NaNoWriMo 2011 Preview 1
And then there were two
By Dennis L Hitzeman
Kevin didn’t start to panic until Nelson went offline. The sudden disappearance of the other seven had been disconcerting, but he had been in the middle of working with Nelson to figure out what was happening to the rest of the cell when he suddenly vanished.
A part of Kevin’s mind told him there was no reason to panic. People went offline all the time. Maybe there were connectivity issues. Maybe they had some pressing local physical need to attend to. He would have thought Nelson might have mentioned that, and the thought unleashed a new torrent of unease.
Then there was the fact that the other eight’s vanishing act was so complete. Normally, even when someone physically disconnected from the network, there was still a residual trace of their presence. Besides, most people had wireless interfaces anyway, and while they were less capable than a physical connection, they were still there, even in some limited form.
Whatever it was that was going on with his cell, it was like the other eight had never existed. Sure, the evidence of their activities was there, but their presence was completely gone. Kevin hadn’t felt that alone on the net since he’d been a kid, since before he’d been augmented.
He was also unsure about approaching the last member of his cell who was still online. He knew most of the others personally, and the rest he knew by name, but the last he knew only as Ten. Kevin had been a latecomer to that cell, joining after another member had been busted for booster possession, but he noticed almost immediately how no one else in the cell really chatted with Ten. He was just always there, watching the rest of the cell and doing his part. Kevin was sure Ten was the driving force behind the cell, but his silence was creepy.
He nearly jumped out of his chair when he felt the familiar tickle of a private channel request on Ten’s data link, and for a moment, the cool, serene world of the net tilted and fuzed to reveal a background of his filthy apartment, strewn about with clothes and rapid serve boxes and his broken domesticbot he’d been meaning to repair for months.
His mouth was dry, a sensation that troubled him because he had long ago trained himself to take care of such things autonomically. All he had nearby was a cup of cold coffee, which he downed like a shot of whiskey. Then he keyed the rapid serve and heard himself say, “Coke and pizza.”
Meanwhile, to Ten’s query, he replied, “Ten? To what to I owe the honor?”
“Cut the crap, script kiddie,” came the terse reply. “As you can see, we’re in major trouble. How are you still online?”
Kevin was confused. He had no idea what was happening, but nothing had happened to him since it started.
“I have no idea,” he said. “What’s going on?”
It took Ten so long to reply that Kevin was almost certain he’d gone offline.
“Look, that’d take a long time to explain right now,” Ten said. “What I need you to do is hard channel to me right now. Cut everything else off.”
The thought of being cut off from the rest of the net gave Kevin a twinge of fear. “Everything?”
Ten’s reply almost cut him off. “Do it now, or there you won’t have to worry about the rest of the net ever again.”
Kevin wasn’t sure if that was a threat or an observation, but it scared him sufficiently that he cut over to the hard channel. He was completely unprepared for what he saw next.
Ryan sat back in his seat and sighed as he pulled off the halo. He needed a break and now as as good a time as any. The bots could take care of the rest while he took twenty.
For some reason, disconnecting from the net that way always filled him with a rush of euphoria, and he indulged himself in a chuckle, then a full out laugh at the absurdity of it all.
The room around him represented some of the most sophisticated technology mankind had ever produced, allowing its user full access to the net without the incredibly intrusive wetwork most people used to get there. Very few people understood why anyone would want to connect to the net any other way but wet, so very few people were even looking for something like Ryan’s setup.
Very few people, Ryan reminded himself, but there were still a few, and today they’d taken three of his cells down in one of the most sophisticated attacks he had ever seen. He was still up and running, but he was wounded. Virtually anyway.
What he needed then was a walk and some groceries from the local tienda. He’d hardened things as well as he could and there was really nothing else he could do but wait for the effort he’d expended over the past months to bear fruit. It was a race between those efforts and his adversaries, and it almost didn’t matter anymore whether or not he was watching. It was really in the bots hands now anway.
