Guardians of Liberty: Part 21

21.

Blood in the Water, Blood on the Air

Ozell was looking at the clerk like he knew precisely what had happened. He didn’t, but he’d guessed enough that he’d piece the rest together. All he cared about was truth.

“You sent him out back.” The clerk said nothing in return. Ozell thought to scold him, backed off. “Fine. Did he say anything?”

The clerk shook his head. “You only saw him, didn’t speak to him.” Another shake of his head.

Ozell swallowed fury to recall Paul’s face. It kept him level. Ket’s warnings, the recollection of what he knew — and didn’t– swarmed in his mind.

“You see him before today?” Another shake. “Thank you.” Ozell walked away, “Fucking enlightening conversation that.”

“Sir?” A green said. “Commander, Sir, you might wanna’ see this.”

Ozell wanted to back-hand the kid for his groveling. The last thing he needed was more dehumanization. Wage-kids, he knew. Fresh from boot and new on the beat. Always rolling back-streets prepped and waiting, or offbeat and training, sparring.

Corp-sec worked like a well-oiled machine of mass enforcement and authority. Excellent for both total militarized movement and insurgent execution of will. Just as an empire’s authority should. Ozell had never argued the existence of it, only the ethics– a thing those hacker tech-punks pretended to know, but never could.

Ethics meant jackshit from anyone who’d never been to war or forced to kill to survive. What could a bunch of barely not-kids know of sacrifice, compromise in death’s face? Nothing, that’s what.

The greenie led Ozell to the alley where N1T3 was hit. Ozell sent him away. He found the blood on his own, taking careful time to think everything over as he investigated the area.

Daniel Ozell did his best to eliminate all impressions he might be operating under. Reductionism said his system dictated Martin Black as its enemy, Ozell’s through it. Whether Martin Black really was or not, didn’t matter in the slightest. The system, though hunting a figment, wanted it gone as any entity disruptive to its goal, bottom-line.

Really, Ozell knew, the enemy was N1T3; the avatar, the idea. Martin Black could be killed; was currently off somewhere licking a bloody wound. Ozell knew immediately he could follow the trail, find N1T3, likely kill him. Sooner if he followed now.

But in the end, he knew where N1T3 would go. Those that did not, wondered where Martin Black would. It would take anyone searching for the latter longer to find the former and it would be roundabout, circuitous. As it had been for him.

So, Ozell would collect what he needed to make his move in the meantime.

He sent the greens back on patrol. They’d work on coming to the conclusion of following Black to N1T3 on their own. Ozell needed N1T3 for himself; to understand. Not just N1T3, but Ket, Riter, Dru, and the whole culture. He needed to know it from inside out.

Ozell’d never delude himself; Corp-sec only saw him as a tool. His effectiveness was all that mattered. It, versus the risk of potential damage at his being unleashed. The idea was showing he need not be leashed, rather than proving why he did.

Unlike many, he wasn’t on corporations’ side for dubiously flexible moral reasons. It was from the rigid logic of a man built by their successes, their strengths. Why need more? Especially if, as was the case, he cared only to see his son was guaranteed safety and belly-fat.

But is it guaranteed?

It always had been. Especially now though, Paul was a liability, a target. If the system didn’t exploit him after thwarting those trying to, others would. How could Paul ever hope to live a normal life? His face was plastered across every corp-newsnet, internal or otherwise. The light-net was rallying behind him. If he weren’t so certain his orders were God’s law, he’d have worried Paul was being exposed even now.

But why? What was the point? Why rob a child– his child– of any hope at normality? Why make him a symbol of some stranger’s crusade? And why such a fruitless one? What heartless bastard could do such things?

He tried to temper his rage again, couldn’t this time. N1T3 had made Paul a target. Paul. His son. He would live and die a symbol of martyred oppression or eternal-tyranny. No matter what Daniel Ozell did to build a life for Paul, he’d eventually have to contend with some bygone hacker-punk’s schemes.

Ozell decided N1T3 would die for it. A moment would come. A tipping point. N1T3 had signed the contract allowing for it. Now, it was coming. He was predator, preying on weakness, and the pack-leader would retaliate.

Ozell’s fury became something more then. Brain-shorted by his own adrenaline, Daniel Ozell rose from examining N1T3’s blood an entirely different man. He was no longer a Commander on orders, working on company time. Instead, he was now the Hunter that would take his time, secure his place and understanding, then strike.

When he did, he would murder N1T3 or Martin Black all the same.

*

N1T3 felt weightlessness, his arms and legs hanging. Something not-quite sturdy cradled him. He moaned at an injection. Lines. Sleep. He sat stock upright as if no time had passed, awake in the rear of an ambulance. Time had passed, but he’d have never been able to tell.

Dru sat beside him, a pair of friends she knew– one he recognized– had agreed to help for just such an occasion. Dru sent them out as he came round to speak privately.

“You’re lucky to be alive.”

“Get that a lot lately,” he said, easing upward.

“Your vitals pinged Terry’s rig.” He tried to sit upward, completely incapably, gave up, and moaned. She sighed, “How much longer d’you intend to keep this up?”

He managed to swing himself to the bed’s edge and nearly blacked out. He found himself on the floor of the ambulance with Dru shouting at someone. Her tone said it was him; he knew it too well. It was the one reserved only for him. Even Riter didn’t quite get the same tone– though he had far more than a few reserved for himself.

He stopped fighting, pleased to find himself upright again, blood more or less still contained within him. The ambulance’s doors were open now, Riter’s garage beyond it. Anyone asking would get the guise of maintenance, a catch-all meaning Dru and Riter’s reps were good everywhere, with everyone.

He stumbled out into the garage. “Get me outta’ here, Dru. I’m drawing heat.”

“Fuck off, Martin. Sit’own,” she forced him back against the bumper.

She fought to pull at his clothing, leaving him feeling supremely exposed from his instant arousal. In her mind, he figured, it merely re-affirmed the adage that sex was preferable to anything. Who needed confirmation of that, really?

