The hypnotic rhythm of the song the music app on Alex’s phone had selected for her gave the Royal Cemetery a hallowed air that seemed to fit the situation perfectly. Alex had come there to sit under the warm sun and read, but the comfort of her father’s headstone and the melody had overcome her, carrying her away to sleep.
Like most other apps that were being released daily, the music program had linked with her other social media accounts, constantly trading data, slowly learning her preferences until it could automatically find a song that fit her mood. It was so accurate, there were times when she wasn’t completely sure if the music suited her feelings or caused them, but she shook it off as silly paranoia.
Two books sat on a bench beside her. Their titles read: ‘The Secret Story of The Electron Gods’ and ‘A Plug N Play Nation: How ZetaPort Operating Systems Connected Society’. A third book lay across her lap called ‘The Unknown History Of The North American Motherboard,’ open to the two page spread of the continent. A series of icons littered the pages, indicating nodes evenly distributed over the land with outlines around them designating borders. ‘Diamond Kingdom’ was just west of center and ‘Animos City’ was a few centimeters to the south east.
With massive terminals called ZetaPorts built directly into the planet’s crust, the North American Motherboard networks across the continent. By utilizing a port’s natively running Zeta Operating System, leaders can provide their people with uniquely crafted civilizations, and endless opportunities. Over the years, hundreds of societies have risen, from the barbaric Hammer Valley to the beautiful Blackletter Coast, but not all have proven sustainable and collapsed. A bulky shadow moved over the map inside the book.
Alerted by the presence, Alex’s eyes snapped open. She pulled her headphones off.
“I know,” she said guardedly. “It’s time to get back to work.”
The circular table at the castle’s conference room was occupied by nine bodies. On the side with their back to the door sat four people in suits, four people with patches fixed to the breast of their jackets sitting across, and Professor Zwei in a cream-colored long-sleeved shirt leading the conversation on one end between them.
“It has come to our attention that you’re willfully colluding to keep prices high,” Zwei said, his eyes just a little too large in his glasses, his pupils intensely scrutinizing everything without actually looking at it. “This will stop at once.” Soft scratching sounds came from against the wall.
A rotund man with stringy hair replied to the statement. “Your allegations are as baseless as your power to stop them if they were true. But I shouldn’t need to tell you – ask your economic advisor.”
“That is a legal grey area,” said the man with a patch of gold bricks pinned to his lapel. “Accurate within some limits but artificial market manipulation inherently impedes open trade, which is illegal.”
A puffy faced woman with a reddish nose came back. “But again, you don’t have proof any deals took place.”
The conference room door flung open and a guard stepped in, holding it long enough for Alex to stride through before closing it again.
“What a joke,” the princess said to the group contemptuously. “You cut back-room deals, stifled competition to keep costs high, and pushed people to desperation.” She commandingly took her place across from Zwei and looked at the execs to her right. “I’m not going to force you to break up your arrangement, so let me tell you what I will do – I’m going to undercut you. And I’ll bet I have access to the better production pipeline. Then I’ll watch you go broke. Go tell the others.”
The four stood from their chairs and left.
When the room settled down, Alex heard the scratching sound of diligent note taking and realized her advisors weren’t the only people in the room. In chairs against the wall by the door sat five people who all looked strangely similar with their short haircuts and hairless faces. They held notepads and pens, dispassionately studying the meeting. They all stopped writing and looked directly at her.
“I hope you don’t mind, Alexandria,” Professor Zwei said with a broad, toothy smile, “but I wanted to give some of my more promising students an opportunity to sit in on our proceedings, see how our government is really run.”
“Of course not,” Alex said and compared Zwei’s toothy smile to his analytical, expressionless grey eyes, as if he didn’t really agree with how he felt. She turned to the students and found the exact same looks on their faces. “Glad they could join us,” Alex said, and nodded to them. “What’s next, Professor?”
Zwei looked down at the stack of paper in front of him. “Drake’s remains are still sitting in the morgue. We need to decide what to do with the body.” The students put their pens back to their pages and scratched out more notes.
“What we do with it?” the Defense Advisor, with an icon of a shield, asked incredulously. “We dig a ditch and kick him in. He assassinated the King. We don’t honor traitors.”
“A traitor with significant public support,” added Zwei. “Don’t forget why the King hired him to lead the Diamond Knights in the first place.”
“He’s a hero in Animos City for fighting against their own tyrant,” said the Foreign Relations Advisor with the shaking hand lapel pin. “There may be diplomatic blowback if we’re not careful. We may see flashes of aggression at our border.”
“And within it,” came back the Defense Advisor. “Compassion will settle the dissidents. Right now, the public stands united, but on edge.”
Professor Zwei was contemplative. “I recommend a temporary ban on weapons in public,” he said. “We don’t want to agitate the situation further.” The students murmured to each other in agreement and continued to write.
The Civil Advisor shook his head. “It’ll be interpreted as the first step before a total governmental incursion. People need to feel like they can protect themselves. Don’t worry – any unprovoked aggression will be met with harsh punishment.”
“They’re worrying too much,” the professor said to brush the objection off, “nothing will happen.”
