Making it Through
The last few levels were swarming. Like the zombie apocalypse vids popular when N1T3 was a kid. Except, instead of mindless drones shambling for meat, it was University and Marine washouts looking to hone blood-lust for the highest salary.
The second team of them appeared just below the fifth floor. They were tramping between foyers when he caught sight of them. That he’d made it so far without running into them told him the thoroughness of their search. He hesitated, holding his breath, and waiting.
If he knew anything of the growing plague corp-sec was becoming, it was their method of operation. Corps were all about area-denial, especially near their borders. N1T3 was technically bordering on their turf, he’d known it all along. Until now, it was the safest way to maintain supply-routes, but he had other places to crash.
Places he’d long ago planned to retreat to, if necessary.
Everyone like him had them. Never as a paranoid delusion, but rather, as a forethought to bulwark against tidal oppression. Problem was, N1T3 realized hiding against a wall; there was a major difference between planning for something and experiencing it.
With the latter now upon him, he wished he could have planned better. Then again, he’d never expected a corp-sec battalion to swarm. Even that had seemed the realm of delusion right up until Clockwork and An33$A bought it.
Now, he wished he’d bought a tank; a fighter jet. Or else built some sort of orbital platform to live on. Then, he wouldn’t be crouched in filth, heart ready to give out, with an army between he and any relative safety– an army looking only for him.
The feet tramped up, hesitated at a door. It opened, then closed, and everything was quiet. A door shut and latched below, forced him to swallow hard. He nearly choked, fought back for fear of the sound it might make.
His body launched itself down the next few floors like a ghost atop a bullet-train.
He knew only each step; the one to come. Each measured, planned without thought but on sheer will and want of survival. He found himself between the second and first floors in a breath. Inside the first in a thought.
He stopped, starring down the main-lobby of the office building at what had once been the front doors of an accounting firm. The lobby elevators bulged beside stairwells, taunting fattened caretakers into tempting the dual fates of poor, physical conditioning and heart-disease; and taunting N1T3 in to testing his luck that someone wasn’t watching.
He wasn’t how he’d made it past the first two teams. Making it this far made him want to re-examine his perception of the universe.
No time. The doors lay straight ahead.
Too obvious to run. Just beyond that last pair of elevators, squads of itchy trigger-fingers whipped into a frenzy from corporate propaganda. Hungry, abused dogs looking for a meal; N1T3 the jackrabbit. If they caught him, they’d fight over scraps for days.
His only hope was in the moment-to-moment. The step-by-step. Then again, hope was thin. Especially in the face of hot lead.
He shouldered his way along the wall, creeping forward as near to the corner as willing, and then some. He hesitated at a shuffle of clothing from one side. A hint to the shadows revealed the at-ease group of armored and armed wannabe-mercs; No-one had expected him to make it this far.
All the same, he wouldn’t overplay his hand. Not when one bullet shy of dead with hundreds in reserve. He had to play it just right, use the shadows, or he’d eat every one.
One breath at a time. He made for the far-side of the corridor, blending with the shadows.
He hesitated, corp-sec greenies stirring. The lifers, career soldier-types not good or smart enough for officer’s school, but unable to crunch numbers or run tech all day. Like most of corp-sec, these people were damaged goods. Less likely to be rabid, but no less prone to it.
Not surprising, considering what their job required of them.
N1T3 made himself as small as possible and slipped from the wall. He cut across shadows for a column, the cover it provided. He slipped out again, hoping to be lost in the background.
A spot-light. His body tensed, worked. The hounds scrambled. The jack-rabbit took flight. Seconds. Days. Then a first spat of gunfire. N1T3 was half-way to the doors.
No-one could’ve expected the swiftness of his flight. N1T3 included. Pure terror fueled long-dormant energy reserves. His legs were lead, yet moved at light-speed. His heart had stopped but his body surged with fresh fluids.
He reached the revolving doors. Second and third rounds of gunfire ricocheted off metallic frames, rippled storm-proof glass. N1T3 stumbled, scrambled, re-centered gravity and fell into the street. His footing returned in time for beams to light over him. He sprang across the street, at full-sprint by the near-edge of the building.
Overhead, the buzz of unmanned drones running face-recog rained over N1T3. His body launched sideways, around, putting as much distance between it and they as possible before finding a way to break line of sight.
