reaction bears an equal and inverse action.

It only made sense that something had happened to all of those old fucks ruining things. Gender politics muddied the waters, but it was obvious who the problem was, male or female. It was even more obvious they were all fucking stup–

There goes my own prejudice again… hugghhhhh.

We knew they weren’t the smartest bunch. It had to be genetics. The average person is neither burdened nor emboldened by their Humanity. They exist in a state of existence, subsistence, and occasional resistance. Mixed and matched in various forms, this is what concocts the Human-everything. Enough that it has managed all of Human greatness thus far.

Who’d have thought it could go away? Like, really… away. Or not be there in the first place?

Meanwhile, the utter lack of surprise is self-explanatory. Hundreds of thousands– then millions of Humans were suddenly the equivalent to walking vegetables, nothing out of the ordinary. Now however, they seemed incapable of doing little more than occasionally putting hand to mouth.

Apart from being utterly unhelpful, it was mystifying. Grown adults who’d spent their whole lives working in office blocks, commuting to and from marbled-staircased homes with large families, now incapable of little more than feeding themselves.

They could stand about, move if prompted, and often were seen flocked on street-corners as if pigeons. So, that’s what they became: Pigeons. Save with eerily less motion. It was as if the groups of once-besuited, rag-tattered creatures had become a hive-mind no-longer coherent of its imitated species.

But how? How could it be possible for any creature to suddenly shift so intensely, let alone a group so immense and varied as they?

In the studies conducted since the First Occurrence, of which there are three, enough has been concluded to confirm the cause as Genetic. It is, along with other factors, much of the similarity that binds the hive-minded groups to one another. Hive-minded though, is misleading. A hive-mind may have a goal or objective, whereas these creatures are more empty-minded.

Had they existed in the time of Siddhartha Gautama, they might have been termed to the effect of Śūnya-Buddha, orvoid-enlightened one.

In essence, they’re Human hardware running no software. Perfectly functional in every way, but uninhabited by anything resembling the Godhead or Soul, Consciousness or Humanity. They’re Human blanks, reactive but never active, like a PC at POST– spooling hardware-test on ingrained command, instinct.

Buddhists themselves have postulated Śūnya might mean more Consciousnesses are achieving the Godly realms, and these creatures are the byproduct. Mostly though, they’re just empty. They have no software, no operating system. Merely functional components functioning until they can’t any longer. A sort of natural phenomenon from closed-sentience tracts of evolution, as in the case of some primates.

Occasionally too, like pigeons, one is found in the gutter. Dying or dead doesn’t matter, little can be done then save to show mercy.Such extremes are rare, though, and their idle time is spent flocking from place-to-place, picking scraps. They are more an occasional nuisancethan the plague carriers they once were.

Given the alternatives, it’s a relief really.

The irony is lost on no-one save the Pigeons themselves, but faulting something like that for not understanding its world fundamentally misunderstands its nature.

So, what is their nature?

Officially classified as Pseudo-Sapiens Homo-Śūnya after someone thought the name fitting, its mythology therein spawned itself. Regardless of academics, they are the empty-people. Incapable of retaining memories or planning beyond moment-to-moment flashes, these creatures suffer from newly-termed Zero-Oneness Disorder: unable to feel or function as is clinically normal for Humans.

The First Occurrence revealed it, astounding the world.

Random people suddenly brain-dead on the streets, driving their cars, sitting or moving about in their homes. Powerful, prominent, or aspiring, anyone was effected.

But there was no chaos. Just confusion.

In everything since, one thing’s known: the presence of a select few was wholly ignored by the majority. Or in some cases, entirety. The effect, rather than outrage, was nothingness. It seemed counter to Human-Psychology– the first clue to the then-termed “illness” and its origins.

Hospitals overflowed. General Practitioners, some seeing a patient or less a week, were suddenly overflowing. Short staffed E-Ds and Psych-wards led to public panic over the growing dangers to overall public health.

However, the Second Occurrence disproved the idea as an illness, reinforcing it as a genetic indication of Human and non-Human separation. Coming shortly after news that a common gene-trait had be found in all of the “sufferers,” it was learned this and other traits were tied to known genetically-guided pathological-personality types.

It was thereafter obvious how to identify Pigeons in the wild, avoid them if desired.

