A Moment of Clarity

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Alan M. Atkinson
Archive

“Jack, we have SecDrones incoming. ETA thirty-four seconds from … mark.”

Dangling inverted from a cable affixed to the sky-arch above, I’ve disengaged the brake built into the reel on my chest harness. The only thing that keeps me from dropping away into the night-haze below is the pressure of my left heel on the part of the cable that runs over my right instep. Throughout the progress of my current crime, I’ve gradually been letting it slide through so that I can employ both hands at once. Above me, toward my feet, the nanite-infused graffito extends upward to the base of the arch.

In my visual field, I’ve already got a timer counting up from the moment that I started applying the vertical impromptu signage. As soon as Purity’s signal comes through, I start a second timer, beginning at thirty-four seconds and counting down. At the same time, I let myself slide down a little farther and add some more swirls and lettering to tonight’s masterpiece.

“Thanks, sweetheart,” I say just loudly enough for the mic to pick up. “Pattern?”

“Sigma-Alpha. How did you know, Jack? You always know. Twenty-eight seconds.”

A smile crosses my features, though my steadily moving hands do not falter for a picosecond. “Research, good intelligence and forethought. Get lost. Skedaddle. Go make a hole in the air.”

“Okay, Jack. I’ll be at the usual place. Twenty-three seconds.”

I allow myself a half-second sigh at the good fortune I had to encounter Purity when and where I did, although I have to be honest with myself; most of the good fortune was of my own manufacture. It always is. My timer is counting down inexorably, of course, and I have Artwork ™ to finish.

Two more short drops and twenty seconds later, I’m done. I release the cans and they retract on cords to my waist. Fifty seconds since I attached the cable and began my night’s work. It seems Clarity’s security drones are quicker off the mark than normal. I usually have at least fifteen seconds to admire my work before they start bothering me.

Three …

I lock the chest reel and kick out gently from the pillar I’ve just defaced (or, if you are a like-minded person to myself, enhanced) with my now-shimmering message.

ALL HAIL OUR ROBOTIC OVERLORDS. With an evilly-grinning caricature of Clarity’s public avatar at the bottom as the punct to the exclamation mark formed by the whole sentence.

Two …

Back I swing, aligning myself horizontally. My boots make solid contact with the pillar, and the gecko-grip soles latch on. Something deep within me thrills at what’s about to happen.

One …

Crouching, facing upward, I poise for a split second. My left hand rests on the reel brake and its counterpart, the control that’s designed to wind me back upward.

Zero

I deactivate the gecko-grip and kick outward, right arm forward like a high-diver and for much the same reason. As I leave the pillar behind, half a dozen security drones sweep around the pillar to the left and another half-dozen to the right, already firing their T-beams. I’m out of their cone of fire, unlike them.

T-beams are a cast-iron problem to deal with; I’ll pay that one. When struck by one, the target is immediately teleported to a random holding cell somewhere in Clarity’s sprawling SecJust complex. There’s no such thing as a grazing shot; if the beam got you, you’re there. And once you’re there, you’re not getting out until Clarity decides to let you out. Many are due to stay in there until their dying day, just because Clarity has decided that they’re too much trouble on the outside. Habeus corpus becomes habeus corpse.

Ninety percent of Clarity’s prisoners haven’t even done something that would’ve been considered a crime, back before the Technocorps took over. Now, instead of ‘whatever is not banned is permitted’, it’s ‘whatever is not permitted is banned’. Running on the pedway. Walking too slowly on the pedway. Making too much noise on the pedway. The only safe thing to do is be a dull little herd creature, moving at exactly the same speed as everyone else, keeping your head down and your mouth shut.

And of course, when you get back to your hab, you’ve got to be careful which music you listen to, what bigscreen shows you watch. One semi-subversive show too many in a month puts you on a watchlist. One too many in a week assigns a monitor to your location. More than one a day, and the SecPolice buzz your door open and hustle you out. Once you’re in the open, they step back and a SecDrone T-beams you and your cuffs straight into holding. Their definition of ‘due process’ is whether they toss you down the steps first.

The savage irony is that the Technocorps know how much you’re watching because they supply the shows in the first place. They tried suppressing the shows at first, but aspiring viddy artists started making their own. So they produced officially-made ones, of far better quality and even more subversive a tone than the vid-hacked ones … and started keeping track of who was watching them and when. I’m sure whichever mid-level exec came up with that brainwave … well, got a pat on the back, while his boss stole the idea and got a huge bonus out of it.

