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SECURITY CLASSIFICATION: RELEASED TO PUBLIC | DATE OF REVIEW: 19.02.2098 |
AUTHORITY: WIPO | AUTHOR: W ROBERTS |
DOCUMENT STATUS: FINAL VERSION | VERSION: 1.0 |

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If God didn't want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.

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SECURITY CLASSIFICATION: NOT RELEASED TO PUBLIC | DATE OF REVIEW: 01.04.2098 |
AUTHORITY: NETWORK CLOSECASTING | AUTHOR: NETWORK CLOSECASTING |
DOCUMENT STATUS: FINAL VERSION | VERSION: 1.0 |

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Ebenezer knew, even on his first day of being dropped on the Island, that if he didn't start making friends, he'd die. He's no good at living outdoors. No good at hunting or fishing or scavenging. No good at building. Definitely no good at fighting. Like every rookie, he came with nothing and needed everything he could get, quick. Making connections was crucial. It's a beast of an Island. He'd never survive alone.

At first, he thought he was just imagining that something terrible was going on. Making too much out of insignificant, unrelated occurrances. Just paranoia festering in the brain. Now he knows it's not imagination.

It started with Zolotisty, back in New Pittsburgh. She did something with Improbability; he could feel it. Just because he's human doesn't mean he can't feel it, like a thunderclap's rattling reverberation. If it's nothing, then why doesn't she explain. And why does she keep doing it. He's caught Spandex at it too, the same reverberation, and she's just as tight-lipped on the matter. The last time he questioned Z about it, the last time she dodged answering, was the same night she took him to meet Elias.

She never did tell why it really was she wanted to visit the doctor. She didn't seem to realize that Ebenezer was watching the windows when she teleported Elias away. Away to where?

On the beach, when he and Tyr confronted Spandex about threatening a clan applicant, threatening Haccadine, she said she had her reasons. She's trained with Kai Victoria and she can hold her temper, but she had her reasons for putting a knife to that man's throat. The way she glanced to the cameras then.. Ebenezer was sure she was trying to tell him Haccadine was, is Network -- his own secret projected onto another. The conversation he overheard in the library proved otherwise straight away. The Network doesn't speak in tongues; it speaks in numbers. Gangs are the ones that speak in secret-words. Thieves and vandals and terrorists.

So wound up, the two of them, about him listening in on words he can't even understand. Haccadine, agitated enough to cage him in his room.

That bill. Over four thousand cameras disabled.

The Grotto's hulking computer gives a constant, soothing white-noise hum. Almost calm, Ebenezer tak-clack-taks at the keys. CONTESTANT LOOK-UP. He cues up Haccadine first. Then Spandex, Zolotisty. He's not even sure what he's looking for. Maybe the files'll tell him something people won't.

The great monster of a printer groans to life. An agonizingly slow life of printing out pages one damned line at a damned time and choking on the blank space in-between. Ebenezer pushes a clammy hand back through his hair, eyes stuck staring at paper as it inch-crawls its way out of the machine and piles in accordions on the floor.

Three full files to get through. It'll take ages and all the trembling while, he's hoping Zolotisty's not listening. Hoping she won't hear.

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SECURITY CLASSIFICATION: NOT RELEASED TO PUBLIC | DATE OF REVIEW: 01.04.2098 |
AUTHORITY: NETWORK CLOSECASTING | AUTHOR: NETWORK CLOSECASTING |
DOCUMENT STATUS: FINAL VERSION | VERSION: 1.0 |

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Dex deliberately keeps her back to Haccadine and Z as they look over the half-finished wall mural, and pries the lids of her three buckets of paint with one of her knives.

"'Bout time I got 'round to workin' on this," she says, swiping the blade clean on her jeans and tucking it away again. "It's twist's Christmas present from last year for chrissakes. You like the place?" Finally, she turns around and stretches her back and neck, looking up the length of the paint-peeling fire escape to where it ends, a rooftop five stories above. "Go on up if you like. Go on in, too, if you can find a way." She pulls a folded piece of paper from her pocket. Her annotated sketch of the Tibetan Wheel of Life has acquired a couple of rim-shaped stains since she last looked at it.

"S'big," he remarks, squinting up at the bottom of the fire escape. If there was a foothold or something on the way up he'd probably be able to make it, but that wall's pretty much sheer. He shuffles back a little, turning to look at the mural again.

"Mostly empty inside," Z says, ears pricking as Dex picks up her brush.

"Cold ales in th'ice box for you if you can break in, though." She's unsure if Z's being protective of their place, but she figures anyone has as much right to it as they do, if they can find their way in. With her brush dipped black, she divides the ring surrounding the last one into twelve equal segments. "They're called Nidanas, Elias says. S'far as I can figure, they're like the causes and effects of being on the wheel."