By the Third Occurrence any hints of panic and chaos had subsided. The issue was tempered. Enough that now focus could shift to prevention, treatment. Doctor-patient tidings were at an all time low, but the establishment of specific health-centers for those wishing not to let their Pigeons live abroad. Neither was a terrible diagnosis, really.

Unfortunate? Certainly. Not life-threatening though. The Pigeon Problem It could be handled, and there was help: that alone made things infinitely easier.

Yet hard decisions were, and often still are, made.

The whole sequence of events engendered only a little more restraint in the Human Ego. Never a bad thing given its history and propensity for violence. In keeping with its methods, too, Pigeons reaffirmed what Science strived to remind: thateach action incurred an equal and inverse reaction.

Pigeons were Humanity’s anti-particle, the negative to their positive– but for the species, Humanity, as a whole. Nothing really surprising, just unexpected. And lucky, in a way.

The Pigeons turned out to, every single one of them, down to the very last, have the same corruptible personality flaws making them easily identifiable. Many theories on their origins in the greater scheme argue genetics, personality-reflection, andnature’s serendipitous reality are equally at fault. Yet all agree on the most telling, and thus defining of Pigeon traits– the one that, during the Second Occurrence became so clear and allowed for the Śūnya child-testing:

Every damned Pigeon was a fucking politician.

We should’ve known!

Guardians of Liberty: Part 10

10.

Fickle Youth

N1T3 paced himself over a mound of debris. The London Riots had been worse this time ’round. Military arms were too advanced. Civilian arms too accessible. Luckily, most damage was by nonlethals. All the same, a rubber bullet hurts no matter how alive you are afterward. Besides, the damage wasn’t done during the riots. It was the aftermath.

The ’08 crash was a great moment of effect in Human history. In the pejorative sense, that is. Not necessarily because of its subjects or its benefactors either, but because of the method by which it was discovered– and summarily ignored, by the people paid to care.

Nobody could deny who benefited from the state of things. It wasn’t the people being targeted— those like N1T3, Ket, An33$a, Clockwork that were trying to keep society from being poisoned. It was those fighting them tooth and nail to pour the stuff in. In short, the obvious benefactors of the hunt were those doing the hunting.

Meanwhile, the hunters underhandedly double-dealt blame on those they were supposed to be feeding. Any time or period of history thus-far passed would have seem such treachery beheaded, shot, drawn and quartered, and bronze-bulled for their flagrant disrespect. Not just for their fellow man, but for their species as a whole.

Until such an equivalent was met, the world wasn’t going to get better until after it got worse. Much worse.

Part of N1T3 remembered the madness as he followed the utterly emptyA200 through Deptford. The roads had been in flames from the cars that lined the streets ablaze in mile-long lines. The occasionally distant rock and shatter of a fuel tank broiling into combustion had barely honed the scattered madness of smashing windows and chanting.

Home was North, now, but in those moments it hadn’t existed for anyone. Then, any hovel you could hole up in or hollow out to avoid death, beating, or innocently-bystanding was home. The now-abandoned Greenwich University lay to N1T3’s East, where the smoke had plumed from the night the CRA past.

He cleared his throat painfully. Ahead, lay narrow English roads built for a time and world so far gone it might never have existed.

The place was dead. Zombie movie, Human-ambush scene dead.

He hesitated, listening for the sake of instinct alone. Distant observers always seemed a given, but he made himself look busy a moment then thoroughly scanned the area.

Not another soul for kims. That was how the world had turned. Big, massive Metros of former, smaller neighborhoods. Suburbs now forming unholy swaths of corp, or bank, or etc-aligned and occupied land, or owned and abandoned land.

Automated currents and channels of auto-cars and corp-courier traffic connected various oases of life, but thesedeserts separated them. Visited by life, but only in passing. Humanity had more or less forgotten about the outlying, in-between areas; conceptually and otherwise.

In some cases, separate but adjacent city-blockssaw traffic once a week and consistent jams each day. Companies like Hyper-Dyne and Third-Rail wanted it that way: when they weren’t goring each other for market-share of transport, they were deliberately clogging arteries of society and calling it progress because others never stopped moving, flowing.

In the end, there was only one, positive effect of universalizing transport; networking it.

N1T3 hesitated at the apex of a corner. A distant observer’s presence prickled the back of his neck: a personal sixth sense grown from decades of introversion, hiding in crowds, fearing public recognition.

A hint of sound. Far too distant to make out. Too quiet.Something was watching.