He tried squirming away, but she forced him still to check is wound, “No split. Good. Walk. Slowly. No running. You start running, you’re dead. Go home. You need anything and we’ll deliver it via drone. Stay out of sight. Stay safe.”

She walked him through the station toward the cellar, stopped at the door to the stairs. “I love you, N1T3. Because I know you. Like I knew Martin Black. I don’t love you as I loved him, but I do love you. I’m sorry for my part. I hope this grants you peace.”

Tears welled in her eyes, shining long enough to catch light. She turned away as two life-times of sorrow splashed the floor. Both were now muted, and lost to time and alt-history. Both the one that might’ve been theirs and was squandered, and the one that could still be but would not. It would be taken soon enough anyhow.

N1T3 wouldn’t have accepted further help if Dru’d had it to give. So, she gave what she could and sent him off, knowing she would never see him again. Though he would her; one, last time.

The return trip was long. Exhausting. The bleeding had stopped. Patched by Dru and her people’s expertly skilled hands.

He’d lost too much blood though. Was light-headed. He’d shouldered his way home in the sewers, only vaguely aware of the direction he moved. He reached his squat, parts in-hand, and collapsed just inside the building. He’d only just managed to get the door closed.

Despite his dwindling time, his body could take no more. Precious hours were to be wasted recovering enough to move again. Pushing any further would make it worse. He had no choice.

The door shut and his body slid down along it, landing in a heap and already out cold.

*

Daniel Ozell was waiting. Reconning the hunt. That meant learning not only his prey’s abilities, but his movements, habitat, and frequented environments too. The only way to effectively track and trap his prey was to understand it.

Not just N1T3 either, but hackers; so-called postdigital kids. He had to understand them.

He enveloped himself in reading and learning the culture at light-speed. One that had been running just as fast since its proliferation. It wasn’t long before he began to understand the last few decades of history better.

Hacker culture moved in waves exponential to technology’s evolution, hidden beneath punk and tech cultures as it groped for safety and sanctity in the newness of itself; Video games, PCs, smart tvs and phones. With them were the hackers building or breaking the things. All that time, hidden in the shadows. Decades. Growing. Spreading. Fueling the technology thirst now hydrating the world.

Formerly a culture of mathematicians, physicists, lecturers, and philosophers, it too had evolved. Nerds, geeks, dweebs; all manner of social outcasts were drawn to tech, its possibility and ubiquity. Hacking, really, was just practical short-hand; logical deduction.

What made certain hackers so good, Ozell quickly realized, wasn’t their programming or knowledge of tech. Rather, it was how well they adapted their abilities to the structure available, whether it produced the desired or required product.

In simplest terms, it wasn’t coding that made a hacker. It was their ability to recognize, conform to, and/or manipulate the imaginary and abstract as objects. Usually, through networks. Regardless, each object had a purpose and intricate interconnection to another. Through them, a change could or would be effected.

That was the essence of a “system.” What Hackers used to refer to any level of connected actors or reactors whose sole purpose was output. The output itself and even nature of the system didn’t matter to a hacker. Only that it was a system to be exploited or patched, or else periodically checked and cleared for vulnerabilities. As far as Ozell was concerned though, that was all gibberish.

At least, at first. Then he remembered what Ket had said; his system demanded an eye for an eye. Blood for blood.

But Martin Black, N1T3– whomever– hadn’t spilt blood. In fact, neither he nor his people were much for violence. N1T3’s own words on old forums posts and decades of old discussions, had been those of a peaceful Human Being.

True enough was it that they sublimated the urge en-masse, it wasn’t blood. Not really. Digital blood, but it wasn’t real. Trying to make it that way negated any real evidence. He knew it. N1T3 knew it. Everyone knew it. It was the avatar-equivalent of bloodletting; serving a purpose until something better came along and not without its benefits otherwise.

Except the corps were taking that as literal. Why?

Ozell didn’t understand. It was nagging him. As if the explanation were already there, before him. He just needed to see it, right. Grasp it. He needed something to compare it to. Needed some scale to–

It hit him so hard he gasped for breath. Forced to control his sudden rush of adrenaline and terror, he panicked. Images spilled into his mind. Images of marching. War. Blood. Death. Destruction. Flames. Utter agony. Piercing screams. Wretched sobs wracking his coherence from cries for mothers fathers, sons and daughters. The lost and dead, children included.

Paul.

Ozell’s heart was attempting to hammer its way out; N1T3 hadn’t made him a target. He’d made him an example. However poorly or misguided, he’d attempted to show the damage being done through a face no-one could object to. Whom better than a child with everything to gain?

But it was Ozell’s son. His son!

Ozell’d never bothered considering the hacker-crusade was for the greater good. Every terrorist and criminal needing an easy-out claimed crusade. Funny thing about the word, Ozell knew from experience, was its other name. The one he’d faced up-close and personal, down the barrel of a sand-caked gun; jihad.

Holy war; death and murder by the millions over things spawned from faith, conviction. Not evidence or fact. The same kind of thing those very people were arguing shouldn’t exist. So, he’d paid the possibility of greater goodness lip-service, as most would.

Until he recognized the scale he’d been missing.

Paul wasn’t marked because he was anyone specific. Quite the opposite. He was marked because he was no-one in particular, simply there. Like Anisa Blanc. Ozell was told to point and shoot. That was all that mattered to him. Above that, it was the execs’ hope that if Ozell did his job enough, all their problems would go away. They need only deign where to point him.

Paul Ozell was just another bystander now though. As he’d have been under any other circumstances. N1T3 had made Paul a bystander solely because he hadn’t been one. The system required someone from within to understand its damage. Even if they didn’t care for the message, they needed someone to care for its affected.

To corps, people weren’t people anymore. They were rosters, damage reports, spreadsheets, schedules and statistics. People were numbers to some, avatars to others, and whomever else they were otherwise in day-to-day life. To corps though, they were only a value in a system. Usually a digital one.

