*This is a sample chapters from the revised Home Run Edition. Cover by IMbeta.
The song the music app on Alex’s phone was playing gave the royal cemetery a somber tone that fit it perfectly, as electric and vibrant as it was sad and remorseful. 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 to sleep.
Like other apps released daily, the music program had linked with all her social media accounts and traded data, slowly learning her preferences until it could automatically find a song for her mood. It was so accurate, there were times she questioned if the music suited her feelings or caused them.
Two books sat on a bench beside her. Their titles read ‘The Long Memory of The Electron Gods’ and ‘The North American Motherboard’s Divine Tech’. A third book lay on her lap called ‘A Plug N Play Nation: How the ZetaPort OS Connects Society’ open to a diagram of a fifty foot cylinder, a line near the top representing the ground it was screwed into. Alex had drifted off studying the schematic.
A bulky shadow moved over the book. Alerted by the presence, Alex’s eyes snapped open and she pulled her headphones off.
“I know,” she said guardedly. “It’s time to get back to work.” She marked her page with a baseball card. It had a young man in a red batting helmet featured in its frame, ‘Quentin Diamond’ written along the bottom. The book flipped shut.
The circular table at the castle’s conference room was occupied by nine bodies. On one side with their backs to the door sat four executives in suits across from four others with lapel pins fixed to their jackets, while Professor Zwei mediated the conversation in a cream-colored long-sleeved shirt on an end between them.
“It has come to our attention you are willfully colluding to keep newcomers from entering the market,” Zwei said, the lenses of his glasses slightly enlarging his eyes, 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’s a legal grey area,” said the man with a gold bricks icon pinned to his chest. “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 Royal Guard stepped in, holding it long enough for Alex to stride through.
“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 on the end across from Zwei and looked at the execs. “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 slash regulations to bring in new people with new ideas. I hope you’re ready to fight for your customer’s money. Go tell the others.”
The four stood from their chairs and left.
When the room settled down, Alex heard the scratching of diligent note taking and realized her advisors weren’t alone in the room. Five people sat by the door, all styled similarly with short haircuts and hairless faces. They held notepads and pens, dispassionately studying the meeting. They all stopped writing and looked at her in unison.
“I hope you don’t mind, Alexandria,” Professor Zwei said with a broad, toothy smile, “but I wanted to give some of my 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 disarming smile to his analytical, expressionless grey eyes, as if he didn’t really agree with how he felt. The students had the same look copied 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 a shield pin asked incredulously. “We kick him into a ditch. 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 pin. “And he helped negotiate the deal to link our train to their network. The diplomatic blowback could do more than halt construction. We may see aggression at our border.”
“And within it,” came back the Defense Advisor. “Compassion will settle our own dissidents. The public stands united for now, but it remains on edge.”
Professor Zwei was contemplative. “I recommend a temporary weapons ban 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 disagreed. “It’ll be seen as an unjustified violation of the citizen’s civil rights. 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.”
Alex pushed her chair away and stood. “You know that’s not true. Something else is out there,” she said, thinking about the voice’s ominous threat, “and it’s watching. We need to keep our eye on the ball.” She moved to the door and 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.
Alex stopped, her back to them.
“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 Diamond Stadium’s entrance was mobbed with people excitedly walking to the front gates. By the video quality and the bob of the frame, it was obviously 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.”
“I’m coming, I’m coming.”
The camera spun around and found King Quentin Diamond dressed in street clothes and a hat to blend in with the others.
“You’ve watched the Cutters play a thousand times,” he said.
“I love it! You can learn a lot by watching them move,” Alex said behind the frame. “How their bodies create power, how they direct it into fluid motion. It’s beautiful and elegant.”
“See,” he said, “that’s what I’m talking about! Give me that!” He swiped the camera and pointed it back at Alex. She was wearing the denim shorts and white tee that had been beamed to the kingdom after Drake’s death. She spun away again to see where she was walking. “It’s just a constant stream of poetry out of you,” her father added. “You’ll make a great orator too.”
She stopped and punched him playfully, shaking the camera in his hands. “What are you talking about?!”
The king laughed. “No, really! It comes 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.
At her embarrassment, her father burst out laughing. It drew the attention of the thick man with a short, wiry black beard watching the recording on a monitor in his studio.
What Scramble’s workshop lacked in size it made up for with density. Built into the side of a small hill overlooking downtown, the pad was jam packed with tech from throughout the computer age and the instruments to dissect it. The table in the center had a gutted CB9000 phone with two wires clipped to its microprocessor. Scramble sat at his desk along the wall, where his attention had moved from the display filled with lines of code to the one playing the video of Alex and her father.
As if the king’s laugh had broken a damn inside her, the Alex on screen started laughing too. A third one came from over Scramble’s back.
He found the real Alex standing in her gold visor, filing the books he’d lent her into a case stuffed with other texts and rows of videogame cartridges, artifacts from an era of physical media. On the wall beside it was a map of the North American Motherboard, its thirty two ZetaPort cities painted evenly across the continent. The neon pink dot of the Diamond Kingdom was just right of center, a blue dot a few inches to the east.
“That was the last time I saw him,” she said and filed the last book away. “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 turned and looked him dead in the eyes.
“Everyone with a CB9000 did,” he added. “It’s the new processor. First time you recorded something,” he threw a thumb towards the screen, “like the video behind me, a batch of data crawlers nested in your subroutines. Every service you linked to your account was accessed and copied. Drake’s footage was from old military lectures, interviews, and psychological exams going as far back as fifteen years.”
“Why hadn’t all the code been mined already?” she asked.
“I did some research. People were talking about packets of junk data in the software years ago, but their investigation didn’t go anywhere – figured it was leftover code,” Scramble shrugged. “No one realized it was building a surveillance platform with each revision. The new chip was the missing component.”
“The 9000’s been sold out for a month. How much data could they have taken?”
Scramble scooped up the phone pieces. “Depending on the processing power at the other end,” he calculated, “they could’ve cloned half the hard drives they’ve linked up to.” He dropped the hardware and stomped them into pieces.
“A million people’s identities, their darkest secrets,” Alex said with concern. “They could blackmail the entire city.”
“That’s even more power than Drake wielded,” Scramble said. “Only this time it’s in a foreign corporation’s hands.” Scramble slid a bulky rectangular phone with swiveling screen across the table to her. “At least there’s security in obsolescence. Just 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 write in the chatrooms willingly. You don’t get names.”
She shrugged and slid the phone into her left hip pocket. “Where does Circuit Breaker distribute?”
Scramble switched browser tabs and pulled up a map.
“A warehouse 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 lifted her gold visor off her head. “Scramble,” she said, looking at it in her hands, “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.”
She looked him soberly in the eyes. “And if Drake’s men still hide among their ranks?”
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.
Continued in chapter four.