How? He’d have sensed other rats through the ruins. That was how they ended up in such large masses: they gravitatedtoward one another like ferrules to magnets. Really, it was only food that drew rats together, but in this case N1T3 mused, he guessed that was the need to stay off-grid.

All the same, someone was watching. A half-second of recalling his surroundings and he knew who.

He dropped from sight into the nearest open manhole. Another sign of society’s implosion. The same sewage lines here connected to others, forming a network that drained into the river. Near one of its outflows was his hideaway.

Sooner or later that hideaway would be compromised. The hope was to have outgrown it by then. Eventually it would be just another crash-pad where kids got high, drankstolen beer in cans at a time, and convinced themselves the best was yet to come.That was the real joke though.

Things wouldn’t get better. How could they without working to make them better? What kid had the power to do that? What adult had the freedom to? Each knew their place in the world was secure, immutable. But was it really?

Of course not.

N1T3 dropped to the sewer floor and kept low. He knew the roads well enough to follow their drainage, was already mentally and digitally mapping the rest. For safety’s sake, he’d have to barricade and secure various entrances, but could likely move about unimpeded.

He hesitated inside, whipped out an old phone long ago converted to a digital note-pad. It automatically offloaded all new data anytime it was in range of his systems. Effectively, syncing his day to his vast, personal networks, both local and remote.

A digital note-taking system followed him anywhere he went. When he logged into anything personal, it appeared. Most people would’ve lost their minds for something that good; paid their souls for it. He did it himself. From widely available, free resources. Then, released it free.

And people wondered why tech-minded were angry at the world’s state…

He made his way through the grid-work, mapping what he could and notating the rest. He’d add to and refine the data later. He focused instead on making it through. He was near Deptford Fire Station. Directly above were narrow, once-prominent middle-class streets, emptied on the orders of CEOs of the Big-13’s banks.

Pre-digital, it was a world of pristinely-manicured 20×20, bi-and-tri-level cells, filled to brimming with the naivete of youth.Those youth inherited the cell and its reality, and the world outside summarily showed its indifference and collapsed. People had nowhere to go but beneath its weight.

The cramped aftermath felt more homely and freeing than a clean-street ever could.

It hit him then; the Station. He knew the place well enough to find it through any darkness. So long as he knew where he was, his sense of direction would do the rest.

He finally understood the sound he’d heard. Why he’d been allowed to hear it at all.

Drone-sounds were never good. Not these days. Once, those high-pitched thrums meant fun or awe. Now, they meant terror and fear at-best. Unlawful hassling, shakedowns and harassment, usually. And at-worst, dehumanizing violence…

Clockwork and An33$a.

Spykids tended to modify their drones to run silent, if only from their own desire not to hear them. Especially for a hobbyist hiding in a derelict part of London, no doubt of the same mind as N1T3, it would be foolish not to stealth your drone.

N1T3 knew then he’d been diverted into the sewer. Compelled there. By knowingly-manipulated instincts. Problem was, confirming his hunch exposedhim, but rooting out the controller might mean aid, resources. Or at least marking out an enemy, if it was one.

Find the operator’s hideaway, then.Likely impermanent. Passing attention, if nothing else. That meant getting close enough to see the operator face-to-face; risks forboth parties, but an easy trap too.

Anyone smart enough to find and understand N1T3, his movements, enough to divert him knew he’d figure out their reality a moment later. Were it not for his physical proximity to such a familiar– and otherwise utterly unremarkable landmark, he’d have immediately been on the defensive. Fact was, few whom knew N1T3 also knew Martin Black.

Fewer still knew either intimately enough to reassure the latter, however symbolically, of difference between friend or foe.

N1T3 relaxed then; he just had to find his way in.

He circled the block’s intestines three times before he saw it. Cleverly exposed, just precisely so as to discourage further inspection. In this case, a benign series of old bricks and tools so obviously out of place there was no way they weren’t a marker.

He dug carefully. Between a collection of tools and holsters was a door handle. It slid open on a heavier, thicker door behind it, unsecured by the looks of the un-padlocked door.

The firehouse was occupied.

N1T3 guessed it wasn’t who he’d hoped for. If so, why not signal him personally? Was concealment so important? Or was it concealing one’s association instead? The only way to know was to enter. The door itself would decide.