N1T3 was down 366th, around a corner, out of sight in a heart beat. The meat-drones had already lost him, but the metal ones were death on his tail. Their buzz was persistent, relentless, vibrating after him like cold death.
But they were programs. His malfunctioning mind knew. And really, he knew programs better than anything. Hardware. Filled with software written by he and his peers. All he needed was one, good angle. One moment of broken, line of sight. Enough for a second’s lost tracking.
He weaved to and fro, making toward the street’s far-side, and an awning there. It wrapped around its building, shielding the doorway from the elements by nestling it beneath concrete supports and glass panels.
His chance; he took it.
His legs pumped. Shoe-rubber smoked across concrete, asphalt. He was under cover. The drones appeared. Zoomed under the awning after him, followed it around– the obvious path; the one their simplistic programming determined he’d follow.
He ducked back and around the small, concave of steps between the door and the central awning’s support. He hesitated a blink, then booked it back into the open; back the way he’d come. The destroyed remains of the former London commercial-downtown became little more than a blur of neutrals smeared with red from terror and desperation.
N1T3 became conscious of himself again somewhere near his destination– and the smell of the stagnant Thames.
Rivers weren’t much use in an age of drones and automated transport; which meant an old dock, in disrepair and seemingly little more than forgotten sewage access, was hardly conspicuous.
All the same, he made sure he wasn’t watched or followed, stealthing through as many shadows as possible. The light he was forced to cross made him little more than a flit– a figment of imagination, appearing and disappearing in the corner of a blinked eye.
He slipped through the underground-access door, shut it just as quickly.
The pounding in his ears gave way to a distant, eternal drip of a neglected and ailing pipe. With it, some part of him finally relaxed. He knew the place well, had established it years ago. It was the same place he and his buddies used to go to get high as kids. The kind no-one knew about decades ago and history had ensured was forgotten since.
N1T3 was safe. If only for now.
He shuffled along the dark hall toward its center, a room where he’d stashed supplies long ago. His mind still fought to grasp what had happened; that corp-sec had actually found him– and right after Clockwork and An33$A bought it.
No. Were murdered. Hunted down. Exterminated. Why?
Why not? N1T3 and the other hackers had known for years the net was a ticking time-bomb. It was the only reason or explanation for why they could be prepared like they were. The problem was, they knew they were at war. As soon as N1T3 hit the net again, they’d know how serious things were.
Vets like him would already be packing up, hitting the road to reset just for safety’s sake.
Vets like him, if any existed still– N1T3 refocused, found himself leaning on a patch of damp, moldy wall with the same tranquility he could only imagine came at the first drops of euthanasia; released tension, lost fear, knowledge that this at least, was almost through.
He managed to float along its dissociative effects, manufactured of blood and fear, to the shadows of an already-darkened room. Beyond it, into another barred by a simple combination lock on an innocuous looking latch; enough to deter most intrusion. Any practiced sleuth would’ve noticed the age difference between lock and surroundings area. But a practiced sleuth wouldn’t have been there without knowing something was anyhow.
N1T3 entered a series of ones and zeroes on the combo lock, then let himself in through the narrow door. He emerged in something not dissimilar from where he’d come. The whir of old hard-coded builds kept the small, recycling humidifiers and de-humidifiers running. Their job crucial to keeping the servers optimal. If the air became over-saturated with heat or moisture, the gear suffered.
Because of their access-points, they could be adjusted and monitored remotely, but only if they functioned. Then again, programmer screwing up so crucial and simple a job wasn’t taking it seriously. That wasn’t an option anymore, even for the less-than-pros emulating N1T3 and the other Hackers.
This place, and any others like it, were about to become the last bastions of digital freedom. Corporations had assured as much tonight.
N1T3 had a few things to clear up and out, a few stress tests to run, but he settled into the place as if he’d never left it. He fell into writing up his story, splicing-code to ensure the information was relayed everywhere it counted. He finished, hunched over his keyboard and half-sinking forward in despair.
The code compiled and the bot engaged, posting to the series of forums and boards he frequented. He finally slumped back to stare at ceiling-graffiti he or someone else had left in their youth. The phrase was simple, resonant, and utterly hopeless; A better way?