"Who's Elias?" Haccadine drops his eyes to look between the two of them.

"Used to be a medic. Used to run a lucky dip," Z says. "He takes care of people if they need it."

"He's her father," Dex interrupts, switching to a slightly smaller brush. Z's ear flicks, but she doesn't protest. "Can you make a shelf of air to stand on so I can work on the upper sections, twist? Can't concentrate and ..uhh.. concentrate at the same time too well." Z rolls to her feet and pads closer to smooth her hands over a stretch of empty space.

"Ah." He falls silent, a slight frown on his face, and watches Dex set her supplies on what looks like nothing and clamber up to work.

In the topmost wedge, she illustrates two eyeless Jokers having proper tea at a table laid with fine linens and fine china in the jungle. By the time she's started the next section clockwise, a contestant choosing their fighting aid implant -- Zolotisty has gone inside and come back out again with those ales. She takes a break and the three of them join her to sit and enjoy their cold drinks on the invisible scaffolding, legs dangling over the alley below. "Almost feel spoiled workin' like this. Not like in London where I'd be crouched squintin' in the dark, hurryin' s'fast as I could, and always with a buddy to keep lookout bitchin' 'bout the cold."

"What's it look like."

"London?" Z grunts confirmation and Dex tags Haccadine's bottle with her own. "Ask Guy, he's been there more recently than I have." And she wants to hear him tell it.

Some few hundred meters from the warehouse, on the third floor of a building with blown out windows, Edith Tijoux loads tranquilizer darts into her rifle. She checks the trio with a glance, chambers her round, and looks to see if Zolotisty's famous ears have noticed. No change. In the shadows of the window next to her, sat on a peeling wooden stool, Idris watches the scene intently. He hasn't moved a muscle since Spandex started painting, not even to blink.

"Go down," Ed says.

Haccadine grunts and takes another swig from his bottle. "Big. Grey. Half-dead, you know? Centre's still got plenty of people, but the further you go out the more places you see just been gutted and boarded up. Lots of ‘em got people squattin' in ‘em -- crims, runaways, addicts. Anybody desperate enough not to mind the rats and the wild dogs an' the pigs. Pigs're the worst."

"The stick-out teeth type? Where does everyone live."

He shoots her a grin. "Nah, the sort with uniforms that come around an' kick yer door down. Y'know. Rozzers." Another swill of the bottle. Z looks to Dex, who mouths 'police' as Haccadine continues, "Lots of people moved out into the countryside, where all the big farms are. Pretty shit pay from what I heard, but steady work an' if you don't do it everybody starves."

"Mmn." Z taps her claws against her drink. "Where's there that isn't a cage."

Scoffing, Dex lifts her page of notes. "Only in your head, if I'm reading this right."

Zolotisty frowns at her before glancing back to Haccadine.

"Get it right, Guy," Dex half-teases, leaning on him and toasting the nearby camera. "Got millions of people's attention."

He rolls a shoulder, head dipping. "Just tellin' it how I remember, yeh?"

"Where's there that's not a cage," Z repeats.

"Anywhere the corporations can't get at you. Anywhere you can make somethin' that's yours and not have some bastard take it off you ‘cause you're infringin' on his fuckin' profit margins. S'why they don't like Crew; if you can do stuff for yourself, they can't cut you off. Got no power over you. Makes ‘em upset when you break their cages."

Zolotisty leans back, shifting her leg to bump her knee into Dex's. It prompts her to fold her paper away, and they both look toward a man approaching the warehouse.

Idris walks with a slow, languid stride, in no particular hurry to close the distance between them and himself. He raises a hand in greeting, casual, coming to a stop a short way from their perch. "Good morning."

"Hullo," Z and Dex say cheerfully, almost in unison.

"Beautiful day, isn't it?" He smiles up at them, a flash of white. "Is that painting yours?"

Ed hasps one of her ragged fingernails along the stock of her rifle. Pressed to the edge of the window, she watches. Even with Idris down there as a distraction.. risky to try to drop more than two at once. Maybe the blonde one clears off. Maybe Zolotisty disappears. She waits.

"It's hers," Dex says, deliberately duplicitous as she indicates Z. "Dex," she adds, leaning farther forward. "Who are you?" She recognizes him from somewhere, she's sure -- good looking fellow, obviously been a Joker for a long time as the thrum of Improbability indicates.

"Idris," he replies simply. "It's nice to meet you, Dex. Who are your friends?"

"Zolotisty. Z's fine."

"Mf. Haccadine."

Too clean for the jungle, Dex notes. Looking at me too much. Zolotisty knocks her knee gently into hers again, watching Spandex register her doubt with a slight squint. She's strangely grateful when Z takes her hand, pressing her thumb gently into the center of her paint-sticky palm.