He opened it and crept in, heart pounding. He knew the place well. Knew its every corner and crook. As Martin Black had once known it. More, he knew inside lay a room and a way up into the station, and somewhere a confrontation.

He stepped into the center of the pitch-black room, and breathed “Stryder.

Deep curls of laughter echoed from the shadows, rebounding with added energy in defiance to physics. The echoes cut air like sabers from all sides, cutting his brain and body, yet leaving him whole.

Then all at once, it stopped.

Sweet, delicious silence reigned long enough to wilt into dismay.

At that precise moment, a voice challenged, warned, threatened, and welcomed him, “Hello, Martin.

Preview: Guardians of Liberty

Guardians of Liberty
(Beginning 5/25/18)

Martin Black, aka N1T3, is a hacker between worlds. Centrally located on the fine-line between hero and villain, his world is one of Corporate dominance and slavery. Now forced to flee for his life because of it, he knows corp-sec are coming– and they’d prefer him dead to alive.

Going off-grid proves more dangerous expected, but N1T3’s few, effective resources make it impossible not to. More importantly, he must; a logic-vision of formed of careful and meticulous analysis, makes it clear that the time is now or never to safeguard the future of not just technology, but Humanity as well.

Until then, his society is hurtling headlong toward disaster. Aided by a few, choice friends, N1T3 must find a way to safeguard the vision or risk seeing a second Roman-Fall. Given the way things are going in his world, too, it could be the last.

But will it be? Find out here starting next Friday, May 25th , 2018 on the Logbook.

Guardians of Liberty is a postdigital novella set in near-present day London, heavily combining technology, programming, freedom, and their inherent conflicts with pulse-pounding results. Don’t miss it!

Excerpt from Ch 1: Losing Home

Things had changed.

The pre-digital age had given way to the postdigital with no delineation between itself and not, or even the transitory state between. That is to say, the nether-realm of quantum mechanics between 0 and 1. That fickle bitch of nothingness between program and switch whose existence made possible the idea of AI, ghosts– anything damaging to a functioning system.

But that was ultimately life, or the possibility of it. The simultaneously all-important and utterly vestigial “in-between.”

Into Her Darkness: Part 8

8.

The Jewelry Store Job

Their day went in usual fashion, or what Crystal had come to know as such. They took breakfast in a quaint diner on the dingy side of town– not unlike the one where they’d first met, and returned home for daily training. They finished in time for lunch, then set to planning the next job.

Given the whole thing was being orchestrated by the store’s owner, it felt disingenuous to plan so much. Angela felt otherwise. Even the easiest jobs could go wrong if not taken seriously. Angela’d seen and heard of it happening enough. Even if the owner was in– the security guards, the whole damned town, even– one do-gooder with a gun or cell-phone could fuck it up.

Angela wouldn’t let it be an issue, but Crystal couldn’t help her nervousness. A niggling fear in her mind and gut only added insult to it. More and more, Crystal felt things were about to go wrong in a big way. Intuition told her it wasn’t the job, but logic and fear saw no other possibilities and overrode it.

The pair sat in the kitchen, on opposite sides of the island. Jonas’ folder and its contents were laid out neatly between them. Angela examined the pages with an eagle-eye view while Crystal sifted her IDs and papers. Mostly, to keep her fidgeting hands moving while Angela mentally sorted the details of the job the following night. It would have to be enough time for Crystal to come to grips with what clawed at her. Otherwise, she’d be carrying more weight than she could handle. The last job had proven how fast one might need to move– and how fast things could turn bad.

The pair spent the night in planning, and broke only for dinner with Arthur. He counseled Angela with vague grunts and low mutters. Crystal was out of place, looking in on an intimate moment between two people forced together by circumstance and make the most of it. Arthur’s tones seemed to hint genuine concern, or interest, alongside detachment.

The night passed with sluggish inactivity. When the trio finally retired, Crystal passed out almost immediately, awoke to distant cooking, and found only Arthur present in the kitchen.

“Angela gone?” She asked, sitting at the island.

He grunted an affirming reply, “Shopping. Tools for tonight.”

Crystal spooned sugar into her coffee. “Didn’t think she’d ever need anything.”

“Ev’ry job’s different.” He shuffled over, dropped eggs and bacon onto a plate. He shuffled back and forth, plopped down toast. “Eat. You’ll need it come nightfall.”