Even now, Ozell knew it all boiled down to statistics. If Black were allowed to go free much longer, the corps believed it would signal a new variable rising in their system. One they could not afford; collapse. It would never be so immediate, but it would be inevitable all the same.

Problem was, people were only statistics because someone or something made them that way. Like Anisa Blanc; Terry Riter, Dru MacIntyre, Se’Ket Zaad, and Martin Black had been pegged as threats to so-termed “system stability.” They were abnormal components in the pipeline. Possible benefits, as most, but also possible liabilities too.

Now, Paul Ozell was seen this way.

Six year old Paul Ozell, tucked safely in bed down the hall. Just feet away from his lune of a mother sleeping off her latest dose of lunatic meds. Paul Ozell was oblivious, unaware. Innocent. His father was not. Beyond that, he knew now what would happen, had seen it.

Blood. Death. Pain. Paul as part of it or suffering it.

Only one way out– Ozell saw and understood it, finally. Like those around him, he too, was a postdigital child. But even postdigital children had self-interests. At that Martin Black, aka N1T3, had ensured Corp-sec Commander Daniel Ozell’s self-interests would be met– for a purpose not his alone, and after an appropriate period of suffering.

The manipulation N1T3 had managed from Ozell’s system was astounding. He saw it now as one watched water-flows manipulated along a pipe. Save this was information. He’d already read about N1T3’s fountains. Their spread. N1T3 himself wouldn’t have even gotten the chance yet.

Then again, why would he need to? As its architect and visionary, N1T3 didn’t need to know anything beyond his own involvement. That kept it working best. The water itself determined the importance and use of a fountain; those around the fountain kept it clean and working well.

If they did not, it was reflected. And like all other social manifestations, in the people and their surroundings. Filth begetting filth. An age-old adage whose inverse should be the ideal but also downright impossible.

Technology though had grown small and ubiquitous. Pervasive, viral, and versatile.

People could not live without it or its main output of datum. Until recently, Human history had been been relegated to bits and bytes at a time. Formed and stored by-hand on large, hard physical media; Paper. Clay. Papyrus. Stone.

Digital information didn’t exist that way. It existed digitally. Through physical components, yes, but not in them. It existed in a netherworld; the aether of cyberspace.

Daniel Ozell now understood why he would kill Martin Black; his system demanded it– through him, as but an extension of its violent arm.

He would do it too, for his son, the world. Even Martin Black himself. It was the only way out for anyone. Even N1T3 knew it. He and N1T3 were forced into a contract for the falsified actions of a figment that were pinned on him.

Because of either’s circumstances, neither could back out. N1T3 had to see things through, and Ozell had to retaliate. Once again, Ozell realized, N1T3 had known it all along.

Short Story: Sodden Holo

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

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

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

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

Then the caravan came.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hindsight couldn’t change those effects.

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

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

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

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

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

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

His tone sharpened, “I beg your pardon?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

A hiss. “The nerve!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guardians of Liberty: Part 12

12.

Decentralized Conscience

The vision came in flashes. Impressions overlapping of historical and fictional realities. As if a digital image composed of multiple others, each flash was a reality to come. Each one, the minute breath of wind slowly forming a word stretched too far in space and time.

Darkness. Fires burning. People marching. Tattered Flags. Bodies. Ruins. It was coming. Nothing could change it. Only between here and there could anything be done. And only after, an outcome decided. Nothing beyond or otherwise would change.

The system was set. Through-put was in motion. Output was inevitable– whatever the cost or damage. In the middle would be N1T3’s postdigital, social spine. His aquifers, fountains, their idea; gathering places tuned by their most frequent users and owners. Joy. Civilization. Mental and social stimulation. Freedom.

Any purpose to tailor the system to, socially, would come by way of organic need. Like Rome and its pipes. N1T3’s pipes were digital, true, but pipes nonetheless. Postdigital children– like N1T3, Ket, Riter, Dru– were conquering with them, gaining authority, but the system was decentralized and thus so was any power they might have had through that authority.

It was a collective Human-conscience made manifest. Rather than from within however, it was being piped-in and through all of civilization in as high a volume as its source allowed. Its delivery was digital, rather than analog; bits in place of water. Its purpose and point were need and solution. It was both miner and ore. Centrally accessible and yet universal. Adaptable, yet rigid. Flowing, yet fixed.

Like Dru, N1T3 knew.

Dru1d was a special case. Almost hadn’t been. She’d gradually evolved into more, proving not only her resilience but character therein. Like Ket, she was more than human, but unlike her not quite a force or direct fount of nature’s power.

Rather, Dru was a reactant. The type to respond, rebuild, heal if necessary. In a way, it was N1T3 she thanked for that blossoming into a person: adult and woman. In another way, she absolutely detested him for Martin Black’s part in her past, wounds that would never heal, scars that could never be forgotten.

Martin Black had betrayed her. Deeper than even Ket. Dru and Martin had known each other too long. Their relationship began in a day of fluttered lashes and butterflies. Childhood tingles of delight disguising deep, true love. Impossible as it seemed, such was the way of children. It would pass–unless recurring.

Especially in wake of unfulfilled promises, those recurrences added up. Their embittering effects,as all postdigital children knew, were inevitable. But their catalysts were not. For Dru, those catalysts were most painful to bear. N1T3 was one; if not in cause, then subject.

Forgiveness of any kind was doubly hard for Dru. N1T3 had burned her not just personally, but through others. Notably, $trydr. The baggage of Martin’s friendship burdened her even now. Whether she cared for her own, aged wounds or not, she’d still have to care for those caused by Martin.

N1T3 reconsidered Riter’s assessment and in spite of everything, sensed him correct. Dru would forgive him one day. Beyond Riter’s own knowledge of her, its proof was evident in her help. It was the defiance of one hating another’s guts whilst still stitching them back in place.

It was the mentality of a healer– a true healer.

One, above all, who’d made it her personal mission to prove Martin Black wrong: that she was more, a means of support, and there to stay. In his case, a friend whether he liked it or not. When confrontation came, as N1T3 knew it would, he’d freeze for a moment. That slight hesitation would confirm everything he’d been forced to recalculate.