Idris' tongue flicks out to wet his lips, still smiling. If Ed takes too much longer, he considers, he'll have to do the job himself. One hand goes to his wrist, adjusting the cuff of his shirt. "It's not often you see people taking such an interest in their neighbourhood. Are you planning on any more of these murals, then?"

Improbability around AceHigh often changes direction and force quickly, an indecisive riptide. A current pulls a switchback turn and wends past all of them, surging down the alleyway. Z's tail puffs sympathetically. Dex hears herself sigh with longing, and Idris' unflappable smile, just for a moment, wavers. Haccadine shoots them a sideways glance, brow furrowing.

"Not much of a planner. Why?" Her hand closes tight around Z's, the other almost loses grip on her bottle. She has to remember she's holding it.

Idris recovers quickly, running a hand through his hair. "It's a lovely piece of art. It would be nice to see more of them around the place."

Setting one boot on the sill of the window, Ed sights down her rifle. She aims for Haccadine but does not fire, gathered Improbability all pulsing and pounding and raging for release in her fingertips. Sucking spittle from her chipped front teeth, she pulls it still closer, feels it all tugging and whinging around her. Releasing the rifle with one hand, she balls the Improbability into her fist, then lets go. The effect is immediate, concussive. Improbability blasts outward from the area. The invisible shelf disappears, dumping Haccadine, Dex and Z to the ground. An illusion around Idris shimmers and dissipates.

Dex's bottle shatters and she thumps heavily on her back, winded, until she gasps for air only to find it thin, void, probable. Zolotisty coughs once, hard, like she's got something caught in her throat, and scrambles to her feet only to get a rough boot to the stomach. She goes down again and Idris staggers a step away from her to lean against the wall, bent almost double. He looks nothing like he did a moment ago -- burn scars along his scalp and the right side of his face give him the waxy sheen of a melted plastic figurine, with his ear a twisted nubbin and open canal, and his mouth and exposed upper jaw a permanent rictus snarl. What's left of his hair sprouts in bristles and longer lank strands which fall across the scar in a poor attempt at a combover. One eye, partially obscured by the flesh that's healed around it, seems much smaller than the other -- piggy and dark by comparison to the other, bloodshot a livid red.

He got WHOOMPHed, Z realizes immediately as her vision blurs. The rifle barks. A sharp, stabbing pain blossoms in Haccadine's upper arm as he struggles up, and his hand goes to the wound on instinct, closing around cold metal. Dart, probably chock full of tranquilisers -- if he's lucky. Poison if he's not. He swears, loud, and yanks it out, rolling to his feet.

Ed spits sideways through her teeth and chambers a magazine of bullets.

Dex's grip is still locked on Z's hand, but she's otherwise curled into herself. "Help, please, no, god, no, Z," she starts, rendered incapable of willing herself to do anything else. Breath rattling in her lungs, Z tries to go, finds herself incapable, and pats her own belly with splayed fingers. She can't breathe, she can't stand -- this, she finds herself thinking before words slip away, is what oranges feel like when they're being squeezed for their juices.

Haccadine lunges forward, grabs Idris by the collar, and slams him hard against the wall. He twists one of the Joker's arms behind his back until it feels about ready to give and then swings him around in the direction of the shooter, ignoring his pained gasping. Ed, indifferent to Idris' predicament and totally unaffected by the lack of Improbability in the area, waits patiently for an opening. She watches them jostle, checking Spandex and Zolotisty with flickery little glances. She does not blink.

A bullet takes a bite out of the pavement just left of Haccadine's foot. He jerks, twisting back against the wall. A quick jab to the kidney stops Idris' struggling long enough for him to slip a hand into his jacket and withdraw his own gun; that last shot gave him a bead on the building. He takes aim and fires, once, back at the window the shot came from. Ed fires back a shot of acknowledgement: try again.

Zolotisty's sluggish and on the verge of asphyxiation, but she fumbles one-handed through her pockets as best she's able until the gunshot drives Dex scrambling up to flee, senselessly jerking Z's arm almost from its socket. She coughs again, not quite able to form Haccadine's name while Dex, without looking back, throws her weight forward to drag Z toward the corner and out of the alley.

Haccadine squeezes off three more shots in quick succession and then his head begins to swim; everything beyond the end of his gun blurs, his arm getting heavier by the minute.

"Hacca," Z rasps. He glances back at her, woozy, and begins to drag his hostage in their direction.

"Leg--" More coughing. She works a one-shot out from her jacket, struggling to keep hold of it as she's pulled across the rough pavement. "Leggo."

Uncertain, he squints at Idris' froth-flecked snarl before bringing his pistol around against the back of the man's head with as much force as he's able to muster. The Joker falls limp to the cobbles. Another gunshot. Haccadine staggers away, heading toward Z and Dex.

