Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Britannica Cycle: "Red Dragon of Wales" Excerpt

Wales (21st Century)
 
The human race has always been sure of one thing: advancement. We advanced until we discovered every scrap of habitable land on this planet. Then we looked to the skies, and advanced till we had seen as many of the stars as we could or wanted to. We advanced in medicine till we had a cure for every medical condition, or if we couldn't cure it, we could stabilize it, and if we couldn't stabilize it—well, the least we could do was make sure we knew what it was so that nobody else would get it. But the thing that carried us the furthest through the ages?

Information.

Whatever the term: data, correspondence, history, records; the most powerful form of information is secrets—what could you know that no one else did? The closer the secret, the more valuable it was, the more valuable you were. It didn't matter if the information was valuable to you; its value was your ability to trade it like currency. Hence, the "pennies and dimes" were the sorts of things one could find easily over the Internet, on a computer. The "bills" were harder to find: experiences, redacted files, secrets one could not afford to write down. 

With information prized so highly, the use of computers only lasted so long. We could build faster computers with more memory capacity that could fit in the palm of your hand; entire libraries on a chip no bigger than your thumbnail. Then one day some geniuses got together and decided that rather than build an external artificial intelligence, why not find a way to utilize the brains people already had? Everyone knows that only a small amount of grey matter is entirely capable of performing all the necessary functions we need our brains to do. Medical technologists developed a small implant called a receptacle, which could be inserted anywhere behind the ears or at the back of the head.
Originally, receptacles needed a cord to connect them to a small external drive that looked like an old-fashioned flip-phone, called a wallet, by which specific pieces of information could be displayed for verification and exchanged. Early models attempted to incorporate the unsightly cable into fashion accessories, but everyone knew an improvement was in order. One came—the wireless receptacle, which used the invisible, omnipresent aethernet waves to transmit stored information to the wallet at will.

The more prominent people knew information about everyone under them. Secrets and personal info were loaded onto cards, and these cards (called "credibility cards", or cred cards) were held by the Chief Security Officer of any company. A copy of each cred card from every business and municipality in Wales was itself combined on a mega cred card, under the sole property of the Head of Security for the Grand Assembly. He alone was the man with the most information. And he was a man with many enemies.

His name was Captain George Whitaker, and he was a dangerous man to cross. He had enough secrets about every Welsh citizen to invalidate any cred card brought against him, and his own receptacle was several times larger than the legal rate for anyone else. That way, he was safe, and his job was to protect the administration of Wales. Anyone desiring to discredit a Member of Assembly had to go through Whitaker, and very few people ever made it past him. It would have been "all", if not for one man.

Adam LaRouge, sometimes called "La Rogue", by some in anger, while others used it as a term of affection: trained both by the military and who knew how many other elite organizations, he was as formidable in mind as he was in body. His average stature belied hardened muscles and lightning reflexes bought with years of intensive conditioning. His gift for combat typically caused his enemies to overlook his enhanced receptacle and cunning mind. Adam was a Mercenary, a Witness and Delete Specialist available for secret contract.
He had trained his entire brain to act like a receptacle, and any job he was given he took only a few minutes to figure out the fastest most efficient way to accomplish it. That was what made him so popular among the high society of Wales. Adam, as well as being an expert Witness—one who could witness a premeditated event no one else knew about without being seen by the subjects, and later produce a flawless report as seen from several different angles, and not just about the subjects themselves but other possible witnesses—but Adam was also regularly called in for "Deletion" jobs as well.
The high value of information carried with it the risk of unauthorized Witnessing, or someone knowing too much, or even just the need to increase the value of one's information by eliminating anyone else who knew it. In Adam's profession, there were two modes of "Deletion": Homicide and cybercide.

Homicide involved killing a person, "erasing a scandal," or "adjusting the population." Cybercide was much more difficult and technical. It involved erasing a person's digital signal: personal info files, any “cloud whisper” or mention over the aethernet of the person’s name, surveillance recognition, and last of all, disconnecting the receptacle. It would not kill the person, but with the whole culture being centered around a cerebral receptacle as a normal occurrence, cybercide reduced the quality of life to virtually nothing civilized.

Adam moved from lower-middle-class to squarely in the upper-class citizenry when he landed a job on the Welsh Representative Assembly Information Tech Hit Squad (known by their acronym, WRAITHS), as a privately contracted Mercenary for desperate MA's needing information acquisition or elimination. Adam grew to recognize the wealth of information among the Streets of Wales, the ground-level that had been abandoned long ago.
As buildings grew taller, so did roads and byways. Small, personal hovercraft came into high fashion around the late 20th century, with larger-scale models used for middle-class public transportation. 

Social stratification became more than just a hypothetical theory. For Wales and for most of the world, it was physical reality. The lower classes could not afford receptacles, so many social activities were no longer an option: travel, since most public technology was geared toward receptacle accommodation, or “receptivity”; and information, which had to be passed the old-fashioned way, via physical clues, handwritten notes, or word-of-mouth. These limitations made it much harder to verify than cred information, but Adam found out through consistent use and the forming of relationships based on sharing common knowledge that very often these people were exactly right in their info. The Streets were a relatively “safe” place to perform secret crimes and dealings in the minds of the upper-classes. There was little chance that anyone with a receptacle would Witness the action, and the Streetwalkers could not possibly possess the capacity to remember what they had seen with any accuracy, for any length of time.

Only Adam knew the secret to getting solid information in the Streets: it was called “Street cred.” Ask multiple people the same question, and you'll get similar answers from many different perspectives, which easily compile themselves into one cohesive fact. And there were a handful of Streetwalkers whose powers of observation were keener than most. They were Adam's primary sources, and they also learned the type of things Adam would ask for. Adam, as a Mercenary, did not quite have the “respect for the law” that a Security Chief should have, but his reputation and certainly his credibility quotient were enough to rival his, when The Inevitable happened: a Deletion gone wrong.
 
