Sub-Level

Narkvosu just wanted to survive. At least long enough to complete his quest. He cared little about the tunnel war raging beneath his sub-level. He cared less about his home city. Alone, he explored the last obstacle to his journey, an ancient cavern carved out long ago. Concrete and steel now dust. Bedrock exposed. Nothing remained, the creek running through, the moister and gangumoss making short work of what was once probably a vast habitation. If one could not define any of the telltale signatures of a past civilisation, the sub-level appeared just like a long natural cave.

A hundred thousand years.

That’s the theory.

When humanity migrated underground.

A hundred thousand theories as to why they did.

A hundred thousand theories as to what the surface is like.

Narkvosu just needed to prove just one. That a way out to the surface existed. That the mythical surface was real. That the Apollogon fables were true. Many like him had attempted this, most now embedded in legend.

The supra-government persecuted all that tried or peddled in the outer-surface sciences. This conflict with the Echelon Renegada offered Narkvosu a chance to get closer to the upper sublevels. Strategically the tunnel networks above the city levels proved to be vulnerabilities for the ruling class for generations. Conquest, piracy, and restrictions made these tunnels impossible to traverse.

Beyond them dwell the plethora of outcast machine men and modified humans.

For two years he travelled upward.

Two years of fighting, surviving and hiding.

Two years of working in mines, of digging, of exploring.

Two years.

He survived so far, and he would be damned if he came so close to breaching the surface only to die in the cold, dark wilderness.

Of the myriad of theories, he held on to one, its importance to his expedition crucial.

This Sun, if indeed it existed, should be warming the lithosphere by now. Science knew and proved that the radiation pumping up from the Earth’s core provided warmth for all life to exist. But the higher he journeyed, the colder it felt. He knew some regions had sublevels ending in rock and ice. The Echelons were a place where no ice had ever been known to exist. Water ran down. Wildlife thrived. No ice. Narkvosu gambled everything.

This was the place. The sublevels went up and up. Cavities, pockets, shafts, all interconnected with tunnels, all man-made.

Somewhere up there he knew was the surface.

Narkvosu also knew the trek upward would get harder, relishing his perseverance in carrying his climbing equipment for two years. He lost colleagues, friends, his sanity, his innocence, but the climbing gear, invented and handmade by that miner he befriended, would survive.

He rested among the mushmush for a day, letting their acrid stench protect him from predators.

Narkvosu began his ascent well rested and in earnest. He could sleep a year but he felt he was close. The sublevel was unusually spacious. He figured it might have once been a public space rather than residential. The bedrock appeared smooth and straight, lacking the twisting contours evident in other, much lower places.

There was no pressure pushing down here, he thought, remembering the lectures of famous Geotheologist, Tarieven Acadamus.

Once at the top, he peered into a square cave, untouched by the elements. Inside, a shaft, soared upward which after a brief climb brought him up to another sublevel. As he peered out into the darkness, he lost some of his enthusiasm. He needed to decide whether to push on with the supplies he had left, or go back and try again with the terrain knowledge he now knew. A risk either way. The tunnel battle destroyed many of the communities he sheltered in, and now that he was officially a deserter, an instant death penalty awaited him. To press on, there was no going back. He would die, or his hope that the one theory in thousands would prove true. That another world existed on the surface. A living world under a living sun.

If proved right, he would find sustenance, recover and head back down. Narkvosu did not consider this fantasy thinking. He survived so far. He had gone from eating people-meat supplied readily and free from the city food collective, to kill for his own people-meat. The war made it easy, but killing and eating were major hurdles for him. Now he ate non-people-meat, grubberts, dliths, even insects. He felt confident; he could eat the exo-biology if they did exist.

And the sun? He bet he could survive that too. The old Geotheologist warned of a painful death from its exposure. Burning light, he called it. Narkvosu felt unconvinced. The cooler sublevels above him defy that logic. The heat would emanate from above, not below.

One theory he could agree held true was that the air thinned the higher the elevation. He could barely breathe now and was forced to slow down.

He decided to press ahead.

For the first time, he noticed that this sublevel was free of any moister. The concrete walls were still intact. The further he traversed he encountered less and less wildlife. This meant that it got darker and darker as the luminescent gangumoss struggled to survive in this dry and cold environment.

Narkvosu, now excited, found a tunnel entrance and ventured inside. For the first time in a long while he trod on steps. He encountered more steps and climb further and further up.