She’d know then that she was right. He’d know, too. His actions thereafter would determine their future– if there was one.

In the end, N1T3 knew it was Dru’s way, knew her path to forgiving him as he knew her heart: from knowing his own. They had shared something, long ago. What, neither knew, but Martin had forever damaged it.

N1T3 could never forget that.

Now, Martin was gone and N1T3 remained. Probably, only for now. Corp-sec was still hunting him. They’d still kill him. The die had been cast. The future foretold. He, like Clockwork, and An33$a would die against corporations in open war; in opposition to a stranglehold over information, freedom.

I loved Martin Black. I do not love N1T3.

Like Ket, Dru did not know N1T3. She knew only someone wearing the mask of Martin Black and all he was to her, the world. Yet N1T3 knew her, but not in the ways now mattering most. Worst, he might never get the chance to.

Flashes of the logic-vision were still indecipherable. Too muddied in grays. Colors. Absolutes. The knowing of something terrible and precise, yet cryptic and vague. The knowing of Death; its presence on the horizon.

Dru hadn’t seen those visions. Not yet. Not until $trydr re-encrypted and passed them off.

“She shouldn’t know,” N1T3 said, finally breaking the silence.

“I can’t keep it from her.”

“She won’t ask.”

“She’ll know.”

“Terry,” he said, with deeply serious eyes. “I do not deserve the easy forgiveness of pity. If she’s to forgive me, she must do it her own way.”

“I will not keep secrets from her,” he vowed.

“I wouldn’t ask you to,” N1T3 assured, equally grave. “I’d only ask you not volunteer anything. If she should ask, by all means explain. Fill in anything she might miss. Only then can she understand and see it too, but help her. Don’t force her.”

“You’re asking a lot.”

“I only ask that you love your wife.”

He grit his teeth. It was a cheap-shot. They both knew it. Riter took it. Cheap or not, N1T3 was right. $trydr gave a heaving sigh, then a fading growl.

“Very well.” He recovered, cleared his throat. “Then we begin now. Time is running short.”

For me, especially.

N1T3 refused the thought further leverage, even to acknowledge Riter’s passive sensing of it. N1T3 needn’t go further on the thought anyhow. Riter was the call-check. N1T3 had passed it long-before it was ever made: a working system didn’t need revision until it was to be improved.

Then, all that mattered was whether output improved.

For now, the vision was most important, N1T3’s communication of it. A clear one. N1T3 was wanted; slated to be made an example of. He could be dead from one moment or the next. In a way, it was usual. In another, it was worse than nuclear. The vision couldn’t be allowed to go with him. It needed transference, back-up. As many levels of redundancy built in as possible, and as fast as possible.

Ket was one level, but only one level. And the more the better.

Between Ket, $trydr, and N1T3, they could do enough to make the idea take hold on their own; give its existence its own redundancies by exhibiting its very utility, but only if the idea were completely and properly relayed.

$trydr and N1T3 sat across from one another at a small, foldout table in one corner of the room. The former sat upright spryly, lighting a long-stem pipe with a wood match. He looked dangerously fantastical. N1T3 had never seen such greatness manifest in a postdigital child.

Yet there it was.

“Begin simply,” $trydr instructed.

In a postdigital world, whether the object of discussion was a system, person, event, feeling, or something other, didn’t matter. Properly conveying which it was, did. Only then could true exchange and understanding begin. The rest was done by feel. If a feeling was off, the transfer-rate or method was off. Change it. It was a self-correcting system, self-limiting via its variables. A basis of knowledge– the Human one at least.

N1T3 had been through it once, more or less, with Ket. She felt things more than $trydr, but he needed no less understanding. It was only Martin Black’s posthumously-recognized talent of trafficking in both psyches that allowed N1T3 to convey to both worlds at once. That duality meant he could speak to anyone.

If Christ had been so good, there’d be less doubt in the world.

“Knowledge. The net. Liberty.” N1T3 began.

$trydr gave a tired breath beneath his throat. It might’ve been a groan were he not so certain of the conversation’s importance. N1T3 wasn’t likely to waste his time with this as an amateur might.

He continue unabated, “It’s information. It needs to be protected and secured.”

“Crypto evolves, N1T3. Always.”

“Not just the machines,” he corrected. “The idea. Information is not the type of resource capable of mismanagement. It is not a consumable. We cannot cope without it. We cannot exist without it. It is us– as much as water, blood, or carbon.”

$trydr’s hand rose, “You’ve no need to rush here. So long as you’re within this building you’re protected. That will not last should they come to call, but until then, you needn’t speak with more speed than necessary.”

N1T3 heaved a tired sigh. “I’m running out of time and have even less of it each moment.”

$trydr’s wood-bark face, eternally carved to wisdom, lifted a brow. “Even for old friends?”

N1T3 relaxed, taking $trydr’s pipe as it was graciously offered. He lit a wood match on his boot, let it flare, then began to puff. The scent and taste of something lemon and honey lit his sinuses beneath cool, mellow smoke. He let it swirl about his airways and tongue, savoring it.

Then, he began. “The Human race’s future is indivisibly linked to information, Riter. Our species’ very existence demands that, with one, comes the other. History has shown this–“

“Thus far,” $trydr reminded.

N1T3 gave a slight nod with another long draw of smoke. “We are now in an age where technology presents the possibility for true equality among all peoples.”

“Through the delivery of information,” he surmised. “Its anonymity or not.”

N1T3 nodded. He sat forward, deliberately setting the pipe on the table’s edge. Riter watched with equal deliberateness. It teetered on the edge, its contents still fresh.

A moment of mental anguish gripped $trydr. The pipe teetered, ready to spill. $trydr verged on panic. N1T3 read it in his eyes– that distant, internal willing to keep things from going wrong.

“Yet, the status quo remains unchanged,” N1T3 said, lifting the pipe again and setting it in the center of the table, his point made.

