Guardians of Liberty: Part 2

2.

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.

Suddenly, flashes:

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.

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?

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Poetry-Thing Thursday: Only Ourselves to Blame

It used to be,
you could do or say,
whatever you wanted,
but not today.

Electro-eyes catch all,
we see, say, and do,
and those that fight it,
are really far too few.

Spectral spies,
in darkened skies,
death’s gath’ring above.
Through them flow,
autonomous raptors,
whom slit the throats of doves.

Give a name,
they’ll show you a target.
Feel the same,
you’ll soon be mark-ed.

And we’ve only ourselves to blame.

Short Story: Ode to Shadows

The ocean is an abyss, more desert than plain or forest teeming with life. The thought is a difficult one for humans to grasp when deserts have become synonymous with arid, barren, wastelands. The ocean is seemingly its antithesis, most would think. In truth, it is but one face of a two-sided coin. Humans have descended little more than six miles in one, lone spot, only to find emptiness, darkness. They have mapped little more than five-percent of this lifeless zone with primitive instruments put to shame by even their lesser-advanced, contemporary achievements.

What they have found (or rather, not) is nothing in comparison to what lies hidden in the deepest, unexplored recesses. In places where neither men nor beast can reach, there dwells a spark of existence known only as Shadows. They are unlike their surface counterparts in uncountably unimaginable ways. They’ve no physical bodies, not as a man could touch or feel; no eyes or ears, nor mouths with which to speak. Instead, they communicate with only thoughts projected between one another. Each Shadow is a floating consciousness with no more aim but to continue floating. Were any man or animal to stumble upon their confines, an intentional, psychic transmission would destroy them. It is not with malice nor anger, but merely an effect of Shadows’ extreme differences.

Had someone known this before NOAA sent down their prized research team, perhaps things would have gone differently. But once more humanity was slighted for their curiosity, blissful ignorance. In time, each researcher was subjected to that pulse of mental power, overwhelmed to death by it.

The team of six arrived at a previously undocumented area of sea-floor. Their mission was to map it and catalog its biome. In their specialized submarine– not unlike a ballistic missile design, but different entirely in its purpose– they laid anchor somewhere in the southern Atlantic. The trough they took residence in was three miles deep, enough to require mixtures of exotic gasses to replace oxygen. Those gases of helium and oxygen were necessary given the dangerous nature of Oxygen at such depths and pressures.

The first day of their two-week stay was uneventful, spent largely in configuring their diving gear to the intense pressure outside. By the second day acting leader of the team, Karen West, had ordered they make their first foray into the deep. Through a moon pool in a central compartment, they plunged into blackness without fear, unaware of what lay beyond their ship’s powerful lighting.

Split into pairs, one third was to head for a geothermal vent to the South. Another was to map the extent of the vent’s radiant heat to the North. It was, by way of deduction, in hopes of creating a mapped radius of a possible live-zone. Such is the sea’s nature that, as the desert’s inverse, heat is the life-giving force in the freezing depths. The final third of the group was to remain in range of the ship, collecting sediment samples to determine the anchorage area’s age and composition.

Instructed as they were, the pairs broke ranks and ventured forth in their enormous pressure-suits like over-inflated astronauts. Indeed, the aquanauts’ steps in the low gravity of the Ocean made the comparison all the more apt. Not even the strongest suits could protect them for what was to come.

It was Donald that first saw the shadows. Though the others wouldn’t come to know that until it was too late. He and his partner, in charge of mapping the radiant heat’s outermost reaches, came upon a Shadow without knowing it. They bounced between their feet in a low-G moonwalk, appeared as great, shuffling, tire-clad men with flood-lights atop their heads.

When something skirted the edge of a light, Donald pursued it. A moment later he was stopped dead. Pressure built in his suit. Screams sliced through his comm. It linked to his partner and the rest of the team. Before they could react, there was a shrieking crescendo. A loud, wet pop! Then, his suit toppled over, face-mask spattered with blood and brain in a viscous carnage.

Karen recalled everyone to the ship at-once. It wasn’t enough. As different as Shadows are, like man they shared an intrinsic trait; curiosity. Donald’s partner barely made to flee before he too screamed, silenced by another, wet pop! Karen and the others were already double-timing it to the ship, hoping its poly-alloy walls would protect them.

If only they’d known what they were up against, perhaps they wouldn’t have been so foolish. But how could they have? The only reason anything is known of their encounter is due to a real-time black-box system linked into their comms and embedded in the submarines controls. The black-box was near-indestructible, only discovered when the submarine’s scheduled rise came. Crew or not, the sub was fated to ascend.

When it appeared at the surface, there were only the vaguest of hints of what had gone wrong. After a quarantine period, its exterior was examined and found to be immaculate. Nothing more could be learned without boarding.

Scattered around the sealed, moon-pool doors, NOAA rescue crews in hazmat gear found their four researchers. Audio of a final, few minutes preceded dead-silent comms that lasted two-straight weeks. After the routine, first day, and the chilling events of Donald’s death, leader Karen and the others’ final moments were discovered.

A mixture of swears and cries bled through the comms. Debates about what might have happened, what to do now. Then, with an almost audible breath, a silence. A thump against the sub’s outer-hull gave way to a collective groan. Someone said something about a nose bleed to Karen. Another thump. Then, two more in succession. A crew-member’s screams terrified someone to tears– or perhaps it was the pain of the slow, further succession of thumps omnipresent against the hull.

Before long, little else was to be heard but cries and thumps. Sounds of four men and women dying grated investigators’ ears, whom listened to the thumps for five full minutes. Then came screams. Like Donald and his partner’s, that apexed in shrill cries.

Then, pop, pop, pop… pop!

The deaths were ruled an accident, but NOAA barred return to the site. If only they’d known the Shadows, like humans, were a global pandemic in the ocean’s deepest recesses, perhaps they’d have never again set foot on a ship. Instead, man continued on unawares. But such is the nature of his ignorance and fragility that he might be at death’s door one day, then sailing the high-seas unbidden the next. Alas, that matters not to the Shadows, for they are eternally patient, curious, and wait only to investigate with a wet, solemn, pop!