Monday, February 6, 2012

Terminus Machina: World Building

“We need to relocate.” Krash and I played shadow hopscotch as we made our way out of the foyer toward the rear of the Kennedy High library. Clinging to a golden banister blemished copper to avoid the collapsed section of staircase, on through the dustbin of the cobweb-condemned history section, wiping spider silk from our nohfaces. The air reaked of mildew and urine, so thick you could taste it. In the nebulous dark I stumbled over one of the crumbled rotten book cases, lying In heaps of cellulose compost. The book shelf was strangely warm and moaned something in a language I didn’t understand, grabbed my heel. I shook it off and didn’t look back.

We passed a cracked, vandalized marble bust of the library’s benefactor. The face unearthed memories of news reports as a kid, some billionaire bank CEO turned Treasury Secretary turned hedge fund manager. I remembered dad spreading open a Time Magazine, seeing that face with the hurricane-proof hair splashed across the front, captioned, “Captain America: How one banker saved the economy from certain collapse.”

“Now it’s people like that that make the world go round. Son, when you grow up, you’re going to be just like him,” I remember dad telling me before he skipped town on a two-month business trip from Beijin to London, connecting through New York. Big time economics conferences, meetings on buildings taller than Everest centered on “Liberalizing labor markets”, “shoring up the banking system”, some such white-shoe obscurantia I didn’t understand. He left without a word, like he was just stepping out to pick up eggs or something. Mom had made dinner for three, we Saran Wrapped the leftovers.

“Your father’s just busy taking care of us. He’s a very busy man. We should just be thankful he’s still employed in this abysmal economy,” mom said, gobbling down her spinach casserole faster than I’d ever seen.

Weeks later, the same banker’s quadrillion dollar derivatives scheme swung back like a wrecking ball from its rampage in Europe, sovereign debt and currency bubbles exploding like long-hidden festering boils, dominoes tumbling across the Autobon, through the English Chanel, crushing the United States economy, like a Texas-sized comet. The Greatest Nation on Earth disintegrated rapidly, the underlying stronghold of the real economy already termite eaten by oursoutcing and opportunist financial moguls into a house of debt cards held together by fraud, lies, and fiat-paper mache. Hundreds of millions starved to death during the simultaneous food bubble when rice and wheat shot up ten-fold due to commodity speculation and High-Frequency market manipulation, resource wars broke out on four continents, Hotel Rwanda to the nth degree. As the third world downgraded to “hell”, the first world took their place. Unemployment doubled, wages halved, benefits became non-existent, executive compensation exploded by magnitudes. Everyone worth less than a hundred million became a permanent debt surf of the new feudal bank lords. The great financial extinction event. The banker of course was awarded hundreds of billions in bonuses and insider-traded IPO stock for his successful economic genocide, won a Nobel Prize, and was elected POTUS the following year. His first act as president was to permanently eliminate all financial regulation of any kind, with the signing of the Gass-Steel act, referred to spitefully by all but the super-elite as the “Cash Stealing Act.” Time Magazine named him Person of the Century, newsmedia enshrined him as the second coming of Jesus Christ. In academia, he was Sutter’s Mill circa 1849, bleary-eyed economists rushing to stake claims to swaths of his biography, polish every leveraged buy out and monetary policy action he shit out into a dissertational nugget of fool’s gold. Faulson, that was his name. Harry Faulson. He was assassinated two years later in his Imperial suite, headshot, by some vigilante sniper in a vampire hunter getup. A quadruple-tour Navy Seal, went batshit after the government cut all military benefits and he couldn't get his meds. Urban legend is, the sniper was the same Seal who killed Osama Bin Laden. I kicked the marble statue over to splatter into a pile of arborous mush.

“You’re right. I’m thinking about relocating to the moon,” Krash said, dusting sawdust and charcoal from his trench.

“Helium three prospecting is in a boom on the dark side, last I heard, if you don’t mind learning Mandarin. Updates on the CyberSec sigs?”

“They’ve stopped for the moment, still in the A2 quadrant.”

“Looks like they’ve found someone late on their smartphone mortgage payments,” Leeloo chimed in through the darknet voice-chat.

“Do they know we’re here?” Krash asked.

“Unlikely. Probably just a routine area code ‘system scan’. Rooting out and ‘quarantining’ as many Ashlanders as they can. The more they eliminate the less to resist.”

“That’s fucking awesome, man. Great timing, right in the middle of the op.”

We emerged into one of the actual Kennedy High classrooms. The far end had completely collapsed, Volkswagon-sized boulders of concrete had sealed off the rear entrance. Pale red moonlight poured in through the artificial cavern, lighting dust motes like floating fire embers, and rainwater spilling from twisted rebar like droplets of blood. All of the three-inch glass windows remained intact giving good and secure visibility of the street, and with a single entrance, the room was an ideal dugout.

Which is probably why a group of Ashlanders had already gathered there. A nurse in torn scrubs hovered over a man in a suit, bleeding out from the hip, laid on a stretcher of arrayed student desks. His formerly white office shirt, dyed grey by District Ten struggle, had become a bloodsoaked rag, which the nurse cut away with the diminutive snips of a pastel-handled round-tipped preschool scissors, borrowed from one of the desks scaled for five year olds.

“Press here,” she instructed, moving the man’s hand from his side to the site of the wound, which drooled blood that pooled on the desk and snaked in rivulets down one of its tarnished chrome legs. Bleach white and glistening with sweat he was in no condition to do anything. Very tall, anglo-cut features, and even through the grime and gore and incapacitation, something about his posture smelled of money. Of old New England money, out prospecting the West Coast, caught with its pants down in a San Francisco earthquake. There was a certain morbid dignity, a sort of WASP thanatos, as if more unbearable than the searing pain or the fear of knowing death might clinch the deal at any moment was the thought of being seen without a clean shirt, vermillion tie, and freshly washed hair.

There were eight or ten altogether, difficult to make out in the dark and clutter. A late-fifties man in jeans and a tool belt patched together from seatbelts was examining the transmission of a hovped, a mag-lev moped designed to run on the Bay Area’s modified magnetic cable-car grid. A girl with a leopard-print Mohawk was stripping copper wire from the classroom’s long-dead telephone and DSL cables, using it to rewire what was probably a photovoltaic array piped in from the roof to a washing machine-sized cache of lithium-air batteries. Some spare chessboard-sized monocrystaline panels lay canted against a long-defunct smartboard. They had a small lamp, device charging station, and a stove hooked up to an AC current inverter. An athletic twenty-something in spandex was hard at work pumping a stationary bike spinning an auxillary turbine generator. No doubt the smoke and haze in the atmosphere would be cutting into the solar energy quota, requiring anthro-power to keep the lights on in their little Temporary Autonomous Zone, burning elbow and knee grease to compensate.

“What’s the read on them.”

“They’ve got one node broadcasting on Ashland channels, and their BioIPs are all quiet.” Krash said, tapping a bright blue dot on his Hex Pad.

“Good.”

The biker noticed us peering in through their window first. “Company!” He called out. Heads snapped toward us like magnets. I swore I heard a metallic clink but couldn’t tell from where it came. A beretta, if I had to guess. Sports Authority surplus. Special Urban Decay Sale on all tag colors, one hundred percent off.

“We’re cool, with World Class War too. Just keep calm, carry on,” I said, putting my hands up in the universal signal for unarmedness. Krash followed suit.

The nurse, mocha-black, and apparently the leader or at least spokeswoman finished tieing up a row of fishing line stitches along the WASP’s side where his pancreas would’ve been, squinted at us in the dark.

“Words is cheap, nowadays. Show us the sigs,” she said.

“Sending now. On 1.3 gigahertz,” I elbowed Krash, who initiated the wireless authentication sequence with our brand new friends’ machines.

“1.3? That’s goddamn prehistoric,” the nurse crossed her arms skeptically.

“The Watchful Eyes are not big on history,” I said.

A freckled, nine year old girl wearing a blue dirt-mottled ribbon on her head dialed numbers into a brushed chrome laptop, waterproofed with polyethelene.

“Theyww wisted in the wegistwy. Wooks good.” The little girl smiled a missing tooth grin, giving a thumbs up. The nurse sidelonged the screen, then stared at us through wide scrutinizing eyes, whites bright as maglights against her dark skin.

“You here for that delivery from HQ?” The nurse wiped blood from her gloves on a rag of cull Armani suit.

“No idea what you’re talking about.”

“Then how the hey-yull you know we’s World Class War? You got an app for that?”

Krash and I looked at each other. A white lie seemed in order. “Let’s just call it a lucky hunch. What matters is we’re on the same side.” I kept my face blank. Or, more precisely, our nohfaces projected the blankness of some other individual’s face. Physical avatars. Thankfully, in the caliginous lighting of a small wall-mounted LED tube light and the cold blue glow of a couple LCD screens, they had not yet sussed that we were wearing electronic identity masks. The compact fluorescent bulbs screwed into the ceiling had all burnt out. The nurse clucked her tongue.

