Maxx stumbled like a loose boulder down Lombard street, baying obscenities and bumping into cars and trash cans like a newly fired prison guard nestling into a drunken rage. The looters and domestic abusers paused to peek out barred windows, their quarrels momentarily upstaged by thunder waking a banshee chorus of car alarms. A fourteen year old mugger paused mid-assault to gawk, the old female victim hobbling away.
“Jesus, he’s really apeshit this time.” Krash ducked behind a mound of rubble, instinctively. “Maybe we should tranq him.”
“Let Herr Steppenwolf go,” I said, peering out from a paneless window opening in the Kennedy High ruins.
“Damn bitch fucking machine!” Maxx blasted a bioaugmented fist into the soft aluminum underbelly of one of the automated street cleaners, knuckle structures bouldered with synthetic phosphate sank in to the elbow. The bot vomited two dollars worth of recyclables, a fountain of plastic bottles and cans splashing onto the street. The metal drudge twitched like a buggy video game animation.
“Sir, you are in violation of Blue County Enclave law, article 4, section 12, clause 45: ‘tampering with and/or destruction of waste disposal units is strictly-“
Its speech was interrupted by a hurled ‘Ameribank City Times’ e-news kiosk to the face, crushing the gunmetal dome of its head and nearly knocking the five hundred pound cleaner off its treads. Maxx followed up with a universal vending machine, its 3d printing circuitry and raw powdered polyethelene spilling out as Max gorilla-pressed the dishwasher-sized unit onto the machine’s head.
“Robot fucka, you take ‘em the job!” Maxx fumed
Twin mandibles ejected from the bot’s concaved square navel, cobalt zig zags of electricity snarling, hungry for flesh. But the damaged stun appendage was too slow. Maxx grabbed the shaft of the stinger in both hands, yanking back while simultaneously booting the crumpled chrome torso in a one-legged dropkick. The stun prod burst free, the dismembered bot hemorrhaging sparks.
“What the hell is he doing? That bot is a Janetrics auto-janitor. That’s Blue County Enclave property. The replicants and drones are going to swarm down here like flies on shit.” Krash Koarse commented.
“Yes, precisely. Bugs to the light. We’re going long on a Trafalgar gambit.” I punched Philacrat’s handle into the black glass of my Hexpad, preceded by an “@”. Encrypted deeper than ICBM submarine transmissions or a megabank’s insider-trading memo, the VoIP signal crept across a dark suitcase-internet we’d set up on the fly. Custom DNS protocols woven across low-amp directional transceivers, an ad-hoc network of phones held together by black silk, camouflaged beneath a canopy of nearby home and business WiFi fields. Phantoms in a moonless night.
“You’re in position,” I asserted into a bone mic. Bright waves of static broke, waned. To minimize signal footprint, we had to operate always hanging from the precarious ledge of one bar’s connectivity; an inch away from dead air, an inch away from the unblinking gaze drawn by CyberSec’s network of ultra-wide spectrum nodes, massive omni-directional electron microscopes scouring the digital spirit-world. Despite all the civil libertarian and cutesy-anarchist teen whining over the Big Brother tendencies of the public school system, the panopticon, much like life, only got worse after graduation into the real world.
“I’m prepared. Carpe noctem!” Philacrat’s voice was tinny and distant, but decipherable. It was only a matter of time now.
‘Public law enforcement is needless Big Government waste. What we need is more efficient private security,’ the political puppets and asshole-chewing pundits had jawed on the infotainment Polititubes at every microsecond opportunity. Then everyone discovered the joys of police departments run by “the free market”. Rampant assault, looting, theft, murder, societal disintegration, and CyberSec wouldn’t lift a robotic finger. A twelve year old white girl could be getting gang-raped on their door mat and the ‘cops’ would just look away, pretend it was a lost songbird or someone watching rough porn too loud. But touch any of the ultra-rich’s toys and you could guarantee they would throw a tantrum, come down on you Peoples’ Republic of China-style with a ten-block APB, a fiat death warrant, and a self-issued license to kill.
“Watch the 30-60 ghz spectrum.” I whispered to Krash.