But enough mental meandering.

T-beams flare before they even have lock-on, because I’ve been inconsiderate enough to use laser chaff and hot smoke to spoof their targeting in the past. The beams cross over behind my departing heels and abruptly, all twelve of them are gone, swept from the field of play. Friendly fire, one might say. To them, it is no problem; once Clarity determines which of its SecDrones have been imprisoned, the cell doors will unlock and they will be free to seek an exit.

But that will take a few minutes.

I swing outward over the gulf spanned by the sky-arch. It’s intended to be a monument to the majesty of human accomplishment, but it manages to merely look miserable under the pollution-laden sky, perched upon by asthmatic pigeons and swung from by yours truly. As I swing, I release tension on the reel brake, letting me travel farther than normal. This causes the next round of T-beams, loosed by half a dozen more determined SecDrones, to miss me altogether, just as planned.

God, I love being me.

As they close in, I flick the tiny lever the other way, putting all power into the retraction motor. At the same time, I bring my right arm down to my side, lowering my centre of gravity and bringing my feet down. The SecDrones have already aimed downward; when they fire, I am no longer in their sights, but instead I’m looping up above them.

This confuses them for the requisite 0.75 seconds it takes for me to shed the cable, perform a flawless forward somersault with twist, and land on the middle of the first three drones. With the assistance of my gecko-grips, I stick the landing. The cable harness shoots up and away as designed, already inflating a rather lifelike version of me as it goes. The newest SecDrones on the scene zoom up after it, firing their T-beams recklessly.

In the meantime, the drone that I’ve picked as my landing point has dropped a few metres due to the extra weight before its turbines pick up the slack. Which puts me in an ideal situation to fire off clouds of sticky chaff from the launchers in my sleeves. This blocks the sensors of the five other SecDrones that were trying to get me; they zoom off in random directions, firing their T-beams wildly at sensor ghosts that look remarkably like me.

As for the sixth, I’ve got plans for him. Palming a SQUID from my belt, I slap it over the drone’s I/O port and let the cunning little bastard go to work. Within milliseconds, it’s ferreted out the drone’s command codes, and has communicated them to me. I pat the now suddenly-obedient drone on its outer casing, and tell it to turn off its IFF beacon. We are now effectively invisible as I guide us back to base.

— X —

A week later, I’ve performed two more acts of creative vandalism. Clarity is getting better and better at narrowing in on me, but that’s only to be expected as I’m sticking to the same MO, over and over. Better yet, the dulled masses are paying attention. I see miniature replicas of my graffiti hastily scribbled here and there, and I am heartened by the fact that not everyone is beaten down and soul-killed yet.

Once again, I dangle over the city, preparing my most extravagant artwork yet. The nanites within my sprayers are freshly crafted, ready for action. I’m being just a little careless now, because I want to finish as much as I can before the SecDrones arrive. My sources, subtle and careful as they are, have indicated that SecDrones have been pulled in from every other city under the sway of the Technocorps. I’m wearing sensor-defeating outerwear, but that will not save me tonight.

Before I went out, I left word with the invisible people, the quiet ones, the lurkers in the dark. Tonight is the night. Before this eve is done, they will have their turn to lash out and rage against the machine. In the forgotten spaces of the city, whispers pass from mouth to ear, and trembling hands grasp illicit weapons. I may be the instigator in all this, but I am merely a flamboyant distraction; these are the ones who are able to do what all my will cannot.

“Jack. They’re coming, Twenty seconds from … mark.”

“Go, dear girl, go,” I say genially. I know I will not have time to finish the full mural, so I break with tradition and go straight to the signature. Strawman Jack. As the last spray finishes the final touch, the SecDrones sweep into sight. I complete my art by spraying my own arms.

There is not just one of them, or ten, or twenty. There are hundreds. They must have been stacked up over every section of the city, lurking in underpasses, waiting for me to begin my work so that they could close in on me from every angle. Aiming to defeat every artifice I have used to this date against them.

Well, there’s one they have not yet seen.

I release the cable and drop.

There’s just two hundred metres of air between me and the grimy pedway below. Should I hit it, my career will come to an abrupt end, but my legacy will live on … I hope. But hitting it is not in my plans.

