Guardians of Liberty: Part 19

19.

Paradigm

“You’re not unlike him, you know?” Ket remarked, pouring herself a drink from a carafe. He could only guess it was filled with wine.

It wasn’t. She offered him water from it. He declined by evading, “I’m here–“

She about-faced, “Why are you here, Commander Ozell?” He opened his mouth to speak. She was quicker, more practiced. “Your creed tells that you are here by grace of the altar of Justice. We both know this is not true. You’re no peacekeeper.”

“You are here to establish order,” she accused. “A specific kind of order.”

“I’m here for Martin Black.”

She hesitated.

“Yes,” she whispered in slow distance, as if slighted by divinity on such sour lips. Ozell heard her all the same. “Martin Black is dead. The man you seek, N1T3, is not Martin Black. Whatever it is you believe you will achieve finding him, you are mistaken.”

“You have seen him, then?”

“You would not have come here otherwise, Commander. Do not foolishly attempt to evade reality. You are hunting my former lover–” She said slightly to herself, “–or someone wearing his face. I am not certain which.”

“When did you last see him?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she assured him. He believed her. “Your presence does. You’ve come seeking information. I can provide that, but as with all things, for a price.”

Ket had already ensnared him. She’d sign-posted herself to draw Ozell, her audience, in. Now, she would take her place behind the curtain and wait for it to rise.

“I’m here on official business,” he argued, eying her graceful approach of the conglomerate of racks behind her– N1T3’s fountain, her own aquifer.

“I’ve no doubt of it,” she replied succinctly. “But you must understand your own role. Else, you’re sure to fail and take Paul with you.”

His nostrils flared and his face flushed.

“No-one would ever harm your son, Daniel,” Ket assured without looking. “We’re not without feeling.”

The use of his name hit him hard. Her blatant admittance to a part in the scheme hit harder, but with a sad panic that tempered fury. Reality cascaded in on him; he’d been played since the night of the attacks. Every step of the way. They’d wanted him here. Or, if not him, someone analogous.

‘Til now. Now they wanted him. He was the one they were pinning everything on. That want, need even, made them extra clever. Their traps more logic games than snares or spikes. Why anyone would bother, Ozell couldn’t be sure yet, but he’d let them divide and conquer him, left himself vulnerable.

In spite of that, he lived, still well-armed and capable of erasing them all from history.

“No, we are not without feeling,” she reiterated from the back wall. “Quite the opposite, in fact.”

The make-shift wall broke unevenly in the darkness before flaring blinding light. He blinked watery eyes and the light resolved itself into a large flat-screen. Thousands of small, broken up vid-feeds winked and flickered across it, contents barely visible as it cycled the various cameras.

“London Cit-Surv,” Ozell surmised. He’d seen the official room more than once. This was anything but.

“Every single camera in London,” Ket re-affirmed. “Many unregistered. Some corporate. Others aren’t.”

“Every one?” He asked curiously, confounded yet awed.

“Every one connected to a vulnerable node.” Her head tipped slightly, “So. Yes.”

Ozell’s passions stirred, “This is illegal.”

“Highly.”

Ozell’s eyes begged an explanation. Ket ignored it. She stood at the fountain’s controls, typing, “This was the footage N1T3 took his post from.”

A vid-played, jumping angles here and there, easily imparting its multi-point capture of Paul. Even if small, he remained visible in every frame.

Ket explained, “A weapon is a weapon, no matter the hands. It can harm as you equally as another simply because that is the nature and purpose of its existence.”

He didn’t understand, remarked as much.

“A tool, no matter its purpose, is dangerous whether misused, abused, or lying idle. The more capable the tool, the more damage can be done, and the more security it requires. Often that security requires only the skilled hands of its operator. Otherwise, this is the result.”

He stared at Paul: Kay’s eyes and smile were plastered across the boy’s face as he hugged his father goodbye. The vid replayed, showing the whole wait. Editing had more or less dissolved into long plays of each angle. Ket stepped away from the screen. The room dimmed, save the fountain’s screen still glowing with the running vid.

She returned Ozell’s side, eyes tracking her every swaying movement. She used it to relax and hypnotize him, goad him into accepting his own arousal. He let her. That was the attraction; he knew it as anyone worthy of her would. He was more than prepared to take the ride. Especially with a comatose wife destined for the nut-house and everything riding on him.

He needed her… And that was how she got him.

She sat beside him on a small couch before the glowing vid, lit a cigarette. Her motions kept drinking-bird tempos in the active room, however slowed by circumstance. The intimacy set Ozell ablaze.

“You will not find Martin Black, Commander. You will only ever find N1T3. And he would never tell me where to find him. Beyond that, I do not care where he is. I can, however, show you how to find him. To do that though, you must learn to think like him. Or, at least, understand how he thinks.”