“Thank you.” He grunted, ready to trundle off. “Wait.” He hesitated. “I just want to ask…”

He about-faced, his figure suddenly imposing in a paternal sort of way. He gave her a placid indifference while she struggled for words– the last thing she wanted was to speak ill of Angela. After all she’d done, it wasn’t right. All the same, a question needed to be asked, even if Arthur refused an answer, perhaps speaking it aloud would seal an idea in her mind.

“Is Angela…” Arthur’s brow rose. She breathed deep, exhaled slowly, “Should I be worried? I mean, is she being honest– about repaying some kind of debt?”

Arthur’s eyes narrowed skeptically. “You’re asking if she can be trusted. If she’d betray you, or cast you out.” Crystal gave an apprehensive, but solitary nod. “Her business is her business, Crystal. I can’t tell you what’s in her heart. But I’ve been here a long time. Long enough to know she does not often betray her word. If she says there is a reason for something, there is one. If she says that reason is something personal, it is. But you want to know if you should leave.”

Crystal’s eyes fell to the floor, “Yes.”

“I can’t tell anyone how to live their life, girl, ut there’s not a thing Angela has shown me to distrust her. Perhaps it’s different for you. Perhaps not. But I’ve never wanted for, nor feared anything, since I met Angela. In this world, that’s more than most can say.”

Crystal met his eyes a final time with a silent gratitude. He replied with a slow, solemn nod, and turned away. She was left to stew in her thoughts. He hadn’t said much, but it was enough. However he felt really, there was no denying Anglea’d kept an old man off the street, gave him money, shelter, food. In exchange, she asked only occasional household aid.

The same went for Crystal; Angela’d given her everything. Not only was it in a possibly-vain hope she stay, but also to repay something deeper, more personal. She’d been a street-kid until someone helped her from the gutter. Who that was, when, and why, remained a mystery. In fact, the more Crystal thought, the less she knew about Angela and her past. Everything from her birthday to her hometown was a mystery. Was Angela Dale even her real name?

It hurt to think of, but their attachment forced her to evaluate the situation honestly. Crystal’d never had friends. Not really. Even if she’d had, it was so long ago now it didn’t count. For her to stay, commit to Angela’s partnership, she’d have to be sure of every possible variable. The only way to do that was to learn more about Angela. She’d picked up on enough surface details to fill in anything Angela might willingly tell. There was little indication she’d been anything but herself as well.

But deeper, personal things were another matter. Crystal couldn’t fully commit until she knew them. That meant confronting Angela. It would be a delicate task to broach– likely best when celebrating their next job. She’d decide afterward whether to stay or go.

The afternoon turned to evening with more speed than Crystal liked. Angela returned with a box of toys to be used on the job. Among other things, were laser-focuser prisms; small attachments to avoid triggering laser alarms; old-fashioned cam-jammers to loop empty feeds on security cameras. Angela’d taken the job as seriously as she’d said. Crystal was glad for that honesty, if nothing else.

They geared up. Crystal gave her weapons extra care. If something did go wrong, she wanted to be ready. Freezing up again was unacceptable. Were circumstances different, she’d have been killed. Not exactly an auspicious start to her career. Moreover, she’d started to come to grips with the prospect of death on the job– preferably someone else’s, rather than hers.

Death was a certainty. Everyone knew, every day, death might come. The difference for her and the mobster was the deliberate skirting of death’s cross-hairs. To mourn the loss of a random mafioso seemed as pointless as futile. Countless more, better people would die the same instant without ever having a choice or being mourned. Crystal merely hoped she wouldn’t be one. Any other feelings were unnecessary and dangerous.

Angela led her to an over-sized Chevy pick-up in the garage. It was a tank with a lift-kit, run-flat tires, inch-thick steel-plated doors, bullet-proof acrylic-glass windows, and pro-tuned suspension. All of it was propelled by a super-charged V12 capable of outrunning all but the most luxurious police super-cruisers.

“Don’t you think it’s a bit over-kill for a smash and grab?” Crystal asked.

“You wanna’ take that chance?” Crystal winced. “Didn’t think so. Cops love these kinds of jobs. They get to nail a suspect, confiscate the merchandise, and tell all the news vids they made a million-dollar bust. Meanwhile, who’s gonna’ notice a few diamonds missing and in a wife’s ears, or on a husband’s finger?”

“I see your point,” Crystal said, heaving up and into the passenger’s side.