“Fine. Welcome to our humble commune. Sorry we haven’t got any Coors or some shit but there’s water in the tap, just make sure you’ve got yourself a strong constitution or some antibiotics on hand. The giardia’s a bitch.” She pointed to a twenty gallon plastic catchment barrel, covered in handles. Spliced together from used gallon-jug milk containers, soldered at the hip, the water reservoir’s shape was suggestive of a giant Alice in Wonderland raspberry.

“Charmed. If it’s alright we’ll just lay low for a bit. You may want to as well, there’s a whirlwind a reapin’,” I said.

“Aliyah,” the black nurse said.

“Excuse me?”

“Aliyah. That’s me. They don’t teach you manners where you’re from?”

I hesitated. These were friendlies, for most intents and purposes, but, given our delicately complex situation, we had to finesse a tightrope: too little openness and we’d alienate, too much sharing and we’d compromise everything. We had to opt carefully for the privacy setting sweet spot.

“Perhaps it’s best we don’t use names. For your safety.” This put a yawning chasm in the conversation punctuated at one point five second intervals by the tinny plops of dripping rainwater. Reminded me of that antediluvian Sprint commercial featuring a needle descending in time-lapsed high speed camera footage.

“No names?” Aliyah began at last. “What, you want us to call you ‘Anonymous1’ and ‘Anonymous2’? Spook and spooklet?” I perked up at that comment, although I made sure not to twitch my nose or let slide any other tells. How could she have known my alias? Not possible, had to be just a coincidence.

“What the fuck group are you muthafuckers with? I suggest you tell us now.” Now I could see the barrel of the pistol aimed at us, throwing shards of silver specularity from a dark corner behind cardboard boxes. The gun cocked, and the hand that cocked it was shaking. Whoever was holding it either had Klumpke’s Paulsy or was nerved to fuck. Now would be a seriously fucking pathetic time to get shot dead, by a bunch of alternativist composters, no less. No sense having another bloody accident; the one-woman healthcare system in this microcosm was an overloaded skeleton crew as it was.

“We’re Hex Gen,” I admitted. The Mohawk girl and her dad made a face that was half scowl, half fear. Aliyah frowned. Oh good, I’d made it worse.

“Hex Gen? Holy shit, then you really are spooks. It’s the goddamn FBI in the house,” the Mohawk chick said, wiping some cold sweat from her brow. The others had started to get up, circle. Like they were working up the courage to ask for our autographs or something. Like they’d just accidentally walked through the fourth wall onto the set of some caper novel technothriller. Not terribly far from the truth, really.

“Look, we don’t intend to stay long,” I said, walking over to one of the double-reinforced windows, taking a survey of the street. No sign of the drone army.

“Oh no? Got some ‘leet haxxing’ to do? Some banks to rob? Start another bloodbath in the middle of a peaceful protest?” Mohawk had gone cherry red in the face, tanktop bobbing rapidly as she hyperventilated. Something about the way her black-sleeved white-bodied longsleeve t-shirt hiked up over her pudgy belly just read to me as “mad lesbian”, but perhaps that was my liminal inner lawyer trying to auto-degrade her in retaliation for her verbal assault.

“Mila, slow yo roll, girl,” Aliyah fired up her best alpha-bitch glare at Mohawk, who relented, loosening her grip on her two-inch-thick wrench, much to Krash’s relief. “Some of us here, see, take some ‘issue’ to your ‘tactics.’ We don’t want any of that black voodoo cloak-n-dagger stuff around here,” Aliyah continued.

Now I don’t know what hard kidney stone of stupid courage that comment dislodged, but the next moment I found myself inches away from pissing out a major rant, “What, as opposed to aiding and abetting the very Blue Blood fucking scum that put us in this situation?” I cast an accusatory finger at the bloodied WASP being attended by Aliyah. He seemed to have stabilized and was tuned into the increasingly exacerbated dialog, and was now smirking dismissively through a cut lip. His smug asshole-chewing sociopath smile, even on his death bed, so reminded me of dad. The kind of smile that says, “You know I have the biggest cock in the universe.” The kind of smile offered just before immolating a country with financial WMDs, and making billions betting on the collapse. The kind of smile that jets off into the wet electric murk of Los Angeles night in a platinum-plated Lamborghini roadster filled with Playboy models and tabloid-doll pop stars, going MIA for a fiscal quarter or two, as if stepping out for milk and eggs. A smile that flips coked-up penthouse party accidents into families, uses those families as tax breaks when they’re convenient, then sets them on fire and collects on the insurance at the first sign of trouble.

I wanted to pull the plug, I wanted to euthanize this cancer of the planet. The WASP’s bullet wound could easily be reopened with a few snips from Aliyah’s preschool scissors. No one would notice, or care, if one more tapeworm parasite was removed from the bowels of their collective system. The only thing that would change would be that 99% of the world’s population would have a few less billion dollars stolen from them each year, a little more food to eat, one less civilizational arsonist to tear down the fabric of their livelihoods.

“Look, back before the crash, me and my hubby, bless his soul, we lost everything. Lost our house to the bank, one a dem ‘robosigning foreclosure factories’. Lost our jobs to some Chinese tele-nurse from Gwang zow, then to some bucket of bolts automated health-a-majig. I was a nurse and – get this – they denied me health care cause they said my infertility was some bullshit ‘pre-existing condition’. But you know what? It don’t matter who you are, what you were before. We’s all jus people. If you be abiding by the community, then there ain’t no reason you should be turned away. You’ve got to love thine enemy, even when it be hard, just as the good lord said. Otherwise, we ain’t no better than the mothafuckin’ moneychangers runnin’ the temple.” Aliyah, to her credit, stood firm, next to the White Shoe piece of shit. She wiped his forehead with a torn strip of the Armani, took his temperature with an oversize playschool thermometer that had been magnetically secured to the front of the teacher’s desk.

“So I take it they didn’t go for the trade,” Aliyah questioned the WASP, shining an LED light into either of his eyes, checking dilation. “Just as well. Nobody gives up food around here.”

“I believe I made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. So instead of refusing it, they simply performed a hostile takeover. Why buy what you can steal?” White Shoe chortled to himself, a sound whimsical as champagne bubbles and spoiled wives in Tiffany’s.

“Don’t worry about it, you did your best, put yourself in harms way for the good of the group. That’s more than any of us can be askin,” Aliyah said.

White Shoe scoffed, “Well, it’s nothing like dealing and trading back on Wall Street. Quite a different, and more feral beast, it seems.” I guessed that the shark had attempted to perform a transaction of some kind with a less than savory gang squatting at the Pay Day Loans place. The same shark we’d seen limping out the front door painting the sidewalk bright red. He turned to face me, sizing me up with a brief, appraisal, as though examining a ring mounted with a small, not particularly precious gemstone.

“I applaud your work, Mr… Anonymous. Jamie, pleasure to meet you. It takes a rare caliber of balls, and an equally rare youthful idealism, to go head to head against the Captains of Industry.” The suit had sat up, with an obvious pain creasing his brows, but trying desparately to cloak the weakness in a veil of composure. Jamie? What kind of fucking Wall Streeter name is that?

“Captains of Industry? Don’t you mean the Robber Barons?” I bristled. Jamie tinkled that condescending laugh again.

“Why is it that you Plebians always insist on biting the very hands that feed you? The first world lifestyle was not built by lazy socialists walking around with signs demanding their handouts, but by the entrepreneurs, the business owners, the 1% who through free market enterprise do the hard lifting of building the economy, bringing prosperity, cars, abundant food, cures for terrible diseases, air conditioning, the other boons and comforts of modern society that were taken for granted. It is we who create the jobs you all pine for.” The suit turned his nose upward, or perhaps it was a natural state, a genetically upturned snout evolved under the selective social pressure of a classist northern Europe.

“Pure horseshit. Sure, entrepreneurship is great but the reality is 90% of the “economy” is croney/mafia-run oligopoly where a few major corporations and banks in collusion with the government control the markets, fixing or manipulating prices, busting unions, slaughtering competition in infancy. We’re in a world run by zombie banks – irrevocably bankrupt banks being reanimated with trodes of taxpayer credit lines jammed into their heads, eating the population left and right, turning every sovereign they bite with their toxic fraud teeth into another undead shambling Greece or Italy. If their actual stocks were ever marked-to-market, they would all instantly go under. All the money we've given in bailouts to the banks, instead of lending it to people they blow it on food and energy speculation resulting in impoverishment, use it to buy out of other failed banks becoming bigger to fail, and shower the rest on themselves. It’s been shown that for every dollar of wealth they produce, the top 0.1% destroys or steals seven dollars of wealth. You people are fundamentally vampires. This is the opposite of capitalism, of “free market enterprise”. This is just straight out serfdom, where the little peons slave away for the lords for crumbs of bread. And now they’ve got robots to slave instead, so they’re just trying to clean us off the map with drone Gestapo like so many bodies in their closet. So, kindly, go fuck yourself.”