The air grew tighter in the chest, but he persevered.

Narkvosu found a room. Inside he came across nothing but square walls and stains where artefacts once stood but had corroded away. He discovered a narrow shaft and continued up until he came to another room.

Same story, corrosion stains, thin, hardly breathable air.

But this one had something that looked like a hatch.

A glass panel.

Narkvosu gazed into the little window but could see nothing but a black void. He heard a hiss and that is when he noticed the crack forming near the edge of the glass. He watched and heard air hissing through the tiny aperture.

The pressure is vastly lower out there, he thought as the thrill of his discovery tingled along his spine. He found more rooms, similar in layout. Each with solid steel hatch doors twice his size. He now truly believed the science behind his ancestors, that they were once twice his size.

Narkvosu studied what he could see outside the small round glass panels embedded in the centre of each hatch door. He noticed tiny lights above. Thousands of them, like gangumoss growing on the ceiling, but instead of green-blue. These tiny lights glowed brilliant white.

Was this the sun? he thought, re-imagining every fable he had ever read.

He touched the glass. Cold, freezing, unbearable.

He looked at what he was convinced was the surface but all he saw was a smooth, featureless dark plain. His heart skipped a beat when he spotted the horizon in the distance, a line where the tiny lights ended and the dim surface began. If he strained his eyes he could almost see it glow.

Narkvosu had done it.

He had reached the surface.

But the thrill of it all faded quickly. His fantasy destroyed, he huddled in a corner and rested. His thoughts turned to survive the journey back. He had accomplished what no other man had ever done, but even that triumph felt stale. How many others have reached this spot and discovered the awful truth? How many died returning or if they did return, held back the truth? Did the supra-government know this? Did the Apollogon Geotheocracy also know and suppress it to expatiate their mythology?

Narkvosu remembered the myth about the moving sun. It was why life and language had its day and night, and why gangumoss and chrokar cycle in brightness to accommodate civilisation’s sleep patterns.

The sun moved.

Day and night.

So he slept. Conserving his energy. Counting the minutes.

A mining slave once told him, an anecdote he had picked up along the way, that a cult of scientist believed that the earth was a ball and that the sun rotated ‘around’ the Earth. They had built a gravity machine to detect and prove it. This information was one of the reasons Narkvosu persisted on his quest to the surface.

He waited more than a whole day, drifting in and out of consciousness. Even in the dim light, he could see his skin losing its blue colouring. Narkvosu looked outside one last time. He looked up at the little lights, millions of them. His eyes noticed a dark patch, almost perfectly round. Whatever it was hiding in the shadows, Narkvosu knew he would never find out. Time and the thin air had turned against him.

With a disillusioned soul, he began his journey back down to the city levels, first crawling, then, as the air returned into his lungs, to normal walking. Narkvosu just wanted to survive long enough to get home, even though he knew he would pay a heavy price for his desertion. And a heavier price if he ever told anyone the results of his quest beyond the sub-levels.

Scumhackers

An excerpt from the book “The Blood Ring.

“Did ya reset that last pango before you sold it to the girl?” asked Martin while urinating, standing upright behind a mound of garbage. She finished, pulled up her pants and strolled over to where Rico sat.

Rico surveyed the lane way situated adjacent to the B line train tracks and intersecting South Valley Road. The thoroughfare was nothing more than an illegal dumping ground among a forest of weeds. “Why the fuck would I wanna do that?” responded Rico, sitting down on the broken pavement picking at a hole in his dirty pants. “Fuck, I’m hungry.

Martin grabbed Rico by the mane and whacked his face against his knee. “What da fuck ya do dat for?” yelped Rico.

Martin turned to face the silent traffic. Thousands of multicoloured vehicles crawled along like electric bugs, “Go get it back.”

“What? Fuck no. Why?”

“Cause I fucking said so,” answered Martin, her short cropped hair, neck tattoo and bodytech adding to her masculinity, her authority, her brutishness. “The pango needs to be reset. I told you to sell the data, not the whole thing.”

“But the Bitrodog cajero needs the actual pango to unscramble the rootkeys. Without it the data is inaccessible.”

“Did you use that pango to access the DEN?”

“Well, yeah.”

“So you used your own private rootkey. Now anyone with that rootkey can access everything you’ve ever posted on the dendrome. All it takes is two or more interactions to link you to the outside world and Yellowcop finds you in a heartbeat. Go get that fucking pango back, and destroy it.”