So, he left the austere and climate controlled confines of his conex hidden inside a storage unit in the grubby failed suburban sprawl of Dayton, Ohio and wandered down the sidewalk to the Mexican grocery that occupied a half dozen mismatched strip mall stores and an adjacent house that had seen better days. He was sure the place violated a dozen laws, but it fed the neighborhood full of mech mechanics and communications techs that everyone else sealed up in their high-rise archologies downtown depended on to keep the trash at bay, the food flowing, and the network running.
He was happy to see it was the same cute girl behind the register that had been there the last time he came. She greeted him with a shy, “Hola,” and a toothy grin that showed off her dimples. He smiled back and gave a little wave as he headed back through the door marked “Employees Only” to the underground farm market that ran in the back. The smell of the fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats took him back to another time, before the net, before wetware, before everything that made the world wrong.
Ryan shook himself from his descent into self-flagellation before everything went black. What was done was done, and all that remained was to try to do what he could. For the moment, that meant buying the fixings for a huge salad, potatoes, and some steaks just cut that day by a master butcher. And , he bought a rose for the cashier, who smiled prettily and blushed. If he was twenty years younger, he thought, and the last of the darkness was banished for the moment.
Back inside the conex well fed and well rested, Ryan surveyed the collection of screens he called his command center. His compatriots laughed that he still bothered to read, but when he had sworn off wetwear, he had sworn off every last bit of it, even the innocuous upload interfaces and data storage.
The screens revealed things were going as well as could be expected given how badly they had started out the day before. He’d lost three cells, most of a fourth and had to disband a fifth because it was probably compromised, but even with the counter-punch he’d received, the hole he’d drilled in his adversary’s defenses was still wide open, and his army of bots was still happily mining away inside. If all went well, it would be days before they discovered the real breach, and by then the cells would be unnecessary.
Of course, none of those questions dealt with the most pressing question: if he succeeded, then what. He shrugged himself into a beat up oversized recliner and sighed. He just hoped the rest of his ragtag band managed to pull off their ends of the bargain.
It always amused Dean that someone could flagrantly break the law everyday in plain sight, yet the world had degenerated to the point where the powers that were could not and would not do anything to punish the lawbreaker because doing so would bring them all to their knees.
It amused him as much that he always had those kinds of high minded thoughts as he guided a team of oxen pulling a planter along the next pass of planting a dozen acres of late season sweet corn into a field just recently harvested of clover hay for the winter. It was beyond absurd that growing food for sale on the local market was a worse offense than possessing weapons of mass destruction, but such were the times in which he lived.
And so it was that he found himself pulling up his team and ground tying them as a delegation including the county sheriff, the local agriculture enforcement officer, and someone whom he was sure was a federal agent of some sort made their way down the driveway to him. A trio of government officials was never a good visit, and for a moment, he wondered if the gig was finally up. Then he laughed as the oxen gave him their wary stare. Let them do their worst, because it would be far worse for them anyway.
The trio must have heard the laugh because they stopped twenty yards short and looked around in confusion, expecting to see someone else. That fact made Dean laugh more as he made his way to them.
“Andy, Chuck, to what do I owe the singular pleasure of your company,” he asked when he was close enough.
Chuck, the agriculture officer, was never one to mince words, “Dean, this is Special Agent Lucas Cantril of the Domestic Intelligence Service.”
Dean put on a wry smile and extended a dirty hand. This couldn’t be good. “Dean Whiteman, pleased to meet you.”
Cantril didn’t flinch and returned the handshake with a firm grip. “This is a nice place you have here, Mr. Whiteman. Or, should I say Colonel Whiteman?”
Andy and Chuck gave each other sidelong glances, but Dean shrugged. “Mr. will do just fine, Agent Cantril. I haven’t been a Colonel for a very long time.”
Cantril nodded. “Is there someplace we can talk?”
“Do we have to?” Dean said.
“Well, then, let’s head up to the house,” Dean said. “I’ll have the boys finish up out here.”