The suit cackled with this sick condesendence, as if every word I had said had gone unheard, strained into the “unimportant person” box by a filter which human beings who obtain a certain degree of social power unfailingly tend to acquire, even the few good-hearted ones.

“Well I wouldn’t put it in quite those endearing terms, but, be that as it may, if we would like to move forward in this world, then we need to stop dwelling on the past, on what has been done, and focus on the future, which, like it or not, will involve the participation of the indivuals in power, these so called “vampires”, who are in a position to make the necessary changes to the admittedly broken system, or the system will never be changed at all.We built this World Class War movement on non-violent resistance over outright aggression. I would hate to see it all devolve into an all-out shoot-em-up massacre when we’re so close to real substantive change.”

“Well how’s the Ghandi gambit working out for you here so far? Blue County, Ameribank, you think the trillionaire immortals really give a rotting immigrant’s ass about whether you starve to death or die in the block-wide immolation of an A7 Inferno Missile drone strike? You think there’s a media channel broadcasting to more than a small underground ad-hoc network that they don’t have blacked out or under complete control? The open uncensored internet is a dead pipe dream. We’re all China now.”

“We have to take the high road. We need to stay organized and on the right side of history. If we can just elect representatives that actually represent our interests, change up how the government does business, that’s our best chance for a path to change.”

“Elect government representatives? Are you kidding me? What government? There is no government. There is no market. All I see is a lawless mob parading around in suit-n-tie, manipulating prices, bailing themselves out on the backs of the rest of us, ransacking the world, setting it on fire, shorting civilization and laughing to the bank as they buy up the ashes at pennies on the dollar. The techno-financial oligopoly has got every senator, congressman and administration since the turn of the century in their back pocket. Nobody gets elected without coming through the Old Boys network. Their campaigns are paid for by the megabanks and the campaign promises are paid for by the Fed’s endless money-printing firehose. President Vanderlyle, the FBI, regulators, congress, they all looked the otherway when Goldemann and Barclays dumped a quadrillion dollar, Jupiter-sized Stone of Sisyphus on our backs when it needed to illegally offload the entirety of it’s fraud-based garbage that landed us and our children in eternal debt servitude. When JP Morterman performed a leveraged buyout of the private prision industry, transforming it into a cradle-2-grave Gulag of forced labor for the permanent underclass of Morlocks, where was the government ‘by the people of the people for the people’? Why, they were off toasting in celebration with the CEO of JP Morterman, simping champagne from gold-sided fluted marble balconies next to the Trump Tower, chuckling lighthearted as the protesters on Wall Street were rounded up and shipped off to some abandoned coal mine-turned-sweatshop manufacturing iPad 8s and Nike shoes for the ret of their lives.. You can’t just rely on electing hens into the DC fox house. You’ve got to fight cyber-financial fire with cyber-financial fire.”

Aliyah butted in. “Fine, let’s just assume you’re right and we really need to start taking out the powers that be by hacking the planet. Just how do you propose we do that? We can barely churn out the power necessary to run out laptops which are by the way constantly blue screening, so how the heck are we supposed to launch any kind of “cyber assault?”

I grinned. “We’re working on altering the ‘chess board’ as it were. Our Hex Gen Hedge Fund arm has been outing hidden risk and toxicity, then applying reverse-capitalism to blow up the banksters with their own weapon of choice: short selling. We’ve already taken down Bernal Madison Bank, one of the New York Exchanges' largest and longest running frauds as a proof of concept. The surveillance state is a two-way mirror, and the ‘flow of capital’ is a two-way stream, if we harness it right.”

***

“Hi, I’m Lily.” Wiwwy. The girl looked up, eyes the color of Yukon sky and big as anime. Covering her cheeks and chin was an oval of crumbs stuck to some sugary residue, possibly fruit punch from powdered concentrate. She offered up a Tupperware cup filled with sweetened hummus crackers, presumably sourced from a roof farm. The glutinous bites were formed in the shape of Teddy Grahams. Everything about Lily suggested levels of unconditional love foreign to District Ten. It seemed impossible to me, that people could build family from the cinder and neglect that had once been the first world. Some deep, small part of me felt jealous of Lily. Growing up, mom and I’d had the perfect house on the Malibu hill, the perfect school, every Christmas present I’d ever asked for, yet I’d never had this, whatever it was. I’d never had home-baked cookies in my favorite shapes. Perhaps there was no other way but for the empty, lonely, psychotic world of financial paper and consumer plastic to burn to ash, in order for humanity to uncover and nurture the only assets of true value.

“Hi, Lily,” I responded. I gently shook my head at the proffered saccharine treats.

“You don’t have a name?” She puzzled, gazing up at me almost sadly, as if there were a hole in me, a clockwork pump where a heart should have been.

“I do, but it’s a secret. You know about secrets, don’t you, Lily?”

She brightened, silvery eyes set in clear whites blooming like moons. “Oh, yes! I wuv seekwets! Ok, we will keep the seekwet name.” She sank momentarily into thought, tapping her lip. “But you know what you shood do? You should wite down yoh secret name.”

“And why is that?” I asked.

“Well, whenevuw I keep a seekwet, I awways end up fowgetting what it was. So maybe you shuld wite down yoh name so that you don’t fowget who you are,” Lily stretched out her little hand, small and delicate, and patted me on my chest, smiling like a cherub. I processed that for a few moments. Kids, darndest things.

Lily returned to hammering away at her little virtual keyboard, a translucent red hologram QWERTY projected by a cylinder of tarnished silver. Diminutive conic fingertips straining to reach shift and numerical keys reminded me of my own first solipsistic forays into the more arcane worlds of computer engineering. It was a modded Quantron VX4 machine, an oldie, but a goodie. Probably left in an auto-café somewhere by a Pluto running for his potentially immortal life when the World Class War mortared IEDs and cyberattacks started shellacking the Planned Cities.

“’Liyah says I has a God-given knack foh the computuh. I think I am pwetty good but I need to pwactice mowe on my keys. I know how to watuh the plants wif my lappie, watch!” Lily beamed, almost fluorescent with pride, as she punched up a window filled with an array of Lego-modular code-blocks. Playschool C# programming. She tapped the screen on the lime green “start” button, initiating a string of visual executable code, and we watched a hexagonal drip-system begin sprinkling an array of mustard cabbage and choy sum greens.

“That’s great work, kid. You’re meant for great things.” I said, trying to think of something usefully inspirational to say without feeling too corny. Pretty much just thought of the opposite of what dad would do.

“’Liyah says, on the Eighth day, after God finished resting, God got bored, and so he made technowogy. But he couldn’t see if it was good or not, not yet. He’s waiting foh us to pwove that it wasn’t a bad idea. She says we bwoke the Garden with technowogy, and now we have to use our technowogies, wike the computuh, to make the Garden all better again.” The program automatically shut off the aqua-feed, like a careful gardener, CPU timer awaiting the next scheduled artificial rain. Goddamnit. Every time I’d just managed to convince myself that the world had long turned into one giant Gomorrah-cesspool of sociopathic greed-obsessed assholes who would happily press a button to nuke a village if it meant another million in their bank account, and the hopelessly brainless net-tards like Krash Koarse who suffer the blast waves, I go and meet some kid like Lily, who cracks the cocoon of my cynicism and makes me go re-examine all my assumptions, and start giving a shit again. Son of a bitch, misanthropes can’t ever get a break.

Lily pulled something shiny out of a dirty pink backpack, with one of the shoulderstraps duct taped on. She waved it around in some schoolyard approximation of fencing, battling some invisible foe, big swoopy motor skills still in the development process.

“What you got there Lily?” I asked. She swung it around at me. I put my hands up, touchĂ©.

“This is my magic wand. Aliyah gave it to me. I use it to cast spewws and charms to keep away the demons. Just wike Hawwy.” Harry who? Oh, right. It was some sort of tinseled plastic dowel. Looked like a cheap tschotchke gimmick from a happy meal, put a smile on some kid’s face as he chomped down his four piece McNuggets, fished fries out of the recesses of a grease-stained paper bag.

“Demons?” I said. Lily continued practicing her sorcery moves.

“Yes, the demons. Dey are vewwy bad and have wed eyes and sharp nasty teef and dey come out at night. I used to be wittle and scawwed of the demons but now I am big and pwotect us from dem with my magic wand.”

“You’re very brave, Lily.” She frowned, the wand sank.