Riter’s eyes followed.

In that instant, $trydr saw hints of what N1T3 was getting at: it wasn’t that authority was safe in their or anothers’ hands, but rather it was only safe in all of their hands. Or more succinctly, information was never safe in any one person’s hands. It had to be so pervasive as to be obscure, relevant only to the Seeker, so abundant as to be benign.

And it wasn’t.

Information was being monetized, milked, stolen, hoarded– even by the very people trying to safeguard it. Forcing them to change tactics to truly preserve it was the goal. Making those same forces of resistance flexible was needed to maintain order.

N1T3’s Aquifers. His fountains. His Roman-era monuments: more than just an idea, they were a statement. Humanity had been here before. It could be here again. Most of all, it was here now. And it was teetering.

Rome fell from the top-down from laziness and bad piping. Science, having not been advanced at the time, and yet to contend with the dark ages, remained in its infancy.

What was the postdigital world’s excuse, N1T3 asked.

$trydr saw then, it wasn’t just a question, but a demonstration of his detractors’ wrongness. Those detractors, in this case, were the system; corporations masquerading as independents but buying lawmakers by the truckful.

The problem was, as any could see, this was a rather profitable way of doing things. Dirty or not. In revealing and pinpointing how they were doing it, why, those like N1T3 had made themselves targets.

It change nothing, $trydr argued. They were aiming for N1T3, but they’d cut down his allies all the same. It was simply that no-one wanted to be the first to do it. Yet. Once it started, it wouldn’t end.

It wasn’t just N1T3. It was all postdigital children. The watchers. The ones stuck between permanent adolescence and the encroaching, utter oblivion of old-age. Of course they were frightened, $trydr knew. They had every right to be. Few were anywhere near as insulated as he himself, Dru, or their own through them– and that insulation was paper-thin, worst of all. All it did was isolate them for those that might’ve otherwise sympathized.

Once, Martin Black might have been part of that circle. N1T3 was not. It was then $trydr was forced to confront his own part in things. N1T3 watched it rise with dread in his heart and tears in his eyes.

He spoke softly, “No feeling creature blames another for forgetting its name in fright. It does remain however, that fear or the bearer must pass, so that others might know or learn it.”

Another cheap shot. This one at himself, to his own feelings. $trydr’s chest tightened and his face soured with pain. N1T3 put his head down, hands cupped around the pipe, and pressed it forward across the table.

From his place, $trydr saw N1T3; the formless, faceless lump, bowing before him for forgiveness. Not only for Martin Black, but the burden N1T3 now forced him to bear. If N1T3 should fall, those he knew well would not be far behind. Either they would be forced to take flight, live on the run or underground, or die for what they knew had begun.

As binary as the world it came from. The one of hunter or hunted, powered or not, 0 or 1. Nothing $trydr or anyone else could do could change that. Sooner or later, his friend would be dead, a martyr for his– everyone’s cause.

$trydr leaned forward, eyes only hinting wetness. He clasped his hand atop N1T3’s, “We will make it glorious, my friend.”

Guardians of Liberty: Part 9

9.

Ra710NaL3:

A Digital-Aquifer Manual

N1T3 sat before his computer.

He’d come up with the title in a half-second, but he stared it down for an hour before finally stepping away to do something else. By then the name had taken hold. With it were the mental-images of his creation, its uses.

Brewing since he’d parted with Ket, those images had worked their way into his subconscious. They continually shed viral vectors, forming bits and bytes rapidly giving shape to something grander: data, information, jigsawed bits of scrap-data that formed an image greater than even he could fully comprehend.

He knew Ket well enough; once he saw the Aquifer again, it would be pressed and dressed. Reduced to a pair of computers. One regular screen. One large one. The rest of it would be put to work in the background, interlinked to form the backdrop of her burlesque-like routines: those moments of mingled affluence and ambition when she dazzled for business or pleasure.

She’d never need the manual, of course. She knew how to do custom work herself; knew what she needed to run her “show,” could envision it. Because of her intelligence, she could build it too, but it was N1T3’s brainchild first, and he’d deserved the honors.

Most times, she just drew precise diagrams and paid craftsmen.

That was business, and Ket knew business. She knew time-to-profit ratios, took them to heart. If you weren’t breaking down hours into dollars and cents, you weren’t building, only sustaining. That was perfectly fine for some. Not her.

But the manual wasn’t for her. That was important to remember.

Sure, N1T3 would give it to her. She’d even read it. But it wasn’t for her. It was for all those people that came asking for explanation, to be directed to something specific: something a host like Ket could summarize. A manual.

Then, when pointed to, that manual could be easily and accessibly explained for free. In both plain and advanced language, building on itself therein via net-like structures, interlinking, so as to be understandable. Article-by-article, but also, articles-by-articles. It needed the same redundancy, ease of use and modularity as the servers.

It needed to be a product of its time and nothing else.

To do that, N1T3needed time. Not much, but enough. The safest way to ensure it was lying low, but he remained in need of supplies, and worst, a fugitive. Or at least, Martin Black was. Any and every thing now required more care and attention.

Above all, careful required relying solely on Ket. He’d been okay with everything thus far, didn’t find himself disturbed by the idea, but still didn’t like it. Mostly, because he hated sitting idly. To be told to– by one he viewed as a superior, no less, felt an insult.

He knew then, his fears were his own doing: He didn’t like sitting idly, but Ket would never have presumed superiority. She was, of course, an apex creature who’d found its niche and worked it like none other before, but it wasn’t superiority that drove it. Contrary, in fact. It was her knowing of herself, her kind, so thoroughly she became the arbiter of their nature.

But in her, and a select few others’ minds, she and N1T3 were equals. Peers. He’d simply been absent ‘til now.

Rather than feel shame, as he expected, he relaxed. It was a sign of his slow caution manifesting. He’d learned to take things as they were long ago, but implementing it was another story entirely. It was enough to catch some of the less-obvious Human-character defects: tension, its erosion on logic. That information was important when such ignored-defects could easily get one killed.