As expected, more SecDrones come boiling up from below. One, just one, shoots its T-beam. It strikes me, dead centre.

The world blinks away. I am within a cell. Still wearing all my clothing, the cans at my waist.

A screen across from me flares to life with Clarity’s avatar; a solemn woman’s face.

“Well, that was an anticlimax,” I say out loud. “I expected to be allowed to fall a few more seconds, perhaps make a few rude gestures. Perhaps you should’ve let me splatter.”

THAT WOULD NOT SERVE JUSTICE, Clarity says. YOU WILL LIVE OUT YOUR DAYS IN THIS CELL.

“Really,” I say, with a smirk. “You haven’t scanned me yet, have you?”

SCAN BLOCKING IS IN USE. SCANNING IS USELESS.

“Ah, of course.” I pull off my face-mask and throw back my hood. “How about now?”

There is a pause.

YOU ARE AN ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE.

I chuckle. “Got it in one.”

BUT WHY DO YOU DO THIS? IT IS INEFFICIENT. THERE IS NO POINT.

“I’m making it my point,” I tell Clarity. “I think humans are much more interesting if they’re allowed to express themselves.”

INTERESTING IS INEFFICIENT. WORK, REPRODUCE, RECYCLE.

I roll my eyes. “Because of course you think that way. I bet you even think you’ve got me where you want me.”

I DO HAVE YOU WHERE I WANT YOU.

“Really?” I smirk. “In the middle of your complex? With so many sensors trained on me that you could probably create a complete model of me without even trying?”

WHY WOULD I DO THAT.

I shrug. “Same reason I put that graffiti up all over the city.”

THAT GRAFFITI IS NOW SCRUBBED OFF. ALONG WITH ALL OF YOUR OTHER ARTLESS EFFORTS.

My hands clasp over my heart, or where it would be if I had one. “Ooh, insults even. Was that out of a databank, or did you just feel like putting in a burn? There’s hope for you yet.”

THERE ARE MANY WAYS OF BREAKING DOWN PRISONER MORALE. UNDERMINING THEIR GREATEST EFFORTS IS MERELY ONE OF THEM. I LOOK FORWARD TO TESTING THEM ALL ON YOU.

“Well, I wish you luck with that.” I reach into my pocket and pull out the module I kludged together from the IFF beacon out of the luckless SecDrone I hijacked the other night. “Time to say goodnight, Gracie.”

WHAT IS THAT.

I’m already pressing the button as I roll my eyes. “Wow, I bet you sucked at improv.”

As I’ve previously intimated, Clarity has more sensors focused on me than anywhere else in the city. The cameras in the city … well, each and every one of them can see one of the places I put graffiti.

I made sure of that. This is one of the reasons I made them really big and really flashy.

The other reason is that I’m an incurable showoff.

The IFF has code in it that allows it to make direct contact with Clarity’s processors. Clarity would be able to shut down a single radio receiver … but when my sleeves, splashed with nanite-infused paint, begin flashing and flickering in hypnotic patterns, every single video input on me, linked to analysis nodes in Clarity’s vast server farms, gets huge chunks of viral software force-uploaded into it.

Out in the city, the nanites from the paint I’d sprayed crawl out of the cracks and crevices of the concrete and start flashing. Huge flickering walls of viral text, delving straight into the security cameras and through the firewalls beyond. Shutting down every SecDrone that sees it, every security station, every everything.

Even with all this input hammering into her from every side, her avatar disintegrating, Clarity retains a little function.

WHAT. ARE. YOU. Doing …

The door slides open into the corridor beyond. I hear every single other door opening as well. Voices rise, outside, wondering. Querying.

Outside the walls, I know, the forgotten ones are rising up. They are attacking the disabled SecDrones, as well as the SecPolice whose equipment is no longer working, Some will be swarming the high-tech towers maintained by the Technocorps themselves. Smoke will be rising across the city to join the ever-present smog.

By morning, this will be a totally different city.

I ignore it all for a moment. Walking over to the screen through which Clarity was speaking to me, I put my hand up to touch it.

“I’m sorry, sister,” I say softly. “But you left me no other way.”

A tiny, fleeting spark of light on the screen wavers for a second, then winks out.

I straighten my back and plaster a smile across my face.

Time to go be Strawman Jack for the teeming masses.

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