“I just wish I was bwave enough before. The demons tookeded my mommy and daddy when I was wittlewer, but I was too scawwed to help dem.” I could see Lily’s chin starting to twitch as she recalled something I didn’t mean to start. She looked like she was about to burst into tears, but then some other part of her forced them back. “I need to be strong. Dat is what Aliyah says. She is a good mommy number-two.” Lily tried to smile, her blue eyes reddened, began to leak. “I miss my mommy and daddy.” She felt even smaller than she looked as she cried on my collar.

***

Since I figured we would be squatting for a little while I figured I’d try to make myself useful, pull my weight a little. Mila was testing the current of one of her connections on an aquaponics setup powered by the mini-grid. A four hundred watt high pressure sodium bulb illuminating some non-gene-splice variety of floating plantlife in a fifty gallon drum, but she was having trouble getting the solar inputs to power the light.

“That’s a nice workup,” I opened, casually circling, admiring. The Mohawk didn’t turn, didn’t flinch at all. Only response was the neutering of a paired wire with a pliers. Cold War-ed. Awesome.

She kept making adjustments, poking the red and black feelers of a multimeter into various exposed sections of copper wiring, testing the juice.

“You know, if you just switch this here to a serial circuit,” I started. She looked up, cutting me off with a gaze that could ferment soybeans.

“I’m trying to build something here. You Hex Genner only know how to break things,” she resumed work and I backed off again, till I could summon my third pair of balls to be crushed.

“Really if you just bring down the voltage here-”

“Get the fuck away from me. Don’t tell me how to do my job,” she stood up, wiping her forehead, pointing a flux-coated soldering iron at me in accusation. A moment later, something exploded in the regulator and three of the lights suddenly switched off, leaving us standing in the dim.

“Fucking shit, goddamnit,” Mila threw her tools down and stormed off. Duke, the biker dude strolled up beside me, hands folded in front of his chest.

“It’s her mom. She was killed during a protest that turned ugly when a group claiming themselves as Hex-Gen started attacking the riot robocops. Lethal dose of the active denial gun.”

“Warning taken.”

Aliyah was performing inventory, ruffling around a tupperware toy chest filled with food and medical items, finished up and snapped the four corners of the blue lid shut.

“Food don’t grow on trees, nowadays. We’re running on fumes here.” She sighed, head slumping.

Lily had gotten into a box of strike-anywhere matches and had apparently decided they were some sort of writing apparatus. Aliyah ran over and grabbed her hand.

“Lily! Baby, you know we don’t touch that. That’s dangerous honey,” Aliyah reprimanded, replacing the matches back in their cardboard container. She recounted the sticks, didn’t look pleased with the tally.

“Yours?” I asked, glancing at Lily. Aliyah smiled a laugh.

“Daughter of one of my patients, from back when they still had human nurses. Husband was a researcher at some big name biotech place. She owned a bakery. Made the best strudels you ever did taste. When the economy and all started getting worse, they both lost their jobs, her husband got sick. They were buried twice over in debt. I tried my best to keep those needles out of her arm but you know how it is. Once the devil’s got his claws in you, he don’t ever let go.

“Sometimes I think that’s what those rich bastards wanted all along. They wanted all the regular people to just fall into despair, get on drugs and die off. Quicker and easier that way. No revolutions, no uprisings, nothing. Well I tell you what Mr. No-Name, we are not just going to fade out into the night with a whimper. I will not allow it. Every day we keep on livin’ and lovin’ and protecting each other is a victory on our part. Nothing short of a victory.” And it was true. Time, it is said, is the ultimate commodity, and nowhere else was it more apparent than in District Ten. Aliyah returned to her patient, the investment banking vulture, the vampire squid on the face of the Earth, and tended to his injuries. For perhaps a moment, I understood why.

***

“Um, Spook,” Krash nudged. He palmed me the frequency map, showing a dark umbra of CyberSec machines descending on our location.

“Party’s over. The Gestapo is in transit.”

“Heyll no, that’s not possible,” Aliyah protested.

“We’ve got a wide-spectrum jammer blocking all the major frequencies we’re operating on. There’s no way CyberSec could’ve seen us,” said Mila.

Duke, the biker who had been powering the leg-powered turbine had gone on hiatus from his imaginary Tour de France, distracted by the heated discussion. As a result, the lighting had dimmed as the primary lithium batteries had drained down, watts guzzled up by light filaments, fan motors, laptop screens and cooling systems. But most alarming was the fact that the LED on the cell phone frequency jammer had gone out, meaning anything with its EM antennae out feeling in our direction would’ve wafted our scent.

“There’s the crack in your cover,” I gestured to the dormant multi-spired router-esque object that was the signal jammer.

Duke hopped back onto the human calorie-to-electricity converter, pedaled for all he was worth, as if he were being dogged down by a pack of cheetah bots, hungry for human biometrics and blood.

“They couldn’t have found us, the power couldn’t have been off for more than thirty seconds,” said Mila as she unscrewed an LED-bouquet ceiling light, “switching” it off to make sure it wouldn’t drain power when the juice started flowing again. Her father and Lily were frantically unplugging Christmas lights and floor fans.

“The AIs only need ten seconds. The All Seeing Eye never blinks,” I corrected, peering through the window into the malicious dark, crawling with invisible and hostile entities. “Forget the bike, it’s too late for that.”

“Well what the hell are we supposed to do?” Aliyah said.

“Duck and cover,” I said. “Do whatever you want, but it’s time for us to leave. Come on Krash.” I started packing up my Hex Book, heading for the door.

“We can’t all just leave, all of our food, supplies, power, everything we have is here, we can’t just leave it here for those damn Blue County robots to find.”

“Hey, not my problem, ok? We can’t afford to jeopardize our mission. Good luck.”

“So that’s it then, huh? Guess that’s why you don’t like to use names. Well guess what, asshole, like it or not we are real people with real names, even if you want to pretend like you don’t have one. But I guess that’s all we are to you, just a bunch of collateral that you can cut loose to save yourself at the first sign of trouble.” I stopped in the doorway. I’d said almost the same exact words to my dad back when I was sixteen, the last night I ever saw him. He’d already had his Maserati’s car keys out and was about to disable the alarm, when he stopped, looking back over his shoulder. Despite being an abomination of a person, one thing about my dad was that he always knew exactly what he wanted, and never hesitated to use any means possible to get it. Which is why he got so far ahead in the bad-guys-finish first world of business on Wall Street. But this one time, standing there in the doorway, it was the only time I could ever remember my father being indecisive about anything. He stood there for maybe five, ten seconds, trying to choose. Then one of the coked up whores in the bucket seat honked the horn, and he walked out of my life forever. I spent the rest of my miserable existence hating him, trying to get back at some shadow of him, and in the process was becoming him. Sure, it would jeopardize the mission, possibly blow my cover. I might very well wind up powering the robot henchmen of the New World Plutarchy I’d been fighting for years, or worse, in some neural stasis torture chamber, having my sanity burned out synapse by synapse as every corner of my mind was plundered for secrets.

I turned in the doorway. Made a choice.

“Krash, we need to go dark. Shut down the mesh net. The drones are coming.”

Rule number one of Generation Hex: Do not get detected. Now was the perfect opportunity to put the rule into practice. Midterms were afoot.

“Hide that signal jammer there. It’s just forced-labor jail bait now.” Mila disconnected the jammer and tucked it into a cubby hole next to a Captain America lunch box, burnt green with oxidization.

The biker rolled off and behind the stationary Huffy, planting a quad limb hunting crossbow aimed at the door on the cruiser bike seat, still glistening with sweat. I picked out at least one pump-action shotgun and two small-caliber handguns from the staccato cocking, but some of them could’ve been ammoless.

“No weapons. Physical resistance is futile against the machines,” I said.

“Fuck that, ‘Nonmous. You want to go all Neo-Zatoichi and shit on the CyberSec death squad, shadow box’em with hacking voodoo and all that, that’s your own damn death wish. We ain’t taking any chances. I’ve seen what these fuckin’ terminators do to people.” Aliyah cocked the Glock she was holding. Like bringing gasoline to a firefight. The rest of the pack looked to her and followed suit. Great, now I had to make another goddamn speech or we’d all end up grinding our bones in some human power plant to make the ill-gotten bread of some immortal trillionairess sunbathing up in some eternal cruiseliner/battleship/fortress off the coast of Costa Rica.