It was then that he sat down, not to write, but to plan the writing.

He needed resources. Food and water were covered. As he was well-enough hidden, his attention turned elsewhere: what he needed to live. Even Spartans still required simpler things; toiletries, consumables, things neither luxury nor necessity but that the world ignored and largely covered regardless.

But N1T3 was a fugitive. Or Martin Black was. Someone with his face, anyhow.

Anywhere corp-affiliation ruled was out of the question. Meaning somewhere to get in and out of quickly, where he’d be kept him from recognition. If he stockpiled, he’d be less worried, could focus on sustenance, but bulk-buying could draw unwanted attention.

Even if it required physically mapping the best routes, times, and places to simply buy stuff. He’d put something more-permanent in place.

He settled on a well-known convenience store he’d never entered before: a place he knew, but didn’t know him. The clerks there were Indian, the last of caste-less descendants trying make names for themselves by ferrying families into so-called promised-lands. These days though, no-one gave two shits how things ran, so long as they kept running.

N1T3 sympathized: the programmer’s eternal plight inherent their struggle, fractalized like all things to the whims of time and chaos.It was sheer luck he knew the few, particular places nearby that were that way as well. Whomever couldn’t be paid off, could be knocked off easiest with proper sleight of hand.

He’d hold the latter in reserve, obviously, but it wasn’t off the table. The resources were there. He needed them bad enough. The people involved knew why they could not offer them. Either they were willing to take some cash, lie, or were willing to look the other way while he robbed them. Anyone else was part of the problem, however unfortunately.

All anyone needed these days was an excuse to act. How or what-for mattered not. The few foolish enough to miss the connection between a refusal and later theft would only suit his purposes. Otherwise, they’d understand when they learned their resources were guaranteed, and his emphatically weren’t.

Sure, N1T3 could knock off a clerk without him ever knowing. But wasn’t it easier for him to lie, say it didn’t happen, then go through dealing with corp-sec? None of them owned the shops. Not really. Not anymore. Corporate banks did. They owned the land and deed, did nothing but extort. Why risk exposing one’s own, dirty secrets to help them?

When secrets were otherwise harmless, but enough to bullied or blackmailed over, it was guaranteed they would be. Way N1T3 saw it, he could pay you or they could. At least his didn’t come with strings wrapped around your throat.

Besides, who looked for a fugitive in a public place?

So long as N1T3 remained careful, he could pull it off. It was all about timing. He didn’t have to be idle. What better way to write a manual on an obsession than being forced away to engage it analytically? If its power were truly worthy of obsession, could be repeatedly proved as such by analysis, could it truly be a negative to do so?

Only by repeatedly analyzing it could one be certain, although N1T3 guessed there wasn’t truly an answer. Like many things in the post-digital world, it wasn’t the outcome that mattered. Rather, it was the system producing it, whether it functioned properly.

The penultimate manifestation: Humans would always make mistakes, but are not so bound to learn from them. What better way to find the true worth of anything than to force its confrontation and analysis? To make a social call-check, so robustly invisible, save to that all-seeing-eye of reductionism: Science.

N1T3 could think of no better explanation of the duality of need and desire than that of perfection-vs-its attainability. In the end, what it reduced to was irrelevant without the processes reduced. The reduction, or conclusion was simple; perfection was unattainable.

But the process of understanding why, of learning through experiential knowledge, was the reduced. Reductionists– scientists among them, knew that.

Thing was, reductionists were people like N1T3 and Ket. People eternally in the twilight between youth and the middle-age, vat-grown and incubated via trickled-prosperity. The elder brothers and sisters of N1T3’s generation had gotten it so near-to-right they would come round in time, but could not be the force necessary to change. Thus, it fell to the rest.

Likewise, the vibrance of youth spawned of the times and their effects, were too ingrained in their world to do more than conform. In that, they would do so spectacularly, N1T3 sensed. But it was N1T3, Ket, their ilk– those middle children between the two extremes that would dictate change. The rest would fall-in-line or fall-out completely: from understanding, rather than need or want.

The wrongness of the mentality that datum– information– didn’t matter was unacceptable in a postdigital world. It was an outdated, old set of ideas, predigital and in no way compatible with newly discovered reality. It came from a world of sensationalist tabloids and ailing print subscriptions– places where information went to die.

Now, information was the only thing.

Digitally, people no longer transmitted or received, they idled. Always. Whether it was in the form of text or imagery data, video or audio, all of the above and more, their brains transmitted to their bodies which then reacted according to specification. Their brains re-encoded the reactions into the aforementioned, re-transmitted it, and through the adapters they used to interface, linked to the net.

That was the net. Everything around it. Its interfaces.

Forays had been made into the world of advanced sensory stimulation; VR, pulse-feedback, electro-stims, all to various effects and uses, and for good or ill. Problem was, everything was proprietary, impossible to build alone or innovate easily on.

In simplest terms, closed hardware and software systems could only be developed by its creators. That unfortunate fact stifled any system. Sometimes however, it was necessary, if only for security’s sake. The instances where it was not, were obvious in their intent.

For instance, N1T3 personally knew of several, closed government networks remotely impenetrable. The physical levels of security betweendigital access and its repositories was so daunting that, though possible to overcome, there was no reasonable value to the effort to most.

A foreign agent could infiltrate their facilities themselves, work the systems just as easily. What did governments need people like N1T3 for then? The flip-side was though, who remained most in demand when the agents failed? Hackers. Mercs or loyalist fools, or outright ferals. Didn’t matter which, they were just the vessel through which the code flowed.

That was the double-edge blade forcing the Governments to cede territory– both literal and non, to the corporations: they refused to incorporate hackers. N1T3 knew of at least two, London-local deals signed in the last week by the Met, ceding area-security to local Corp-sec.