It sounded good– or made sense at-least. He trusted her as any trusted a force of nature: to be unpredictable, unstoppable, chaotic. He was fine with that. Chaos was his stock and trade.

She was closer now. The tempo of her smoke had slowed. She began lulling him with soft tones and neck-line– hints of what more lie beneath.

“Martin Black was not a man, but neither is N1T3. He is something more. Like all of us now. We are not born the creatures we die as. It is a process to become them. Sometimes for the worse. Sometimes not.”

She leaned her head longingly on a hand, eying him from the side. Her eyes said she wished to draw him further in. His said he was perfectly fine with it.

She smoked, “To understand N1T3, you must understand his world. He is not unlike you. He sees this and admits it. Yet also acknowledges he is different in specific ways. Ones that are not like you, if only because you’ve yet to achieve them. But you can, likely will.”

He winced, “Is it the same with you?”

“In certain ways. With certain things. But he and I differ fundamentally. He recognizes this as well. Thus, we can never come to understand one another fully, no matter how we try or wish to.”

She leaned away to ash, prompting slight, desperate grief to incise Ozell’s chest. The slight hint of her shape in his periphery refocused him.

She continued unabated, “Incidentally, that is also what sets N1T3 apart from Martin Black– the figment you’re chasing. He is not either, or. He is both and neither. As all of us are, to some extent.”

Ozell didn’t understand. Hopelessness and fear bled frustration. Paul flashed larger on-screen through the darkness. “Cryptics don’t help either of us.”

She oozed a tempered excitement, as if viewing a newfound prospect, “On the contrary, Commander, it is precisely what we need.”

The shift threw him. He almost stammered, “…Why?”

“Anything capable of obscurity can be protected. So long as that obscurity remains possible in any context, proper application can protect it.”

“Paul,” he breathed, seeing his son flare across the fountain.

He didn’t know how, only that it happened. The aftermath.

Suddenly, a flash of Paul. Then a flash of movement. Metal cold at his throat. Sharpness in a lethal crook. The only weak point in his armor, physical and meta. She was ready, had been. Now, she’d use it.

In one movement she’d turned the tables entirely.

Missing weight at Ozell’s side rippled panic through him. The fountain flared. Ket’s knife was poised, lethal and steady. He froze in terror. Paul’s face reflected in his father’s eyes: Leaving the house. Hugging him. Waving good-bye.

Ozell didn’t breathe, only watched, too fearful to.

His son’s partings were moments of growth. He watched himself recognize it time and again on the fountain. His own passing of the torch; Mortality. Humanity. Knowledge that his son would one day have a place to take; his– And so-on to the end of his line or species. Until then, he’d assured himself, his family, that they were safe. All of them.

Short-sighted given the blade at his throat.

Ket was feather-light, but her strength immeasurable. Her hands and thighs paralyzed him with lethal precision of bone in pressure points. Her voice rasped disharmony; eyes and aura demonic as Galadriel in the One Ring’s presence; a fury the likes of which Daniel Ozell had never met.

Just over her shoulder was a still of Paul, glowing, smiling.

“Choose now, Daniel Ozell; your life or your son.”

Paul’s face burned his eyes. Steel punctured his throat ever-so slightly. Blood trickled beneath the collar of his armor. Ket could kill him without hesitation, mercy, or fear of reprisal; Ozell’s system needed her a fuckuvalot more than him.

The blade pressed deeper, forcing him to block out everything until only two things remained; Paul’s face, and Daniel’s fears of its suffering. At times it was unavoidable, but so long as he lived, he’d live and die first as father and Guardian. If Ket, force of nature and power she was, demanded his blood for his son’s, she knew his choice already.

His neck stiffened until the blade cut deeper. “I would die to protect my son. If you’re my executioner, so be it, but I’ll take no less in trade.”

She flung the knife aside, rolled off him and onto her feet in one move. She faced away from him, panting slightly– from exertion, it seemed. In reality, something far more powerful was the cause. It left her reeling. Ozell didn’t know it yet, but both would come to understand it better in time.

She about-faced, recomposed, and offering his pistol back. “If you find N1T3, rest assured what comes was preordained by your system. For good or ill.”

Ozell mind was lost for moments. Then he found himself on his feet, moving. Fleeing from something primal, like excitement but deeper, more dangerous. It was a knowing one had before a moment of great action, where all things secured await only proper leverage to catapult time and history along.

Daniel Ozell’s world was long past the tipping-point. Now, he and it would be falling at terminal speeds.

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Guardians of Liberty: Part 16

16.

Two for Flinching

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

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

They sensed they were all unaware of it then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It went something like this:

Start. Sensory boot: intake.

The first steps inside: POST.

Hardware/environment assessment.

Mode-cycle switch: engage.

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

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

Such nonchalance and smug arrogance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Ozell existed to kill them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ket’s right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guardians of Liberty: Part 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?