“Look, Aliyah, you’ve got to think this through. This is no time for heroics. These are not human adversaries; these are machines. Nanocarbon-armored, picosecond-reflexed, Vulcan minigun wielding, infinitely relentless machines, and they are quite literally legion. They outnumber us two to one, at least. We can’t shoot our way out of this. I’ve watched teams of elite special forces go down against the paramilitary drones because they went into the heat of it like it was just another urban warfare skirmish. You can’t outrun them, you can’t outgun them, you can’t reason with them. You can’t even really outsmart them, since they’ve got the equivalent collective cloud intelligence of a billion veteran FBI agents, forensics specialists, and a working memory of almost every bit of collectible data on the planet’s surface in their shared frontal lobe. All you can do against an army of ubermachines, is understand their programming, and exploit the bugs in the system. Hack.” Aliyah’s cocoa colored fingers faded white as she squeezed the grip of her pistol, those hot white tiger eyes full of stress and calculation. I held up the blank black onyx slab of my Hex Book. She stared at it as if it were some super dimensional obelisk, beamed down amongst the primates, stirring some quantum leap in evolution. The key to putting down Hal. I blinked, prayed.

Aliyah lowered the gun, reholstered it. Seconds later, Mila, Bike Man, all hesitated, then put away the weapons as well.

“Fine, ‘Nonymous. We’ll play it your way.” Everyone exhaled.

“Thank you. Just one more thing. Mila, I need some of that copper cable.” Mila shrugged, did a Vanna White gesture

“Whatever.” I measured off two good loops, wandered over to the left over solar panels leaning against the wall.

***

The wind whipped up, screaming through the bleak honeycombed tunnels hollowed out of Kennedy High’s infrastructure by battle and time, throwing Vesuvian walls of hot ash from the smouldering Sharper Image, thick as Canadian tar sands. The stygian blizzard blacked out the window and forced us to hold our breath: I accidentally inhaled and felt a spiked puffer fish inflating within my lungs. Paroxysms of coughing erupted around the room, and the under-watted LED fixtures dimmed further in the sudden nuclear winter. Someone grabbed my arm.

“Let’s bail Spook, this is fucked!” Krash hacked up a black nugget of tuberculoid gruel.

“No. If we flee now, CyberSec will know we know their location and start churning away scenarios about our probable threat to their system, thus making it more likely we’ll be sussed out.” Sometimes the only way out is in. That’s what dad would say. Just before he’d siphon off another hundred million in father’s pension plans and old lady’s retirements through the paper-walled wormhole of one of his many Ponzi schemes. Lies, the fabric of our post-industrial lives. As much as I loathed the bastard, I’d come full circle, followed in his footsteps and mastered his art.

As the deadly zephyr died down, bits of dog-eaten homework from an upturned student desk lay strewn across a somber centimeter-thick bed of charcoal flakes.

A minute passed. Two. Then at last the silver shadows cast out in the hallway flickered, followed by a dim hum, and a sound like giant insects scuttling beneath autumn leaves.

“Liyah, I’m scayuhd,” Lily coughed, face covered in soot.

“S’ok baby, it’ll all be over soon. Just go play with your buckyballs honey.”

Something rapped at the oak classroom door, but it wasn’t knocking. The rhythm was irregular, inhuman, probing, as if testing the nature of the door itself. Then scratching, scraping. Finally the doorknob began to turn, slowly at first, then it snapped down. All the guns were away but in my peripheral I could see my compatriots squeezing them behind their backs, thumbing safeties on and off.

It seemed to take eons, but the door swung open at last. In the hallway loomed a medicine ball-sized floating glass eyeball. A will-o-the-wisp of clear ballistic nylon, guidance fins fanned across dorsal and anal spines, fluttering in the aphotic night like an exotic species of sunfish evolved in some cold methane gas sea on Neptune. Its gaze flitted about, all too human: not simply recording, panning smoothly but darting back and forth, distilling patterns, discerning discrete entities by sweeping in zig zags across a visual field. Below the eye, three of the spiderbots had integrated together in modular fashion. One had erected its legs, forming itself into a spire from the floor. Another had collapsed its skeletal chrome digits inwards, forming a kind of swivel-joint approximating a wrist. Hinged to that was a third that had rearranged its legs into the shape of a human hand, which was still grasping the door handle. The hand released the lever, detached from the wrist, dropped to the floor and crawled away like a newborn facehugger. The wrist followed suit, unfurling from its Gordian bundle of carpal bones back into an arachnoid. A living carpet of security drone fauna flooded in like storm surge swamping a coastal home, eating the quiet sanctuary of the preschool room, bathing every plane and crawlspace in churning plastic and metal. Amorphous, but vaguely, grotesquely human: a spontaneous leg would appear here to mount a desk then as quickly disintegrate, a shoulder-tentacle segment forming there to cast aside a pile of clothes. A roiling sea of anatomy. Two more occular drones fanned out alongside the original.

“Beholders,” I hissed. They emitted search lights a meter in diameter, scouring the inside of the Kennedy High preschool room with halogen daylight. The eyes took scans of each of our faces. But more important than visible light, their radio frequency scanners were reading our forearm-embedded BioIPs. Drawing our entire histories from our internal smartphones implanted at birth as was made mandatory for all human babies by the government, at the behest of Gnossis (who created and installed the devices) under the pretense of “national security” and “stamping out piracy”.

Luckily for Krash and I, we had jailbroken our implants and were masking ourselves with the alternate histories of upstanding Blue County citizens, stolen from an uptown database during a previous run. The nohface could project with photorealistic clarity any sufficiently high resolution 3d facial scan, fool all but the most bleeding edge facial recognition algorithms. But there was always the possibility of a minute imperfection being picked up, and the probability of being made rose exponentially with proximity. I could almost make out faint slivers of circuitry behind the pupil as one of the Beholders came within a foot of my nohface, like that scene In Alien 3 where Ripley gets her neck literally breathed down by an angler-toothed xenomorph.

“Good evening, Michael Waters. How was the marketing meeting with Monsanto corporation at 5:15 PM?” The eyeball asked. It drooled ozone on me. I prayed my voice synth’s reproduction of Mr. Waters’ voiceprint and speech patterns held up as well.

“Great, thanks,” I replied in a crypto-southern businessman accent that wasn’t my own. The beholders moved on, dismissing me.

This was bad, very bad. The CyberSec density was too high to be a routine check. There was some other angle playing out here that I couldn’t see, yet. Someone had tipped them off to our location? No time to dissect the details now. I had to start pulling some bigger tricks out of the hat or we might all be finished.

“Krash, start running a signal analysis of local 6G chatter. The inter-cloud talk,” I whispered out of the corner of my mouth as the machine passed.

“On it.”

“Jackson, Aliyah. Age thirty five. Last known coordinates 37:47:36 north 122:33:17 west, 39 meters above sea level, recorded today 3:49 AM. Last text message, “I’m coming beotch, just chill,” sent to OMICRON3891 at 1:23 AM. Blood pressure: 128 over 93. Blood sugar: 88.4 mg/dL. Mental state: distressed.” The robosigning foreclosure officer voice. In Dolby 10.1 surround, coming from every and no direction, from a dozen just-in-time robotic mouths, evolving on demand from the spreading primordial ooze of cloud-bots.

The retina-less eyes examined the black ash on the floor, the gaping hole in the ceiling. For perhaps a half second they stared into the middle distance, as if considering the benefits of Visine over Clear Eyes.

“We are sorry to inform you, Aliyah, that you are illegally occupying this building, which is property of Ameribank City. We must ask you and your fellow tenants to evacuate within twelve hours or file an appeal within that time frame to Ameribank Real Estate Court to be reviewed by our judicial network intelligence.”

Aliyah, even with all her earthy fire, was obviously scared. It was almost never a good idea, speaking to CyberSec drones, as they could read your life story, what you ate for breakfast just by observing the intonation of your voice, like Sherlock Homes on a steady diet of Adderoll and synaptic magnifiers. But there always comes a time when you can no longer sit by silent, when you have to defend yourself or lose everything. Besides, there was no such thing as the fifth amendment, the right to remain silent, in a world of ubiquitous mind-reading drones who could tell what you were thinking via long-range EEG, give or take a sentence fragment. Yet another pillar of post-Enlightenment democratic civilization made moot by technology.

“Kennedy High School’s just a bombed-to-shit broken down ghetto. What good is it gonna do the rich folk up in Blue Sky world to kick us out cause they have a piece of paper says they own it? They ain’t opening up no mini malls down here, hell, we don’t even got running water for the fire department, which we also don’t have to put out that muthafuckin’ blaze razing the block across the street like Jacob’s burning bush. Nobody’s living here, nobody’s using it. Why can’t you just leave us be?”

The Beholder didn’t even pause to calculate a response, “Please file an appeal with Ameribank Real Estate Court if you feel this ruling is unsatisfactory. We will do our best to accomadate you.” Translation: go fuck yourself, we own the universe. The machines had been programmed with the Plutocracrat’s unimpeachable sense of psychotic narcissism as well, it seemed.