Aries and Warhound were at each other’s throats for those contracts. One’s militant overamped machismo against the other’s tech-junkie turned warrior-merc. The smoke of the first volley against the factions hadn’t even cleared yet, and already, they were on each other. If the general public had realized what was really going on, they’d have hardly believed it. It would’ve been confined to the province of man’s collective memory. That place reserved for myths and legends, and little else.

Technology was too powerful to be duped though. N1T3 reminded himself this was war; in times of caution, err on the side of caution. This war then, war if not for technology, through it. Thus, if through it, then for an idea. An idea that also happened to be the culmination of a species’ path from tree-hanger to zero-g orbiter.

Everyone wanted to feel that zero-g now. Better, everyone could. They knew if they’d all just shut up, pull together an agonizingly long moment, they could. Then, they’d never have to worry again. Humanity, in general, would never have to. This would secure their legacy. Their legacy’s legacy: a redundancy fractalized on micro and macro-scales and required for existence to continue. In this case, Human existence: postdigital as it now was.

And eventually, for a collective epitaph that read; despite each individual’s flaws, they gave their all and thrived. And for N1T3, his people– the postdigital ones, that thriving was via the idea that, overall, one could succeed because Humanity saw success as a foundation to herald its next, collective expansion. Its next Golden Age, but secured until the end of lifetimes and beyond, due to its effect.

History might not remember N1T3 or Ket, or any names forever, but it need not either. Knowledge of N1T3 and his ilk might become so commonplace as to become utterly obscure. The electricity in the light: there, but only for those looking deeper.

Meantime, that knowledge itself was redundant, archived due to the enormity of their contribution and its revision to base knoweldge.It didn’t matter who they were. It mattered what they did. The best way to do that, was to make them memorable, elevate them to Paragons. Not by lying about misdeeds, but honoring persistence over adversity in spite of them.

It was within the same, conceptual grounds not as stealing a fish to feed oneself, but as stealing a fishing pole to feed a village. Equal in micro scales, not macro. One was far more effective and worthy than the other.

And morally defensible.

Human society, on the whole, had lost something of that balancing in the trasition between pre-and-post digital. The digital age, such as it was, formed a blur of incessant, blazing, and stupefying revision. Like all things digital, it was bulk information relevant only to a certain subsection of the populous– and only at a certain time. Only target information mattered, and only to those it was relevant to, and only in the moment of relevance.

In a roundabout way, that made all potentially relevant information important. Always. Estimating what would or could be important was pointless, thus collecting as much as possible and safeguarding it became crucial.

That was the truth in the lie the Governments– and eventually Corps– fed to people about the importance of data collection. Difference to reality was– especially to the technologically clairvoyant, it was obvious the data collected wasn’t important to any beyond a specific, predatory subset of vicious entities.

In the end, history didn’t give two shits about where you bought underwear, or jerked off to. So, who did?

The reality was obvious to Martin Black even during adolescence, when he and his generation watched their parents rise for work, each day older and more agonized, less happy and telling themselves it would change. Told to learn from their parent’s mistakes, each thinker traced their lines of unhappiness inevitably to society’s holds, its damage.

N1T3 was one of them.

After decades of meditation on the subject, N1T3’s generation had finally decided there was but one way to avoid the damage of the system; avoid the system entirely. At least until it was fixed. The question was, how to fix it? It took N1T3 years longer than he ever hoped to figure it out, but he did.

In the meantime, his approach made him a fugitive. The only saving grace was that its timing couldn’t have been better. Now he had an excuse to bring it to a grinding halt. He damned well knew he would, too.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 8

8.

Drinking Deep

He was astonished. Not at his success, her faith in it. It would’ve been another knock against him were he not so certain unpredictability were part of her package. She delighted in it. He enjoyed it well enough too, if only to make things easier later on.

Calculated on her part or not, she’d awed him again. This time in devotion, commitment. If only to his ideas: her own belief of their power– natural forces courted great power and nothing less, after all. This, she believed, was as grand as he dreamed. More-so.

He spent six hours prepping the parts, examining them all in detail. She’d had the place and her day prepped to watch. Nothing if not thorough, curious. Ket had always been that way. Like the Goddess of her namesake; Se’Ket, Ket. Feline grace. Poise. Panthera appeal and ferocity.

She said little, spoke only when he took breaks to stretch or eat. Otherwise, she was observant, as comfortable a student as she was a teacher, artist, or scholar. Even if it required theatrics.

That was what he’d loved about it her, but then, that was what everybody loved about her. He simply loved it for a different, deeper reason. She loved him as she loved them all, as her adoring audience, but had chosen him for his promise. He was their emissary but her concubine; temporary pleasure, passing seasons.

Martin Black had misunderstood the nature of that relationship. He was special, but not that special. Not yet. Not then. He could have been, but then, the madness. N1T3’s rise.

Now, N1T3 had the same potential, but he wasn’t seeking to use it. They no longer played games, nor needed to; he loved Ket. She knew. That was all that mattered. It was a simple, binary yes or no, on or off, 0 or 1.

For anything to come of it required so much between here and there N1T3 might no longer exist. To say nothing of if he’d survive.

He’d been fighting to swallow that fact over the five, monotonous hours of the server build. His request and payment, had been for a series of SBECs with associated cabling and storage gear. He received several networkable storage servers. Frankensteined bit-boxes with basic command terminals, sure, but far more than required for proof of concept. Cheap, but effective and powerful, and designed to do little more than manage a few network connections, store a few terrabytes.

It was perfect, but far more than he’d paid for. He took issue simply: “More than I paid for.”

She stood beside him, arms crossed, “Consider it my personal investment.”

More than that he knew, it was the symbol of her commitment. She was entrusting him with her future as much as anyone’s, he needed to remember that as much as anyone in the know. What better way than to idolize his ascension? What more fitting way to ensure he was taken seriously? Especially if she felt all he needed was to do it, there was no reason not to.

Clear victors needed no swan songs.

At least, not yet.

He stood before the server, finally seeing it for the work of art it was. For a decade he’d been learning, refining, theorizing. He’d designed a million and one ways he could do it, but had never actually done it. The opportunity had never arisen.