It was supposed to be a simple job. Just another deletion in the life of legendary Mercenary Drake Ross. No one knew his real name, and until he was able to achieve a legitimate position, no one needed to.
Drake received the familiar manila package with grim satisfaction. From the insulated envelope, he pulled out a thin, clear silicon membrane. An “application.”

The membrane had been treated with chemical ink, one that reacted only to human skin, one that burned and seared its message into the skin of the recipient. Softer skin was not as painful, but the message didn’t last as long. Too many applications in one area seared the skin and made the applications excruciatingly painful as the chemical burned through scar tissue to take effect. The inside of the arm was a common place to receive applications. The skin was soft enough to take as many as twelve applications before searing over. Other common places were the shoulder or the abdomen. If the inside of the arm was spent, most Mercenaries would move to the back of the hand before daring to apply with the back of the arm. The chemical burned the hairs down to the roots to reach the skin. It was always painful, because once the hairs were gone, the skin had already seared over, and there was nothing else for it. Cruel gang-lords typically gave reluctant victims repeated applications on their legs, and vendettas were self-applied to the well-calloused heel. On soft tissue, the message lasted a few minutes, and it was very faint. Over seared skin, the ink burned darker, and the scars were visible for several hours. Heel applications remained for years, and the person was reminded of its presence with a shooting pain up their entire leg for years afterwards.

Drake rolled up his sleeve. There was no hair on his forearm—the mark of a career Mercenary. He carefully laid the application film just below the wrist and set his teeth. The burning began, and Drake forced himself to stare at where the message would appear. The sooner he read it, the sooner he could remove the film.

Delete: Desyre Maloney. Cybercide.

His hands were stiff with pain, but Drake used the rigid claws of his fingers to scrape the film off his skin. He knew his orders; he paused for breath as the film dropped from his fingertips. He flexed his fingers and massaged his palms to relax the muscles. Already the message was beginning to fade.
With calm born of expertise, he opened his comp-unit and began pulling out data concerning Desyre Maloney: her address, history, aethernet accounts, any mention of her name anywhere in the Cloud—that ever present breathable aethernet connection shared as common air between all citizens of the world. Within an hour, it was done. Anyone who had ever heard the name Desyre Maloney would no longer remember it. The more they breathed aethernet cleared of her name, the more the “fresh” Cloud would replace and overwrite the old. Now came the tricky part, the one Drake was good at: the final stroke, severing the receptacle connection. For that, he would need to leave his Fortieth-Level home and travel upwards to her address and Witness the final stage of her deletion. Then he would be paid; no doubt the customer was someone of excessively high status. Desyre’s address would require Drake to penetrate the Skyline of Wales, the uppermost levels of the city. It wasn’t often that he went there. He grabbed his “credibility” card and slipped it into his trench-coat pocket, along with his digital “eraser”: a device that could disconnect a specific receptacle frequency from a distance. He was careful to seal the door behind him; wouldn’t want any unwelcome visitors walking in while he was out on a job.

A hovercab awaited him just outside. Drake glanced down as he stepped inside. He could see the Streets, a quarter of a mile below him. Up in the Skyline, a full mile above the ground, the aethernet was so thick that it blocked the “unseemly” area from view. Drake scanned three small “factoids” from his receptacle to pay for his trip: he recalled them as they slipped from his wallet-screen to the driver’s.

“The first black man to be elected President of the United States was Barack Obama in the year 2008.”
“Emeryn Vreitnach was born in Gellyndwychoch.”
“Singer Dorothea Wystromme likes to bowl on the weekends.”

The driver nodded, satisfied with the amount. “Where to?”
“Sixty-two-fourteen, Aerynn Block,” Drake told him. Twenty levels up, six units west, and three north from their current location.
“Hang on,” the driver instructed, and as he switched gears, the hovercab soared upwards. When it reached Level Sixty, the hovercab detached from the riser and caught a west-bound airstream. From there, it attached to the northbound lane that brought him to a stop at the bay of Aerynn Block.
“Wait here,” Drake knew it would only take a few minutes for the eraser to do its work. He stepped from the cab onto the “streets” of Aerynn, fully enclosed and climate-controlled. He activated the locator beacon on the eraser. It latched onto the receptacle signal for Desyre Maloney, and Drake stood in the shadows across the street from the house as he watched the signal strength climb to full capacity. 
97%...
98%...
99%...
100%.

Drake pulled the trigger. The numbers immediately plummeted. 

76%...
48%...
32%... 
19%...
7%... 
3%...
2%...

NO SIGNAL.

It was done. Drake checked the time stamp. 11:15 AM. Record time. The payment in credibility would be waiting for him in his mail-slot. He could buy himself a nice supper with it.
Drake returned to the hovercab.
“Return.”
The driver glanced at him, “That’ll be two bits more, gov.”
Drake sighed and pulled two more blurbs, general ones, out of his receptacle. He displayed them on his wallet. “Will these do?”
The driver nodded; he was just amassing info, he did not care how general it was. In the Low Levels where he lived, he could always find someone who didn’t have the same bits he received from his passengers.

Drake rode the hovercab back to his home, but the minute the cab detached from his door, a Security Vehicle pulled into its place. An Information Security Officer emerged.
“Adam LaRouge?” he asked.
“Yes,” Adam—known as Drake Ross only by his professional contacts—verified, “I am Adam LaRouge.”
“You have been summoned before the Security Council. Come with me.”

Deep in the heart of the Streets, Drake bit his lip at the memory. That day was the last time he had ever said “I am Adam LaRouge.”