By this time, the distress signal broadcasted by Maxx’ totaled street cleaner bot would’ve repercussed from cell tower to cell tower along a 6G nervous system to CyberSec’s AI brain, pinging its digital nociceptors, registering pain, like a stubbed toe nail. Reflexively, the system would glance down, and squeeze.
“Nothing yet. It’s silent out there.”Krash waved his frequency meter around like a wand, as if it might improve sensitivity.
“Just wait for it.” We waited. And waited. Then, impossibly, an eye of silence opened up. The ambient brown noise of warfare, the debris-rattling tremors from RPGs and Jericho missiles died down, as if the great mother-ship gadget in the sky had interrupted its military campaign against the underclasses to focus all its googolplex-hertz processing power on this new nugget of anomalous stimuli. “Recalculating”, the god-sized Mrs. Garmin voice would mumble to herself with a sour ennui, forced to stray from her optimal warpath for killing the tired, the poor, and the downtrodden in a manner PR-friendly enough to appease the Euro-liberal biz partners’ bleeding hearts. Time dilated under the rapt tension into what felt like days, and then we waited more. A gust of wind knocked a charred brick of paper, that used to be a dictionary, off a shelf, to splatter like black sand on the dull marble floor of the library’s foyer. Krash was so startled he nearly fell over.
A mosquito zoomed past my ear, hovering there, a thin, barely perceptible whine. I raised a hand to swat it, but the sound remained.
“Do you hear that?” Krash’s wide eyes revealed whites above and below the iris, as if straining to evolve night vision. In the murky geometry of night it was impossible to be certain, but the JFK statue centerpiecing the courtyard seemed to have shifted. The new rear-angle view revealed a yawning hole in the posterior of the stone head, ugly and assymetrical, like an exit wound. The King of Camelot had turned to face Maxx.
“Uhhh, Spook, something’s wrong, I’m getting interference clouding in from all directions.”
“That’s no interference. That’s them.”
“It’s a swarm of encrypted wireless communications in those frequencies. Jesus, they’re everywhere, I can’t pinpoint a location.” Krash panicked.
In the four hundred to seven hundred terahertz spectrum of human-visible light there were no obvious changes in scenery. The only movement was the fluttering of somber smoke curtains pouring from the windows of a Sharper Image. The useless moon-phase clocks, Gernsbeckian fusion powered nail trimmers, and other diamond encrusted deco lining shelves in the shop of immortality symbols were left conspicuously unconsumed by malcontented rioters. They were instead arsonized as effigies, spiteful desecrations of Pharaoh’s sarcophagus.
The radiofrequency spectrometer, however, was peaking with action; read like an infrared scan of a haunted house. Ghostly chartreuse halos representing wireless EM-fields abounded in every direction, an ubiquitous miasma of digital ectoplasm misting the cityscape. Infrared spycams perched atop every telephone pole like invisible gargoyles. The bumpers of cars, storefronts, trash cans, fire hydrants emitted CyberSec-signature patterns. Random bypassers and even the tar-faced, bundled up middleclass-turned-street people were radiating that sallow green electric contagion. Their gadgets or bioware might’ve been infected via a worm disguised as a Gnossis or Totech security update. Or perhaps they were bugged by a smart RFID, clandestinely installed in a clothing label. District Ten slum kids, wiretapped by knockoff “Wallstreeta” brand charcoal suits tailored with a hoodie – those postmodern symbols of cross-class solidarity between looters of the 711-shoplifting and pension/wage-stripping variety. Purchased (or more likely nabbed) at a BankstaBling mall franchise. Or worse: any one of the green dots could’ve been an actual CyberSec human undercover agent.
“Fucking hell on a stick…” Krash stared. He looked like he wanted to put a bullet in the screen, curl fetal in a dark corner.