Angela climbed across from her. The truck was roomy, more than comfortable, but with a definite utilitarian feel. Its engine fired and Crystal shuddered in fear that it might explode. Instead, the truck idled forward into garage’s main aisle. It inched toward the elevator. Crystal cringed at the clearance. Moments later, they emerged at ground-level, unscathed.

They started for the far-side of town, biding their time to blend in. Amid a bustling, thriving city, the truck was hardly conspicuous. The most notable thing was the two women inside it. But the half-tinted windows and dark night made it impossible to tell they were there. So far, things were going smooth, but the nagging fear in Crystal’s gut remained. It might not be the job that would go sideways, but something would.

Soon they were parked in an alley a block from their mark. Nondescript, uptown alleys formed maze-work paths through the city blocks. They’d parked along a main one, wide enough for a pair of vehicles. The first, branching alley was too small for anything but Angela’s bike. It would keep them from getting blocked in if they had to ditch the truck. Crystal pled with her gut that they wouldn’t.

They hopped out, started forward. An undeniable exposure descended over Crystal. Clad in black, faces painted, and carrying more fire-power than a Texan at a gunshow felt asking for trouble. Before Crystal could question her, Angela dug a pair of tailored trench-coats from her pack, handed one over. The long leather had no sleeves, but perfectly hid their arsenal. All that remained visible were their beanie-caps and face-paint. Anyone passing by would be none the wiser. Crystal just hoped no-one stopped. They’d know right away something was up.

The walk began, shorter than expected, but each cross-street and intersecting alley was approached with upward hand, a creep to the nearest corner, a peek up and down, then a rush across. The last intersection was as nondescript as the rest. Indeed, the Jewelry store was sandwiched between buildings with an alley behind it. It was completely unremarkable and indistinguishable from the rest of uptown.

Crystal kept a look out while Angela knelt, picked the lock on the back-door. She flew through the primary lock, the deadbolt, re-pocketed her picks, and instructed Crystal to wait with a hand on the knob. She slid down the wall toward a junction box, popped it open, then fiddled with the wires inside. On a silent three count, she shorted a wire while Crystal pushed open the door.

Angela hurried back, took point. They slipped in and their night-vision flared: a lone security camera roved beside the door, angled for a full-view of the door’s surroundings. The door itself was a major blind-spot Angela took full advantage of. She dug out a cam-looper, spliced it on, and double-checked the feed on her HUD. Crystal watched it too, with a picture-in-picture view; Angela waved a hand before the camera, but the image remained as it was, expertly looped.

They advanced into the main show-floor. It was everything Crystal expected from a high-end jewelry store. Glass and chrome cases were everywhere. Jewels and polished metals glistened in them, along colored satin and velvet. Mannequin necks, hands, wrists, and fingers, were adorned with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and every other gem imaginable.

Angela was focused elsewhere. Crystal turned from the splendor to see lights glowing in the main-room’s corners. The camera’s vision cones suddenly appeared on her HUD; a few oscillated here and there. Angela handed over loopers, motioned Crystal left. She waited, timed herself. Angela couldn’t begin the right side until the first camera was looped. Crystal took her chance, moved like a swift shadow.

In moments, the wire was stripped, spliced, and her HUD showing a looping feed. Angela moved to the next camera, repeated the process, then ushered Crystal up. The rhythmic bypasses of rudimentary security continued until each vision cone faded and the place was nearly theirs for the taking. All that remained were the lasers.

Angela stood beside the first display case, passed over a bag of prisms, “Pick each case. Use your HUD to locate the grid. Put a prism over the emitters, then grab everything out. Remove the emitters in reverse order. Got it?” Crystal nodded. “Take the left, I’ll take the right.”

Crystal stood before the first case, took a deep breath, and fished out her picks. A visual aid appeared on her HUD, displayed the crisscross grid invisible to human eyes. Beside it was a small, 3D render of the lock she was picking. She minimized it, worked the lock by feel to set the pins. With a final twist, the case opened.

“Cakewalk,” she breathed, following the grid-lines back to their emitters.

She removed a prism: the name was deceptive. It was really a small L-shaped bracket with a hole machined in one side. The hole held a highly-polished, faceted crystal around a copper heat-sink. She held her breath, started in the lower left corner, angling one arm carefully through a cross of beams. Her heart jumped as she rotated the first prism through her fingers, hovered it in place over the emitter.