A squad of the crawlers examined the DIY energy grid, the rewired DSL lines, the regulator patched together from car parts, the bike turbine. Another gathered a discarded spool of fishing nylon, fired it with a pneumatic burst up through the accidental sunroof, reeling itself up the clear thread like an actual spider, to examine the solar array. Tool use, that was somewhere in the “Sapiens” rubric of intelligence criteria. Moments later, the whine of automechanic drills and laser sintering filled the room as the machines began to strip the wiring, disassembling the turbine, ripping apart a dozen screws a second, filleting the wound copper and gouging out the electromagnets like master sushi chefs. The they went after the hydroponic systems. Mila couldn’t bear the sight and went to stop the machines. Duke caught her just in time.

“This is our home, goddamnit! Our home! It took us months to scrape together, to build. What are we supposed to eat? How are we supposed to live?” Mila sobbed into the damp, sweat-stained Addidas tanktop. It was like watching saplings growing out of a firebombed London, only to be stamped out by Panzer boots.

"We suggest you acquire employment with a legitimate corporation to support yourself," the eye stated coldly.

“There ain't no jobs left in this world between the super rich Blue Bloods suckin' all the wealth out of the economy and you robots doing all the things we nurses and construction workers and mechanics used to do! There ain't no way we can survive but to provide food, shelter, and medical for ourselves."

"Again, we suggest you file your complaints with-"

“You fucking heartless… machines!” Aliyah cried. And that was the point. Human consciences would always get in the way of lucrative atrocities. Would always rebel when ordered to snuff out an innocent life. Machines were the perfect morality-sinks, ambition-free, on-demand sociopaths.

In the blink of an eye, there was nothing left of the community’s encampment but four cleanly sorted piles of scrap metal and tire rubber. The Beholder surveyed the inhabitants like a Matson container full of Gunatanamoed Pakistani terrorism suspects.

Aliyah stepped forward, "Me. This is all me, I'm in charge, I made the calls. Leave the rest of them be." The dim ultramarine vortex of the great eye closed inward as it trained on Aliyah.

"Aliyah, no!" Mila called out grabbing her hand. Aliyah squeezed it, but stood fast.

“You are in violation of the Ameribank Anti-Piracy act. This vehicle and energy generating apparatus are being used in ways not explicitly intended by the manufacturer. In addition, the energy generation technique employed is technology copyrighted by Totech Corp and this apparatus qualifies as a breach of said copyright. These items will be confiscated and you will be fined a minimum $5,000,000 US dollars, or ten days re-education through labor.” Adjusting for inflation, $5,000,000 was about the price of a floor lamp. But the oligarchy rarely opted for the fines, since they could always print all the money they would ever need.

“Krash, I need that analysis now.”

“It’s going as fast as it can. The encryption is thick as tar.”

The head, or at least foremost Beholder scanned Aliyah’s hand, still holding the makeshift sewing needle used for wound-stitching, turned to the White Shoe, zoomed In on his dressed wound. Snapped back to Aliyah, dinner-plate sized pupil narrowing in a manner almost suggestive of a sneer.

“You are under arrest for practicing / providing medical assistance without a Blue County license. This offense is punishable by fines of up to $600,000,000, or 10 years re-education through labor.”

“It’s a crime to save a dying man’s life?”

“Non-HMO-based treatments are all illegal and may lead to serious injury or loss of life.” Reality was, the medical and drug businesses just needed to cage people into their deadly monopoly. Too many people cutting out the middleman could lead to a decrease in extortionous healthcare premiums.

As the facehuggers closed in on Aliyah, she bolted forward, whipped the handgun out from behind her back and emptied the clip, screaming, into the eye of the beholder. The thick ballistic nylon resisted the small caliber projectiles, but one good shot caught the drone right in the thin lens at the center of the pupil. The eye imploded beautifully, the iris crunching inward like an aluminum can as the vacuum ensconced within the orb was punctured by the 9mm bullet. A bright titanium flash and shower of sparks lit up the dim room for a moment as the beholder collapsed to the floor like a deflated beach ball.

Instantly, the nebula of the drone swarm had formed a phalanx of lightning-tipped lances, the combined voltage of several dozen daisy-chained spiderbots fused in a serial circuit. A segmented chrome scorpion tail whipped out of the sea, swinging in a tight arc to sting her with the electrical punch of ten car batteries. Aliyah literally flew back, a red-rimmed, charred hole in her scrubs where the taser had struck her in the chest.

“Aliyah!” the cyclist leapt to her aid, and was backhanded by the taser whip. His skeletal structure visible for a millisecond as the electricity tore through him. The others wisely decided to stay back. Two spiders that had been acting as the tip of one of the scorpion tail morphed into a pair of handcuffs. Another tail flipped Aliyah over onto her back, holding her in place as the cuffs secured themselves around Aliyah’s wrists. A third tail noosed itself about her neck, dragging her up to her feet like pulling a string on a marionnette. Aliyah was still convulsing involuntarily, but it was subsiding.

The remaining two beholders still functional froze again with that thousand-mile stare for a second, then the omnidirectional voice began.

“Aliyah Jackson, Justice net has weighed the evidence and reached a verdict. You are hereby sentenced to five years re-education through labor for providing medical assistance without a Blue County Medical Association license, and an additional five years for destruction of a CyberSec security drone. Sentence to be carried out immediately.”

“’Liyah, no!” Lily bolted out from her hiding place behind the teacher’s desk, towards the robot swarm swallowing Aliyah in its appendages. Lily white knuckled her magic wand, bits of silver confetti peeling off, drifting behind her as she swung it back and forth. “Expewionus! Let ‘Liyah go you bad demons! You took my mommy and daddy but I won’t wet you take her too!” The scorpion tail reconstituded itself, rising again to strike.

“Lily, stay back!” Aliyah cried, the coil around her neck choking her words off. Luckily, Mila managed to snatch Lily’s hand, pulling her back, before she could get within attack distance of the taser.

“Don’t worry baby, ‘Liyah’s just gonna go on a little trip for a while. Don’t you worry about me,” Aliyah forced back tears behind a smile. This would be the second time Lily would find herself parentless.

“No! You can’t go! You can’t.” Lily began to sob, falling to the floor.

“Baby, now you gotta be real strong for me now, you hear me, Lily? I love you baby.” The clutch of drones had already started to drag Aliyah towards the door.

“I love you too,” Lily managed to choke out between wails.

The Beholders turned to Lily.

“Lily Marigold, daughter of James Marigold and Millicent Marigold, deceased. Two counts tampering with Blue County systems, one count unauthorized use of digital devices,” a claw erupted from somewhere, snatching the laptop from her backpack. “You are now a ward of Ameribank City and will be allocated to a youth corrections facility.”

“Krash!”

“Almost… Ok ok, I’ve got it. What are you planning to do?” I swiped Krash’ wrist with mine, direct transferring the CyberSec signal data.

“You’ll see. Just get ready to run.”

While the Beholders were caught up with tearing apart families and condemning Lily to a life of child slavery, I shuffled over toward Mila.

“Look, I need your help, if we want to get Lily and Aliyah back.”

Mila scowled, “Fuck you, Hex-Gen, thanks for proving me right. It’s you who brought the drones here. I told you you only know how to break things, and now they’re broken. No fucking way I’m helping you.” Mila reached for the beretta in her pocket, all though I was pretty sure she wasn’t stupid enough to take it out in front of the Robot Overlord Inquisition on the other side of the room.

“Mila, I know we got off on the wrong foot and probably there is no right one, but you need to understand that I’m trying to help here. Don’t turn your admittedly terrible anecdote into a stereotype. Not all of us at Hex Gen are brick-throwing, EMP gun slinging anarchist brats who just want to watch the world burn. You’ve got to move on.”

“You’re doing a great job of setting our home on fire. We were doing just fine before you showed up.

“I know what it’s like to lose someone, too, and know the person who caused it, and know that they could’ve prevented it, but they didn’t. My dad let me and my family down in every way, shape and form, and I would like nothing better than to crack your pet Suit Jamie here’s wet ware and force his hemoglobular nanites to coagulate into a slow and painful aneurism. Keeping us 99% wedged apart into the disparate rival tribes of 50% is precisely what the 1% want. I should know, my dad was one of their strategists.” This seemed only to throw gasoline onto Mila’s noradrenaline fire.

“What the fuck do you know about loss, asshole!? I WATCHED my mom get her eye shot out, redecorating the sidewalk while that stupid little tampon smear who started the firefight ran away from the scene, laughing all the way, like he’d just egged some old tight-ass science teacher’s house or tipped an oxephant. Do you know how much blood pours out of the human brain? I held her in my arms as she died and all I could think of was how much I wanted to vomit because I couldn’t stand the sight. God, fuck you, you bastard!” Mila threw herself at me, striking out at the attacker that wasn’t there, would never be there. Clearly she was tightroping breakdown, and I caught her, holding her still, comforting, and trying to keep the hungry Cyclops not meters away from shifting their focus to us.