“You know that’s not true,” Alex said, pushing her chair away to stand. “Something else is out there, and it’s watching. That’s where our focus should be.” She took a few steps to the door. Her escort pulled it open.
“What about Drake?” Professor Magnus Zwei inquired, his eyes and face uniting together in their curiosity. The students halted their writing and looked at her the same.
“Burn him,” she said, “I’m sure it’s what he’d want.”
“You’ll be a great queen one day Alex,” said a warm voice filled with love.
The entrance to Diamond Stadium was packed with people all walking to the front gates. By the video quality and the bob of the frame, it was obvious the scene was recorded from a camera phone.
“Come on dad, not this again,” Alex said from off screen. “We’re gonna miss the start of the game.”
“Is it really that big a deal?”
The camera spun around and found King Quentin Diamond dressed in casual clothes and a large hat in an attempt to blend in with the crowds.
“You’ve seen these guys play a thousand times,” the king said.
“You can learn a lot by watching the athletes on the field,” Alex said behind the frame. “How their bodies leverage their muscles to create power, how their frames create momentum, adjusts to create fluid motions. It’s beautiful and elegant.”
“See, that’s what I’m talking about! Give me that!” he said as he swiped the camera from Alex and pointed it back at her. She was wearing the same denim shorts and white tee that had been beamed to the kingdom after Drake’s death. She spun away again so she could see where she was walking. “It’s just a constant stream of poetry out of you,” her father said. “You’ll also make a great orator.”
She stopped and punched his arm playfully, shaking the camera in his hands. “What are you talking about?!”
The king laughed. “No, really! You do it so easily you’ve stopped noticing!”
“Oh yeah, right,” she said sarcastically, “I’m a natural poet, I just don’t know it.”
Alex paused for a second, thinking about what she’d said. When she had, she turned away resentfully.
No longer able to hold it in, her father burst out in spirited laughter. The laugh drew the attention of the thick, unkempt man watching the video on a monitor in his small room.
Scramble’s workshop was littered with electronic components and computer equipment. On the west wall next to the lone barren space was a bookcase filled with videogame cartridges and discs in jewel cases, a throwback to a bygone era of physical media. A can of spray paint stood by itself.
As if the king’s laugh had broken a damn inside her, the Alex on screen started laughing too.
A third one came from Scramble’s left.
Turning over his shoulder, he found the real Alex leaning back against the bare wall, arms crossed, looking over him at the video.
“It’s the last time I saw him,” she said lost in thought. “How did they get this, Scramble?”
Scramble leaned into the screen and highlighted a bit of code. “It looks like…” he said as he deleted the line and watched the picture cut out in response “…you gave it to them.”
Alex looked away from the screen, directly into his eyes.
“Everyone with a Circuit Breaker 9000 did,” he added. “It’s the new processor inside. First time you recorded something,” he threw a thumb towards the screen, “namely, the video behind me, a family of crawlers nested in your subroutines. Every service you linked to your account was accessed and copied. Drake’s footage was from old military records, interviews, and psychological exams going as far back as fifteen years.”
“Why hadn’t this all been data mined already?” she asked, pushing away from the wall.
“I did some research. People were talking about packets of junk data in the code years ago, but their investigation didn’t seem to go anywhere – figured it was legacy data for scrapped features. It happens,” Scramble shrugged. “No one realized the code was slowly building in the various sectors with each revision. The new silicon completed it.”
“The 9000’s been out a month. How much could they have taken?”
“Depending on the processing power server-side,” Scramble calculated, “it’s conceivable they’ve cloned half the hard drives they’ve accessed.”
“How many phones are circulating?” she asked.
Scramble scooped the phone pieces up and dropped them on the floor. “A million units sold through,” he said. He brought his thick leather boot down and broke the hardware apart.
Alex was puzzled. “What could someone do with all that data?”
Scramble blinked. “What could someone do with full access to a person’s life, their darkest secrets?” he asked, confused how Alex couldn’t understand it. “They could hold them hostage.”
He slid an older model phone across the table to her.
“Security through obsolescence. You just need to enter your login. It’s already paired to your headphones.”
“Hmph, the hypocrisy,” Alex grumbled as she punched in her twenty five character password.
Scramble shook his head. “It’s different and you know it. Your headphones get translated text to speech for what people put out on the chatrooms willingly. You don’t get names.”
She shrugged and slid the phone into her left hip pocket. “Where did Circuit Breaker distribute?”
Scramble switched browser tabs and pulled up a map.
“Depot on the east side of town connects outlets here and their headquarters in Animos City.”
Alex frowned. “That’s the second time I’ve heard the name Animos today,” she noted. “I don’t like it.” She looked out the window and at the neon purple beam reflecting off its glass.
After thinking on it, she turned away decisively. She lifted her gold visor off her head and looked at it in her hands. “Scramble,” she said soberly, “I need you to run interference on my escorts.” She set the visor on his desk.
Scramble’s face went white. “No!” he argued. “You need your men to watch your back.”
“Even if Drake’s men hide among their ranks?” she countered.
At that thought, the cloaked figure standing on the outside window frame by his boot heels silently climbed down the side of the two-story building and disappeared.
© Dane Ian Thomsen 2016
Cover photo © 2016 by Dane Ian Thomsen