She swallowed hard, released the bypass. It slotted over the emitter, halved the bottom section of grid. She repeated the movements on the next, bottom corner, exposed the entirety of the bottom section of case. Deft movements slotted the next crystal. Then the next. The case was cleared. She dropped her pack, stuffed the case’s contents in it.

She glanced back to see Angela a few cases ahead and quickened her pace. She removed the prisms, then repeated the process at the next case. The pair went along the walls, cleaning out jewelry by the thousands in moments. Crystal finished the last wall-case while Angela made a move for cubical displays in the room’s center. Laser-grids encompassed the innards, but an extra pair of emitters made it nearly impossible to clear the whole grid.

Angela swore under her breath. Crystal caught it. “What?”

“It’s going to take longer than I thought.”

Crystal made her way over, pack now laden with liberated wares, “What d’you need?”

Angela thought for a moment, “Give me your prisms. Pick the register. Find the safe. I’m not leaving anything behind.”

Crystal handed over her prisms. Angela picked the display’s lock, made for the register across the room. She had it open in seconds, found it empty, scanned the display cases of rings, bracelets, and other items beneath it.

“Register’s empty. There’s no grid on this stuff,” Crystal whispered into her comm.

“Alarm,” Angela said, focused on the emitters before her. Crystal knelt, felt around the bottoms of the cases for wiring. “Use your fingers. Metal cutters will set them off.”

Crystal nodded, pinched the thin wiring with a pair fingernails, severed one case’s alarm. She went along the horseshoe of cases, cutting alarms, then working locks. The first opened with difficulty. She tried the HUD render. Inaccurate for the lock-type. She shut it off, closed her eyes. Springs popped and set. The tension arm twisted. The first display opened. She didn’t bother with deft movements. Instead, she swept all the merchandise into her pack en-masse and picked at the left-overs.

Angela liberated the last of the stand-up displays, then hurried past, “Keep working, I’m going for the safe.”

Crystal pivoted to the next case, picked it, and swept the merchandise into her pack. She was about to move to the next when headlights appeared outside. She flattened against the floor on instinct. Her heat raced.

“Someone’s here,” she radioed with a whisper.

Angela froze at the safe, “What!? Who?

“I don’t know. I can’t—” she hesitated, inched sideways along the floor to peer out at the doors. A man in an expensive-looking suit sat in a car, glanced in through binoculars. He clearly wasn’t a cop. The shifty way he checked his surroundings said it wasn’t anyone affiliated with the store. He was avoiding suspicion too much, as if it were important he not be questioned.

It hit her: it was one of Caruso’s men. She was certain of it. He’d been at the last job, one of the incapacitated guards she’d sneaked past. Now he was here.

“It’s one of Caruso’s guys from the museum.”

“Shit!” Angela’s heart leapt into her throat. She focused on the safe, “Has he seen you?”

“No, but–” He laid down his binoculars and the car rolled forward. “He’s leaving.”

Angela didn’t feel better. Crystal didn’t either. Caruso’s men had learned about the job. How was less important than finishing and getting the hell out before they were ambushed. Crystal double-checked the door, then rose for the last of the cases. She located and picked the locks without looking, eyes on the doors. She moved as fast as possible, sweeping the last of the merchandise into her pack. Angela reappeared, safe-money liberated and ready to finish the job.

They moved as shadows, removing the loopers in reverse order. One-by-one, the camera-cones reappeared. They returned to the back room and the last camera, then slipped out as they had in. They sprinted along the alley toward the truck. Angela hesitated at the corners, then ushered Crystal through before taking off again. They passed the first few unhindered. Angela’s confidence returned. Crystal’s waned. Her stomach gurgled, lurched bile up her throat. This was the thing she’d been fearing. When it hit, it was nearly catastrophic.

They crossed the last intersecting road, into the last section of alley. The truck was parked with its broad side in the center of the T, far ahead. Crystal could taste freedom, home, drinks of victory. Atop it all, the bile came up. Things were going completely fucking sideways. At the same instant, they crossed the street headlights kicked on from the perpendicular road. Tires squealed. Crystal had enough time to throw Angela into the cover of a dumpster-alcove before the car squealed to a stop.

Feet dropped onto asphalt and a voice called out, “We know it’s you, Dale. Give it up.”

Angela’s face whitened. Crystal’s heart seized. She clasped her pistol.