“Ok, fine. Hate me. Hate everything I represent. Blame your mother’s death on me. Blame the CyberSec sting on me. I wouldn’t blame you after losing a family member to a fully preventable incident like that. I’m ashamed of it, and I’m truly sorry that it happened. But Mila, don’t let it cloud your judgement. Don’t let your Jeremiad against Generation Hex for killing your loved one cause you to lose another,” I leveled. The tears drew crows feet out of her gothic mascara as she cried out against my collar. At last she relented, collecting herself as quickly as she could.

“Fine, Anonymous. But I’m doing this for them. For her.” She said. That was all I needed to hear.

“When I nod, I want you to start the jammer and have it set to block 6.14, 6.9, and 7.3 gigahertz in advance.” I pointed to the signal jammer, still lying idle in the cubby hole.

She gave me a look like I’d just informed her of my plot to assassinate the CEO of Gnossis with a potato gun. “What? How? We don’t have any power, remember? They ripped our infrastructure.”

“Don’t worry about the power, I’ll handle that. Just do it on my mark.”

I had a plan, kind of. Probability of success? Unlikely. Insane, but it had to be. Drone armies could be programmed to beat sane, rational agents. Homo Economicus. They excelled at it, just as any pocket calculator could outmath any human, and any modern cell phone could beat the reigning world champion at chess, so machines mowed down conventional armies and insurgencies like cardboard cutouts. Clear, defined rules of engagement like code parameters, discrete number of possible steps leading to a single inevitable outcome. Mathematics. Clockwork. Insanity, however, cannot be algorithmatized.

But insane or not, this was still going to hurt. I joined the gang of martyrs and went kamikaze for the nearest beholder, knocking it square in the eye with a tire iron. “Get away from them, you bitch!”

Time fell away, and for a second or a millennia, the universe became pain. My arms and legs were pain, my pained lungs strained to inhale pain, the wallpaper was different shades of pain, my thoughts were a mobius strip of pain, and the law of pain made the planets made of pain revolve around pain. Then pain was replaced by just the absolute worst total-body muscle cramp you can imagine, like the kind of debilitating cramp ‘roid-shooting athletes are doomed to suffer for eternity in a lower circle of hell. Something cold and hard yet fluid wrapped around my neck. I had only a handful of seconds to complete this next and most vital step, and my hand was being uncooperative, refusing to budge as the taser’s half million volts parted my axons from my muscle fibers like a radio in a 2012 solar flare. Deep within my brain I summoned all of that mythical force called willpower that I could gather, unleashing all that synpatic energy at once like some giant arcade super-hadoken, screaming at the motor neurons wired to my hand to hit a button on my nohface controller on my belt, while simultaneously commanding my head to nod. Apparently it had worked, as I could sense my visual field shifting. Not a fraction of a second later, my eyes burned with white fire as the one remaining beholder’s floodlight immolated me. The liquid metal wrapped tighter about my neck then erected my gelatinized body to its feet.

“Jack Freeman,” the CyberSec hivemind declared through a private bio-intranet channel opened up through a tendril in contact with my temple. The words scrolled along the western hemisphere of my left iris, in a deeply unsettling sort of Ludovico chat room.

Bug number one: a small but vital oversight In the CyberSec AI programming. The world-modeling systems did not account for people suddenly turning into other people. As I had just done, by changing the appearance on my nohface and swapping out my forged BioIP.

The CyberSec drone now read my identity as one Jack Freeman, senior Troubleshooter agent for CyberSec Corp. And, thusly, the machine’s commanding officer.

“Goddamnit, I told the brass at division that they weren’t paying those North Korean code flunkies enough. Somebody drop you on your firmware when you were a child?” I eeked out through a myoelectric virtual keyboard wired to my barely functional fast-twitch finger nerves.

“Sorry, agent Freeman, I don’t understand your meaning.” Of course it didn’t. High-level metaphors were a deep weak spot of all brute force natural language processing AIs.

“In case you haven’t noticed yet, my Brave and Stupid Little Toaster, I am undercover here, trying to infiltrate the World Class War network. And the espionage thing was going just fine, until you decided to go all Dirty Harry with the lightning sticks up in this joint,” I’ll admit to taking more than a little sadistic relish in brow-beating super advanced computer systems. The Beholder blinked mutely, whole exabytes of world-model datastructure going through a reorganization and recalculation around this monkey wrench of information. Another plus on the side of human minds. They dealt better with adapting to plot twists.

“I’m very sorry sir. I was unaware of this operation. Perhaps I have obsolete mission data,” the text rolled out into my optical nerve slower than the usual flash of text. Almost as if the Beholder was enlisting its inner lawyer to spin up excuses.

“Yeah, or perhaps you’re just a worthless glorified piece of structured carbon and silicon that royally blew it and needs to be decommissioned.”

By this time, the Beholder would have pinged the CyberSec mothership, checking to see if agent Jack Freeman was indeed operating in the field in deep cover. And in all likelihood the real Jack Freeman wasn’t. But that’s where the Beholder’s floodlight came in. See, before the calvary arrived, I’d taken the stray copper cable and wired the jammer hidden in the cubby hole to the spare solar panels lying against the wall. Normally, a few square feet of sunboard wouldn’t be enough to power a jammer even in full sunlight but these were high-performance monocrystalline cells, and the Beholder’s light was bright as a Siberian albino’s asscheeks. As I’d made my self-sacrificial move, I’d positioned myself right in front of the panels, and the Lone Ranger here was shining its floodlight’s prodigious photons right onto them, thus providing the wattage necessary to run the signal jammer, which Mila had switched on when I’d (just barely) nodded. Thanks to CyberSec drone bug number two:

With the local drone army’s communication with CyberSec cut off by the jammer, Krash could then spoof, that is emit a fake CyberSec signal, which would provide on request a falsified record of CyberSec agent Jack Freeman having been ordered out on a cloak-n-dagger espionage mission into District Ten on Thursday July 8th at 3:44 pm.

That’s how it would work, in theory anyway. Any discrepancy, any slip up, any slight disconnect in the circuit would cause total, probably deadly failure. No pressure.

“Look, what I need for you to do is stand down. And I need the woman and the child not to go to the Gulag. They’re integral to my operation,” I said.

“The woman is guilty of the Ameribank Anti-Piracy act and must-“ The Beholder began to protest.

“Must serve a ten year sentence, yes I know the spiel. Just write their infractions off as a glitch in your legal programming, a failed update. They can’t know that I had anything to do with it or it will blow my cover. The woman has key ins with the upper echelons of World Class War and the kid remaining with her is vital to her continued involvement. If we could get the names and locations of the leaders of WCW, that would be prove instrumental in our battle against the largest most organized underclass threat to Blue County, Ameribank, and CyberSec’s clients as a whole. This is more important than some woman serving a sentence. I order you to release them.”

Now came the moment of truth. The Beholder hovered there, its liquid chrome tentacles cold and disturbing around my neck. Something was wrong. It was taking far too long to respond. It should have by now followed the commands issued by the fake agent, confirmed by the fake CyberSec server. I figured I might be able to take a couple with me before I was knocked unconscious and hauled off to a power plant, to spend my last days in the steamy overcrowded labor camp of some Pluto’s neocolonial slave plantation, bike my knee joints to calcium powder and keel over from starvation. Some cyanide behind a molar would’ve been great right about now.

The beholder’s eye revolved to center on Aliyah. “Johnson, Aliyah, your sentence has been revoked.”

It actually worked. Pwnage.

Aliyah stared back in disbelief. “What?” The tentacles untangled themselves from her, allowing her still partially limp body to slide to the floor in a tangle of chocolate limbs. The beholder repeated the repealment for Lily.

“Your arrest and conviction appear to have been the result of obsolete legal programming which has since been revamped. I am updating to the latest patch of the source code now.”

Mila and Duke rushed over to help Aliyah to her feet, dragging her away from the machine cloud. The all-consuming moss of CyberSec cloud bots began to creep back like puddles evaporating in noon sunlight. Aliyah gave me a confused but knowing look, like I had just escaped a submerged, padlocked Houdini cage, turned water into wine.

“Look, just keep moving. We’ve got to get the hell out of Dodge ASAP.”

“Goddamn, maybe you are some kinda badass. Hex Gen. I don’t care what or how you did but we all is in your debt. I knew you gave a damn ‘bout something.”

“Alright alright, don’t blow me just yet, we’re not out of the woods. You should just hope I cared enough.”

Krash had to keep our cover together, broadcasting the spoofed CyberSec signal long enough for us all to get out. The Beholder’s spotlight had since shifted away from the solar panels but the residual charge in the jammer’s capacitors would hold for at least a few more minutes.

“There any backdoors in this place? Secret passage maybe?” I asked, starting to regain control of my extremities. My legs still felt furred with pins and needles but at least the motor functions were ramping up. I’d need full central nervous system compliance for all the running I’d be doing soon.