He’d built servers for himself, but ramshackle, patchwork things. Like his old shack, they were never meant to be the work of art this was. At that, it was the most elegant combination of utter-junk and clever-recycling. Exactly the sort of thing the world needed now.

He’d dreamed of it for years; servers, like cell-towers, encompassing all of Earth’s habitable face with chaotic, but total coverage: constant, digital buoys and beacons, both reading and writing information from the waves they rode. Each one gridded, overlapping, and connected to its neighbors. Above all, each one free and filled with information from passersby depositing and hosts curating.

Those resources, always accessible, had yet to become attainable for one reason or another. The motivation remained buried and unbidden to the surface, slumbering. The attacks on the Hackers had simply forced N1T3 to react. He’d never thought, even given the chance, he could do it with any degree of style or lasting impact.

Until now.

It looked vaguely Romanesque, both in purpose and form. It hadn’t been intended as such, but rather came together as a naturalized shape. He’d never imagined anything quite so vivid, but he saw now the duality of Roman column and postdigital necessity.

Like a shaft of mech-gear covered in tech, the aquifer formed a black-metal rack and pipe wireframe of a Roman column. Its base was octagonal rather than square, and sat on evenly spaced wheels. While its skeletal paneled-sections were flexed and presently locked, like an accordion with its straps bound close behind it.

It was as much workstation as low-lit cinema, warm but open to cooling. Most of all, it could easily shapeshift, re-form:

A series of R-L wire-frames of steel rack-mounts, lever locks, and moddable peripherals weighted peg-board flattened or locked stiff against panels on hinges, or in various positions. Each interface therein was secured but articulable in most ways. Each station, or panel, connected to the next allowing for expansion into a single wall, or total reformation of the panels’ components themselves.

A single station could occupy all panels, or all stations one panel, depending on type, configuration, and desire. Vice-versa depending on the tech’s inter-chaining. A more complex job than simply flipping a switch, sure, but not more than a few minutes of dedicated work either.

Despite her tendency to exaggerate, Ket guessed she’d taken longer to set a dinner-table than it took to demonstrate the aquifer’s use. That was good, she felt; it better fit the collective consciousness. More importantly, it could move. It didn’t have to.

Her emphasis on remaining close while he worked assured him of her investment: this would be her server. Her personal one. The one she relied on most but that others could interact with. It would be aquifer and fountain in her courtyard, centerpiece to her plays.

More than a bit-player now, he’d also become a craftsman. Something he’d never imagined himself. The difference was, he’d crafted an idea and built it in tech. One she would and could rely on– as any could, would, and should.

Until now, no-one had seen the importance of data. Not its security, but its existence and universality. Data was eternal in the eyes of a species naturally forced to live moment-to-moment. When that species then began to evolve, seeing they’d been right, they began to wonder why was data eternal?

The answer, N1T3 and Ket knew, was becoming clearer by the day.

Eternity was important to a sentient, living being without it. Anything regarding it was not only a doorway to knowledge, but an ideological beginning that would overtake and utterly transform its world. One could not consider the idea of immortality without considering the idea of what they might do with all that extra time.

Until now though, no-one had known how to manage or care for that idea. It was entirely new; as if Humanity suddenly realized it needed water, so dug a well. Then, knowing nothing of how to ensure it remained wet or clean, drank deep.

Like him, Ket had that knowledge. More than that, she had connections– popularity. What she didn’t have, he did. What neither had, she knew how and where to find it. As with the case of the servers themselves.

She’d set the terms of the deal, and so long as she didn’t burn him, was more than entitled to alter them. Especially if it meant getting more than either bargained for with no further risk. Then again, that meant greater responsibility to bear, and that could backfire superbly.

He hadn’t considered it until now, but aquifers needed to remain equal parts secure and not. They needed general oversight and protection. Otherwise, what good were they? More than that, they needed to remain clean.

Rome fell from unclean water. It wasn’t their fault, of course, their sciences were underdeveloped. To the Romans, lead existed only as a material to be formed. Not feared. What fear could a material bring anyhow? It was the Gods which saw to things.

It wasn’t until centuries later Human society was saved from the dangers of lead by scientific progress. But in a world where every person was a scientist, politician– and many other things– rolled into one, what good was turning to them?

Not everyone was perfect for the job, and that was acceptable, but they were all capable of it. It was impossible for that to be wrong and the world world the way it was. That was the theory behind the aquifer; self-regulation worked because any one participant could be wrong, thus each investigated themselves, to eventually base their knowledge off evidence therein.

Poorly-based conclusions in that evidence then lead to the miscalculation of compounding errors in Social understanding and Human living, borne of the neglected foundation of internal Human coexistence. Like with all systems however, the only way to correct these issues was to engineer their correction in successive revisions.

Or in other words, revolutions, waves, the massive, generational shifts recorded for all time in Human consciousness, deeper even than genes.

N1T3 discussed this with Ket. A pair of fingers curled about her cigarette as she replied simply, “That why it’s so important we do it.”

He cleared his throat, if only to admit his own discomfort to himself. She knew where it was headed, let him speak anyway.

“They want me dead, Ket.” She eyed him for signs of fear, backing down. He caught her expression, sensed its meaning, then corrected them both. “I may not live long is my point.”

“Then you need something of you to remain accessible, regardless.”

He thought to deride, but curiosity got the better of him. “A manifesto, you mean?”

She caught his shift, “I was thinking more… a product manual.”

He grinned. “I’ll get on it.”

Guardians of Liberty: Part 7

7.

Old Friends Conquered

“I knew An33$a,” Ket said.

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

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

These were exclusive clubs, even for the excluding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Small world.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not how this works. Not yet.”

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

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

“Anywhere I know?”

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

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

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

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

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

There were no digital borders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it began here.

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

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

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

Shadows thrived on Honor Codes.

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

Eternally, the problem was of relatability, familiarity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like a public water-fountain.

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

It was that important.

Guardians of Liberty: Part 6

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.