Rico climbed to his feet, ready to demonstrate his defiance. “How?”

“How?”

“How is Yellowcop gonna find me?”

For a brief moment, Martin looked like she could attack him once again, instead, she explained. “The dendrome is the blockchain algorithm that runs the entire Dendros ecosystem, right?”

“Yeah.”

“And nests are public communication threads embedded within the dendrome. So, if you’ve interacted with two or more twiddlers who’ve been compromised, Yellowcop will scour the GIoT until it found it’s way to you. You getting this?”

“But there’s no geo-stamp or time-stamp on the dendrome. How’s it gonna get me?”

“Yellowcop has mapped out the entire Dendro ecosystem. Interlinking DEN activities with real-world activities, it can feasibly work out who you are just by using your twiddle or your private rootkey. So did you use the pango or not?”

Rico decided to back down. For Martin, he would do anything she wanted.

“You should know better, fuckhead,” she said and walked away.

Rico strutted in the opposite direction, heading for the main road. His usual goal would have been to scanpocket as many pangos from passing pedestrians and motorist as possible. Those unfortunate enough to have been left vulnerable by the Dendro were his prey. Stealing dash and private data was Rico’s only objective. To him, cars were simply moving wallets; toll wallets, drive-thru wallets, and those were only the add-ons. Big prizes were the propriety wallets that paid for services such as charge-ups, repairs and even car washes. Some of these often came in the form of cash accounts.

Cash or dash — made no difference to Rico.

Sensitive and compromising data — made all the difference between a bad score and a good one.

The pango in question he stole from a woman at the Solaria Recharge Station. She’d been sitting in the eatery, most likely waiting for her recharge. Rico had a hunch about her. Her fish tattoo, her nervous eyes, her demeanour, each attributed to his interest in her. People this intriguing always had some sordid story behind them and stealing their data usually paid well. So, Rico pounced, the old-fashioned way. Bumping into her. Pick-pocketing her personal-area-network-gadget-organiser. He found it already jailbroken and full of home-made guttersnuff. It was content he could sell, but that required they transfer the Dendros rootkeys. Keeping them in the original pango would compromise the holder, so that is where Bitrodog fits in. If one knew a good cajero, they could print a new pango, jailbroken and without the standard GIoT tracking features

Rico lumbered towards the Aurora Shopping Plaza, the last oasis of civilisation before the desolation known as the Salamander Highway. He struggled to see the point in going back, especially a whole day later.

Or was it two days?

No, one day, he corrected,

Rico had long ago given up arguing with Martin, having grown tired of her macho stubbornness. He found it easier to appease her, enjoying her fun moods, and savouring the occasional dash that flew his way. The amount of money that went through their collective hands would cause an average middle-class, white-collar stooge to salivate. The amount they burned would depress most homeless folk to lower, undiscovered levels.

Homelessness.

Rico never understood the stigma. He has lived in cardboard boxes all his adult life, yet lived a life most social frolickers envy.

As long as there was access to dash.

He thanked the Great Divinity for the Dendros. Sometimes Rico found himself praying to this munificent algorithm. The Dendros had opened up a brave new world for the underclass; impervious to government control, unstoppable, untameable, a scumhacker’s paradise.

Rico found Ailee manning the local vendor, the Bitrodog kiosk making an ideal subterfuge for jailbreaking pangos and anti-Yellowcop activities. When asked about the device, the girl’s eyes widened.

Rico knew right then and there he was fucked.

Upsetting Martin was not an option.

“How did the Bitrodog mix up the pangos?”

“I don’t know. Glitches happen.”

Rico had never heard of such a thing. Electronics printers never made mistakes like that. Human error was one thing, but glitches?

“Think he’ll come back wid it?”

“Maybe,” said the cajero, “Unless he reset it himself.”

“Did he look like the type who knows how to reset one?”

Ailee shook her head and scrunched up her lips, “Na.”

“So he could be back?” Euphoria allowed him to breathe again. It also prompted his hunger to re-manifest. He could not remember the last time he fed on something. “Twig me when he comes back in.”

Rico prowled the mall looking for easy targets, noting which fast food outlets accepted dash. He had access to point two of a figi, half a nanji, 213 cryptiums and a dash worth of other miscellaneous cryptocurrencies. All up, he could not even afford to buy a small packet hot chips.

Maybe a potato roll.