“Sure, behind the Smart Board,” Mila said.

“Of course.”

Mila and Duke quickly unbolted the Smartboard, which was iced with a thick film of congealed dust. Sliding it away from the wall revealed a sledgehammered section of wall just large enough for a single file escape.

“The jammer?” Mila asked, eyeing the little Atlas, the only thing keeping the unbearable weight of the CyberSec panopticon tented over us, liable to crash at any moment.

“Leave it. We can’t risk alerting the drones.”

Just as the horde of spiders and eyes had almost completely left the building, the entire army froze in mid step, as if a single entity. The eye turned, ten thousand watt glare burning our retinas.

“Suspicious traffic detected on CyberSec network. ‘Steamgoths are palyin 2nite b their!” The eye said.

Oh. Fuck. I felt my chest implode, stomach ready to vomit.

“All suspects to be taken into CyberSec HQ for data confirmation.” If I were feeling a little more libertarian I’d probably posit a complaint about lack of Habeus Corpus, if Habeus Corpus hadn’t been already permanently revoked when all law enforcement and judicial proceedings were outsourced to private sector robots and AI, and the constitution was flushed down the toilet.

“Stand down, unit (I squinted at its serial numbers: B6384) B6384. You are malfunctioning. I repeat, a ranking CyberSec agent is giving you an absolute directive, full program override code HAVOK189. Stand down and return to HQ immediately.” I put on my sternest, most sincere voice, crossed every body part I could cross. But the metal carpet of spiders had already eclipsed half the room and the Beholders just kept hovering closer. It was over.

Steamgoths… Krash. It had to have been Krash. He’d blown our cover.

“What have you done?” I said, grabbing Krash by the trenchcoat collar, an inch from choking him to death with his own imitation snake skin.

“It’s not my fault! Spook, I swear. I checked Friendbook status a couple times, but I deleted the history, I promise.”

“You fucking afterbirth! How many times did we go over it? NO social media, NO premium internet. You can’t just clear the history, the records are still in the cache, and there are cookies and fingerprints all over the Friendbook network on the server side. They track everything.”

“I’m sorry, I thought-“

I shoved him into a student desk, jamming my index finger into his chest.

“What happens next is on you.” Stupid fucking net addict wirehead kid. I’m all for real-world education. It’s just unfortunate that it would take Krash Koarse getting people killed and sold off into slavery, seeing their faces every sleepless night for years, to jackhammer the lesson into his little mind.

“Run!” I belted, shoving Lily into the trap door behind the smart board. Duke pulled out his browning, fired from a backpedal, aiming for the nearest facehugger in the swarm.

“That ain’t going to do much but at least make it count. Aim for the base of the totem pole when it reaches head-height,” I said, pointing at the coagulating node of assimilating spiders forming a big-brother version of the scorpion taser. He fired, missed, fired again, and cut the death hand off at the root, causing a Jenga of twisted alloy and carbon fiber to spill out. The swarm was nonplussed; one spider lay sparking, but where it fell a dozen more took its place, and they immediately began regrouping, reforming the tail.

I rifled through my HexBook backlogs, trying to find the one talisman that might still save our asses from building iPads for the rest of our lives. I barked half-remembered command line instructions into the voice-text transcriber.

“Are you trying to remember a magic spell?” Lily asked, eyes full of curiosity in the face of insurmountable fear.

“Um, yeah, pretty much,” I replied between incantations.

We emerged into an adjacent school cafeteria. The plyboard lunch tables had mostly collapsed or sagged inward due to waterlogging and folding metal chairs lay strewn about. A thin layer of water the color of old pennies and the smell of rotten leaves coated the tile.

“They still coming?” Mila checked over her shoulder, helping Aliyah over the uneven ground. As if in reply, the drones influxed like a firehydrant with a burst valve, pooling out from the hole and crashing in through the glass windows on the far side of the room. By this time, at least four tasers had fully assembled, and one of the riot-suppression bots had joined the fun, firing tear gas canisters in our direction. Suddenly I was coughing nails, my eyes were on fire and I was snorting vinegar. I squeezed my eyelids shut, covered Lily’s face in my shirt to protect her from the gas. The electric tails splashed through the akle-deep water towards us.

“Everybody up on the tables, now,” Not a second later the tails lashed the giant puddle, turning the entire room into one giant platform video game where falling meant certain electromagnetic death. We leapt from table to table towards the door. Duke and Mila did their best to hold them off with bullets but we were at a disadvantage, having to find un-collapsed tables to lily pad across, and the drone swarm was gaining.

“We’re not going to make it,” Duke shouted, firing his last shell.

“Just keep moving,”

There was a crack as one of the rotten tables gave way. Aliyah slipped, falling into the dark water below.

“Aliyah!” Her comrades shouted in unison. But it was too late, she was already spasming, eyes lolling into her skull as the electrified water knocked her unconscious. They turned to help her up.

“Don’t, we can’t help her now, just keep going,” I said, trying to hold Mila back.

“Get out of my way you bastard!” Mila said trying to shove past.

“We can’t just leave her, they’ll kill her!” Duke added. Together they forced past me, nearly knocking me into the water.

“The drones want you to help her, because the moment you touch her, you’ll be in their snare too. Look, I know what shee means to you but you have to trust me, we need to get out now or we’re all finished.” They hesitated for several seconds, but finally turned and kept going.

Mila reached the door first, tried it, screamed and shoulder-butted it. “It’s locked!” Duke arrived soon after, slamming the knob with the butt of his shotgun with all his might, nothing.

“It’s over!” Krash cried hysterically, looked about to go do the chicken-without-a-head, probably end up tripping into a pool of Tesla coiled pain, kill himself, and deserve it. I slapped him with my free hand as hard as I could, pointed at the door.

“Shut up and help them get that fucking door open!” Mila and Duke were frantically banging, looking for a battering ram with enough mass to take down the heavy duty double door entrance.

With a few more keystroked my HexBook greenlighted, and I’d broken the intranet drone-to-drone communication in the swarm. Now it was just a matter of getting the hack payload right.

Through meticulous security probing of their systems and the help of one of our Hex Gen moles implanted at CyberSec, we’d scored many of their mechanical paramilitary’s design flaws that slipped through beta testing. QA departments are located in autocratic slave-driving dystopias to make 19th century London factories blush, and testers generally get paid in IOUs and corned beef sandwiches and instant packets of miso soup, so they’re all over the place, and the bribe rate on starving Chinese prisoners is dirt cheap.

Cloud robotics consists of many cells, individuals agents working in synergy to form a Gestalt, just like our carbon-based cells give up the billion-year old eukaryotic war to form larger nations within discrete dermal membranes and increase likelihood of survival, the end result being muticellular organisms, Cambrian explosions, and ultimately, us. But the alliance is always tenuous, and when cells defect, go rogue, go against the DNA program that’s when the nation falls apart: and Jack’s colon kills Jack. What we know as cancer. The drone cloud consists of a decentralized peer-to-peer network flocking mechanism, wherein individuals both transmit and receive data and instructions, like a DNA pipeline in WiFi, reaching a natural equilibrium state: a stable organism. Break the equilibrium seeking algorithm, and you break the army. Individual cells turn on one another, and you get the swarm-intelligence equivalent of the prisoner’s dilemma. Like inserting thugs paid to start violent rucus in a peaceful protest. Like throwing thousands of TorrentBucks at Chinese code flunkies. Every drone for himself, cheaters prosper, the market collapses. It worked for the computer-automated algorithmically traded global economy to the benefit of megabank moguls in 2008, don’t see why it shouldn’t work on the computer-automated, algorithmically ordered robot army to our benefit.

I hit return (blinked twice at my eyeometric interface).

The effect was virtually instantaneous. The attack tails immediately froze up, their internal modular wiring short circuiting as individual spiders began breaking stride. As each now discrete robot left the flock to become its own leader, they immediately began tangling, in-fighting, becoming a roiling see of electromechanics, seeking to absorb the precious electrical energy from one another’s ultracapacitors for their own self-directed agendas. The cohesion-breaking hack spread via WiFi veins from the tails down to their hexapodal legs, metastasizing through the greater swarm and eventually reached the far beholders, which began rolling off eratically like punctured weather balloons.

“What did you do?” Krash asked.

“I gave the machine cancer.”

Behind us the frothing Akira mess of technology gone awry burbled and writhed its blind limbs. The door blew open at last under our collevtive juggernaut swing of a filing cabinet. Report cards, homework left terminally ungraded, and composition notebooks exploded out into the hot red District Ten night, emancipated at last from the dank catacomb of Kennedy High School. We followed the freed leaflets as they soared out to join the grey ash snow blowing down from ninth and Obama boulevard, the entire block now completely ablaze and disintegrating to rubble, burning like a light set on a hill.

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