The San Francisco Ashlands were a trainwreck; out-of-control cartel-capitalism and technological acceleration had head-on-collided, and the economic fallout had leveled the city like a slow-motion hydrogen bomb. But, over time, you discover that any place can come to feel like a neighborhood – looters, dick sucking ex-lawyers, bonfired Sharper Images, class hot-wars and all. It’s fucked dystopia, but it’s your fucked dystopia. So seeing the omnipresence of surveillance, of enemy fingers firmly lodged in the digital membranes of people, places and things you passed by daily, it was sickening. Like the first time you snuck one of your eyelashes under a microscope and were horrified to discover whole kingdoms of eight-pinchered Cronenberg-esque microcreatures nesting in your pores, devouring each other, having grody microbe sex, right on your iris. The Secret Life of Parasites. And the wave of fear came with a harder chaser of betrayal, like being punched down through delta sleep straight into the climax of a nightmare, your evil ex sleeping with your newly lesbian fiancé. Krash reeled away from the image. Looked to me, as if I could make the boogeyman that was real go away, somehow.
“WuhTehFuh this is so blirked, man! SO not cool! They’re like, fucking everywhere!”
“Yes. Get used to it.” I said.
Then, a glimpse of Roswell chrome, catching a crimson glint against the Hiroshima sky. A penumbra of smoke, rebelling against the prevailing winds. The anomalous cloud grew larger, closer, spreading out like a thin film of oilslick across the dark expanse between the silhouette of the old Benz and Nobel building and a boarded up Virtual Reality theater complex. It might’ve been a computer-generated insect swarm, leaked into reality from some sci-fi kitsch apocalypse. A plague of electric locusts, descending to strip the physical world of its rich fields of data. The CyberSec eye bore down, endlessly.
Krash backed away from the window, loosing his footing in a pile of rubble that used to be a library, toppled on his ass. “Oh shit, shit, shit. This is all going fubar man. This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening, I can’t go to a re-education labor camp!” He looked like he would’ve started having an asthma attack, if the little gestalt of medical nanotech in his bloodstream hadn’t already pre-emptively remedied it with a toilet flush of anti-inflammatory serums and corticosteroids.
“Just breath, kid. Empty your mind. Focus. Remember the training. We’ve been through this mission a thousand times. Get your mask on.” Krash got to his feet, fishing in the inner breast pocket of his knockoff Matrix trenchcoat for the micro LED filament, almost dropping it with his fear-palsied hands. He applied the clear plastic towel to his face, the fabric automatically sealing over his nose, eyebrows, chin, like a second skin. The “nohface” was a custom digifab, highly illegal, as any tool capable of thwarting universal surveillance systems had become. The megapixel arrays converted the human face into a screen, from which pre-programmed images could be projected, like electric makeup. Anything from subtle plastic surgery to Island of Dr. Moreau anthropomorphism to full bala-clava incognito could be simulated, altered in milliseconds. In the age of omnipresent facial-rec, the nohface was 21st century resistance movement war paint, standard issue Hex-Gen equipment.
“How’s this?” The mask powered on black, like staring into the face of a light-eating void. Krash tweaked a dial on a hip-mounted controller. Krash’ headlessness flipped like a TV channel into Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden, the ensemble completed with a Fight Club black eye, digitally airbrushed onto Krash’s newly squared cheekbone and jaw.
“No, definitely no.”
“Why not? This is totally on-message with Hex Gen, right? Anarchy now? Crash the System?”
I shook my head patiently. “Look, Krash, I’ve been in this subversive hacktivist thing long enough to know that while it’s fun putting on Jeff Bridges and living out a Tron lightcycle fantasy being high speed chased by pursuing corporatist ‘headless horsemen’ autobikes, universal recognition is a death wish, and for fucks sake, no celebrities. Might as well paint a target on your BioIP and scream, ‘dissapear me’. If I had a TorrentBuck for every angry misfit Hex-Gen kid hauled away into a black unmarked van while nohfaced as Guy Fawkes or Che, I could pay down the national debt.”
Krash Koarse sighed, fiddled with the settings at his waist again. The nohface transmuted his visage into someone less globally starpowerful. If anything, it bore a vague resemblance to a young Bill Paxton. Private “Game Over Man!” Hudson. Fitting.
“Do you really think I’m ready?” Paxton clone in twenty pounds of trendy artificial leather gave me that look that baby eagles give their mothers just before they try to jump out of the nest, swan dive into the real world.