He loitered around the dash exchange terminal, scanning the personal area networks of passing shoppers, looking for vulnerabilities, for security clefts, any which way to snatch some dash. Within five minutes, enduring intense stomach grumblings, he resorted to scavenging for more traditional forms of currency, scoping the ground for lost fiat coins, sniffing out pickpocketing opportunities and engaging in a time old favourite, begging.

Rico knew he smelled like shit and looked the part. In good times, when the dash flowed, he would shower at various gymnasiums and spas, buy new clothes, toss the old ones in-store and walk out. He would get his hair groomed by his fave stylist. He lived like an urban prince; no home, no possessions apart from his jailbroken pango. He slept anywhere, in hotels, bus shelters, stormwater tunnels, underneath park benches, inside cars, stolen or otherwise.

When the dash flowed.

Rico exited the mall and stood in front of a coffee vendor located facing the highway, where the spare change in patron’s pockets jingled loudest. He scored a fiver first go, and had to struggle to earn the next two five dollar coins, falling short three bucks to buy a short black. He spotted an angry, unhinged looking man jostling his way through the crowd, hurrying along glancing wildly over his shoulder. When he passed the coffee vendor, Rico held out his hand, “Spare us a coin?”

Punters were punters, angry or not.

The angry-unhinged-man didn’t even acknowledge him.

“Arrogant prick,” grumbled Rico as he paced in front of the service counter. He tripped over his own foot and the fivers in his sweaty hand slipped out and bounced on the concrete. He gave chase but the renegade coins rolled into the gutter. Rico fell on his knees, failing to stop them escaping via the stormwater drain.

“Shit!” Rico stood up, empty-handed. Someone blocked his path. A woman. Petite. Short flower dress. Blonde curly hair. She raised her hand and offered him a coin.

Rico took the coin, a fiver, unsure of how to react, “Thanks.”

The woman smiled and went on her way.

His pango chimed.

~rem0050: customer spotted. came in-store. ask buncha question. still got pango. tall. white shirt and tie. black pants. ErstKlassige shopping bags. cheers.

Rico hastened back towards the mini-mall’s main entry, his stomach protesting violently, eating away at his insides. He could ignore the lightheadedness, but the sharp chewing sensation inside his belly drove him insane. He found and sat on a bench just outside the slide doors.

Rico’s eye caught a glimpse of the blue shopping bags.

ErstKlassige.

Man in the white shirt.

A big guy.

That’s him.

Rico spotted him leaving the complex and rushed ahead of him, noting how solid the man looked. He watched the man walk past him and head across to the Solaria charging bays and on towards the car park.

~scumhacker32: i found the pango.

~scumhacker14: get fucked.

Rico focusing on his plan of attack, playing it out inside his head. To roll a much heavier man he needed to pay special consideration to the element of surprise and to the level of force he needed to apply. Rico changed direction, heading to a small children’s park. He waited for the big guy to pass, then going from tree to tree, he stalked the man. Rico moved from a swing set to slippery dip, then from a parked van to robot charity bin, tracking his prey all way to a dark emerald sedan waiting to pick him up, a Senator.

It struck Rico as weird that the man would rather be picked up in the carpark than from the front entrance. What’s the point of having a smartcar? he wondered.

Spying from behind the bright red Kreasi Charity Bin, Rico could make out each item inside the two large blue grocery bags.

He’s got Chillihoney chips.

The savoury distraction scattered his already fickle concentration, his hunger stifling all the focus he had mustered. The Senator opened the boot. The man loaded the groceries, and then pulled out another large bag. He walked over to the nearby charity collection bin and tossed the bag into it.

Without thinking, animal-like, and with the distinct taste of Chillihoney on his tongue, Rico pounced on the burly man, crash-tackling him in the manner similar to that of a torpedo. His head smashed into the man’s rib cage, knocking him off his feet. They both hit the ground, rolling over hips and shoulders. The man arrested his momentum and scrambled to get back up to his feet. Rico’s eyes locked onto his prey. Surprise survived only fleetingly across the man’s face, who then unleashed a stare that could frighten the living shit out of any person. Rico knew right then and there that he had fucked up and prepared for the worse. He’d been beaten up to a pulp many times so he knew what to expect.

Fuck me.

Movement caught Rico’s eye. Martin, lethargic and irate, appeared from behind the man weighing a half-brick in her hand. “Hi,” she said. The man had little time to react. The hard, jagged block of ceramic struck the man on the side of the head, knocking him down like a sack of potatoes.

The Blood Ring
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