*This is a sample chapters from the revised Grand Slam 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 melancholy and remorseful. Alex had come to the sequestered plot off the castle courtyard 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, its algorithm 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 to the figure standing above. “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 corporate executives in suits across from four of the Diamond Kingdom’s policy advisors 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. Zwei addressed the execs.
“It’s come to our attention you’re willfully colluding to keep new businesses from entering the market,” Zwei said, the lenses of his glasses slightly enlarging his eyes, his pupils scrutinizing everything. “This will stop at once.” Soft scratching sounds came from against the wall.
A rotund man with stringy hair was the first to respond. “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.”
“There are limits,” said the man with a lapel pin shaped like a stack of gold bricks. “Artificial market manipulation 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 table’s end across from Zwei and looked at the execs. “I’m not going to force you to break up your arrangement,” she said, “instead, I’m going to cut regulations and 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 executives stood and left.
When the room settled, 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. It was a look Zwei’s students had adopted. “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 scratched 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.”
Zwei was contemplative. “I think we should temporarily ban weapons in public,” he said. “We can’t risk agitating 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 citizens’ 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 off the objection, “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, Princess?” Professor Magnus Zwei inquired, his eyes and face united in curiosity. The students stopped 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 bobbing frame, it had obviously been recorded on a camera phone.
“Come on dad, not this again,” Alex said from behind the screen. “We’re gonna miss the start of the game.”
“I’m coming,” he said, “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 from you,” her father added. “You’ll make a great orator too.”
“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 this 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 old tech and the instruments to dissect it. The table in the center had a gutted Circuit Breaker 9000 phone with two wired clips connected 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 neon blue dot a few inches to the east.
“That was the last game we went to,” she said of the video and filed the last book away. “How did they get it, 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 inside. It’s got data crawlers intercepting everything you record,” he threw a thumb towards the screen, “like the video behind me. They also link and copy everything in your other accounts. Drake’s footage was from old military lectures, interviews, and psychological exams going as far back as fifteen years.”
“Why hadn’t this been found 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 – they just figured it was legacy code,” Scramble shrugged. “No one realized it was building a surveillance platform with each revision. The new chip provided the crucial firmware.”
“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 receiving 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.
“They could have stolen a million identities, their darkest secrets,” Alex said with concern. “They could blackmail the entire city.”
“That’s even more power than Drake would have had,” 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. “Drake was from Animos,” she recalled. “I don’t trust that coincidence.” She looked out the window and at the neon purple beam reflecting off its glass.
After thinking on it, she lifted her gold visor from her head. “He was mistaken about me being a great queen,” Alex said listlessly. “Scramble,” she said, looking at the visor 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 in their ranks?”
With that thought, a 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.
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