“Sure, don’t worry about it. Just follow my lead and you’ll do fine.” The lie tasted like battery acid coming out. These kids barely had their pacifier apps out of their mouths. They had been pressurecooked through the training, most clocking not more than six hours of simulated mission. In a liquidated Untied States Postal Service warehouse they’d played glorified laser tag with non-adaptive crashtest dummies among stacks of unused Blockbuster DVDs and fab-obsolesced Ikea furniture, breaking into last-gen systems with pre-cooked turnkey hacker tools. Then they were handed a HexPad, thrown headfirst into a field op, lambs to the slaughter. ‘It wasn’t my call’, I said to myself over and over. Guess Enclave officers should’ve been thankful that android La Femme Nikitas and Mech Warriors were zealously fighting all their wars foreign and domestic, cause I don’t know how I’d ever sleep again after sending a squad of pimply faced teenagers into a warzone to get blown to pieces by RPGs and IEDs.
I secured my own guise, cool polymer tighter yet lighter than your standard gas mask rebreather. Which we also had on hand, as a precaution against mace, tear gas, mycotoxin, micron-scale smart dust delivered in aerosol form capable of installing neural Trojan viruses for synaptic espionage, brainwave pattern manipulation. The usual counterinsurgency security force’s non-lethal weapons of choice. What doesn’t kill you makes you a forced-labor slave.
My default nohface mask was nothing special Being the son of a Jewish-Tahitian hippy Bay Area girl and an anglo-Iranian East Coast powersuit means you’re already rocking that chameleonic melatonin and multi-hemisphere facial structure that is as easily mistaken and forgotten by brains of any ethnicity. A color easily the sun-etched Micronesian janitor as the spray-on tanned CEO of Silverman Barclays Bank. So for me it’s just a matter of hashing my cheekbone code, becoming differently anonymous. Yeah, a half-century of a globalized mobilized world means the only minorities are the people who tick off a single ethnicity on the census. Brown is the new black, master races and monocultures are dead; long live Polyworld. Deal with it and move on.
A tap at my Adam’s Apple switched on the vocal equivalent of the nohface, the intra-laryngeal formant morpher, ILFM. I performed a mic check.
“The rain in Spain falls mainly on the masses.” The camouflaged voice projected like a 30% more Hispanic Doppleganger of myself, subtle intonation and stress shifts, vowels nip-tucked tighter into the nasal cavity.
“It still sounds like you, like you doing a bad Tony Montana accent with a head cold,” Krash commented skeptically.
“To a human ear? Sure. To a massive network intelligence’s voiceprint ID that uses precise cataloging of exact vocal cavity characteristics and articulation idiosyncrasies? I’m a completely different vocal chord, could be a talking parot for all it knows. For a digital pattern recognizer, it’s like a Discman trying to read a scratched CD.”
The vacant stare was right at home on his Paxton face. “What the hell is a CD?” Leave it to hyperbolic technological change to obsolesce your best analogies into meaninglessness.
“Forget it. Leeloo, talk to me,” I stretched index and thumb apart on my Hex Book, pulling open a live feed narrowcasting direct from Leeloo’s lens-cams.
“Spook, just in time. Looks like the heavenly hosts are closing in on Maxx.” The audio was garbled to the brink of incomprehensibility. It was like talking through a long metal pipe into a cell phone that had been in the wash. Through the window, it was apparent the airborne oilslick of flocking drones had indeed ensconced Maxx in the eye of the hurricane.
“Any replicants, leviathans, heavy artillery inbound yet?” I asked, channel surfing Leeloo’s feed from visible light through infrared to wifi, checking for signs of the real skull-crackers.
“No big boys yet, no. The usual badget suspects.” My quick survey confirmed the riff raff bestiary of locusts, wasps, occasional quadrupedal cerberus drone prowling in concentric circles like dire wolves around the “crime scene”.
I muted the mic, turned to Krash, “Initiate a direct link to Leeloo, forward a livestream back to her of the 4d grid highlighting CyberSec agents.”
“I’m on it.” Krash slipped on his black haptic gloves. With a framing hand gesture, he collapsed the relevant quadrants of the feed to the size of a postage stamp, flicked it like a shuriken to delivered it priority post-haste to the port indicated by Leeloo’s nuclear-red haired anime avatar. The active Cybersec network forces in the vicinity were mapped isometrically, an aerial fMRI of the area code, malignancies highlighted bright red.
“Um, problem? I thought this was supposed to be video.” The map was a still, the timestamp in the upperleft frozen at 12:58:01. The image was pixellated, but gradually becoming less Tetroid, like the digital equivalent of a Polaroid developing.
“No, no, that’s way too hi-def, we’re not playing Call of Duty: Tunis Siege here. Keep the resolution low, down to wireframe preferrably, max compression, updating at 1.5 frames-per-second. We’re trying to run cryogenic, low radio footprint. We don’t want to clog the mesh net’s intertubes with superfluous packets.”
“Um, right.” Krash dialed down the video appropriately. It was like watching a slideshow, but it got the critical information across: picspeak. The lo-fied RF map stream of the inbound drone swarms resembled the hour-by-hour progression chart of a category-5 hurricane on a weather channel as it methodically disassembled the Eastern Corridor into heaps of wet debris, zip code by zip code.
“Leeloo, you receiving this?” Krash asked.
“Holy Orwells, Batman, it’s crawling with herpes. Maxx must’ve hit Goldemann and Barclay’s favorite Roomba,” Leeloo said, physically halting as she received the bad but real news. The CyberSec robot army was built for max invisibility, built to blend into people’s paranoia, hide beneath the kinks in human psychology. You’d as soon dismiss sightings as pigeons or latch onto UFO theories. And if you weren’t looking for them -- and a Generation Hex operative worth his or her salt damn well should be – then they’d likely never even taint your daily stream of consciousness. Even if you had your telescope out watching for the spiraling galaxies of swarm drones, you’d only ever see a small fraction of what was really out there, miss all that dark matter, making up the silent, brooding majority. Hex Genners knew it was there, but it never made being confronted with the visceral visual reality any easier.
I held the HexBook up to the window, watching a clutch of forensics and repair bots skulk like spiders of fluted aluminum across the smoking carbonic slag that used to be Sharper Image air purifiers and palladium-cast “personal stock trading” gadgets. They coagulated on the mangled, bisected corpse of the janitorbot, their fallen machine brethren, concerned myriads of cameras and sensors blooming from their thoraxes like colonies of soap bubbles. After a rapid triage, forelimbs fanned out into a Swiss army of arc welders, pliers, cable splicers, cutting away totaled sections of the janitor, to be melted down as scrap and refined, reincarnated. Severed, sparking cables, like broken bundles of sphagetti, were stripped of their rubber tubing, grafted together by lengths of copper wire spooled from the arachnoid mouths like silk. A quadruple-bypass on the machine’s nervous and cardiovascular system. Watching the scene, you had to wonder how much longer the human species’ own thread of fate would last, before the self-sustaining, self-replicating, ever more intelligent silicon race would leave us in the dust, before these mecha-Moirae cut the Homo Sapiens dynasty’s evolutionary string, and Skynet took over. Then you noticed one of the spiders dry humping a firehydrant thanks to buggy programming and you remembered the doomy omphaloskepsis was exaggerated and counterproductive, like weeping over the electric calculator out-arithmeticking mathematicians. The CyberSec machine ERT team did not look particularly happy with Maxx, although that was probably just apophenia, some deep-evo human agent-detection reflex projecting emotional disposition and motive onto functionally programmed behavior – there was no “feeling” there, just the eternally spinning cogs of CPU cycles churning through the pre-determined bytes of mission parameters. The humming clockwork insects and the occasional larger finned torpedos glided in and out of view like sharks drifting by a glass portal in an aquarium.
“Uhh, Spook, I’m pinging some inbound bogeys. Bigger, different signatures. Approaching from the North West, thirty meters,” Krash edged back unconsciously from the as-yet unseen threat. Sentient smoke, drifting in on some malevolent breeze like invisible, scentless radon gas. “Leeloo do you have a visual?”
“Nothing yet, Krash. Just the swarms.” The Sharper Image fire had by now put out a thick blanket of haze. We peered out the window, and could make out the flag pole at this point. The fog of economic war was thickening.