It takes seven paces before Haccadine's foot stumbles into Z's. She thumbs the button and they disappear with a faint flash. The teleporter clatters and describes a wide spiral as it rolls away, trailing smoke.

Ed stomps her foot backward from the window sill. "Unsatisfactory."

Setting down her rifle, she takes a deep breath and collects her cigarettes from the floor by Idris' sorry-looking stool. She chainsmokes two before leaving the building.

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SECURITY CLASSIFICATION: NOT RELEASED TO PUBLIC | DATE OF REVIEW: 01.04.2098 |
AUTHORITY: NETWORK CLOSECASTING | AUTHOR: NETWORK CLOSECASTING |
DOCUMENT STATUS: FINAL VERSION | VERSION: 1.0 |

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The energy from the one-shot dumps them in the middle of NewHome.

Again, Dex lands winded, but this time the lungful of Improbability's like surfacing from a deep dive. "Z, Halls!" she yells, gripping a handful of Haccadine's shirt, but Z's unresponsive, struggling for air. "Shit! Z breathe!" Dex lets go of her hand finally to slide an arm under Z's neck. "Breathe, com'on," she pleads, gulping Improbability. She checks Haccadine, staring around himself in drunken confusion, swaying visibly. "Jesusfuck geddown!"

Her grip on Improbability is still too weak to be any use, so she looks up for their nearest cover -- the clan district's not far, but it means crossing the exposed square. "Help! Someone help! Fuckin' help someone, help!" she screams. A gaggle of rookies turn to look at her. "Help! Help him to the clan offices." One jerks at her tone and, looking around, reluctantly trots over to Haccadine to lead him across the square. "Shitshit com'on faster," she orders. She crouches and stumbles forward to scoop Z in her arms, bridal-carrying her behind the others, now glancing over her shoulder to check if they're followed.

Inside, Haccadine's draped like a drunk over the rookie, struggling to keep his eyes open. "Wait," Dex tells them, hurrying down the hall to DICE's door. The door registers her badge, clicking open. She shoulders through the door and sets Z down on the upper landing in the Dome before returning to the lobby.

"Don't step in, security," she barks at the already-frightened rook, as she yanks Haccadine forward and inside to help him slide down the wall to slump onto the ground. " She hurries back to the doorway, glancing past the woman's shoulder to where they came in. "Name 'n clan.. name 'n clan!"

"Alice," she says. "I don't -- I'm not in a clan."

"That way," Dex orders, stabbing her finger in the opposite direction. "I'll find you.. mean.. fuck.. GO! No! Wait! Uhh.. forgeteverything." With that, she slams the door and turns to Z and Haccadine.

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SECURITY CLASSIFICATION: NOT RELEASED TO PUBLIC | DATE OF REVIEW: 01.04.2098 |
AUTHORITY: NETWORK CLOSECASTING | AUTHOR: NETWORK CLOSECASTING |
DOCUMENT STATUS: FINAL VERSION | VERSION: 1.0 |

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"Well," Ed says. She ashes her third cigarette.

Idris, one hand clamped bloody to the side of his head, struggles up from the cobblestones. His face is raw and scraped, a mess of white lines turning to dripping scarlet where it was forced against rough brick. "Don't just stand there looking stupid," he hisses, slurred. "Help me."

She gazes at him, sleepy-eyed. "I did." She looks around. "That was unsatisfactory."

He rises shakily to his feet and takes a step forward. His leg buckles and he stumbles, throwing an arm about her shoulders to steady himself; she stares down at him with the same dispassionate expression, barely moving. There's a glint of metal as he shifts and all of sudden she's got the point of a stiletto pressing into her windpipe, the slightest twitch away from puncture. His act drops. Ed stiffens.

"Next time," Idris intones, "you will warn me before you pull a stunt like that. Had you done so today, we could easily have had our mark subdued and ready for collection. Instead, you thought you'd be clever--" The knife twists. A drop of blood squeezes out from under the point and trickles down to pool in the hollow of Ed's throat. "Or, perhaps, you weren't thinking at all, which seems to be the norm for you. Now they know we're after them. You, my dear disposable idiot, have just made our lives a great fucking deal harder." Spittle flecks her cheek as he leans in close, teeth scant millimetres from her ear. "I don't usually waste my talents on such obviously inferior material, but make one more mistake like that and you and I will be spending some serious quality time together. Blink twice if you understand." Two crease-eyed blinks.

The knife flicks sideways, sending dark red droplets sprinkling onto the cobbles, and Idris steps swiftly away. Ed chuckles, reaching up to palm her neck. His lip curls in response, anger quickly replaced with contempt. "They'll have gone to ground by now. We'll have to wait for them to stick their heads out again. In the meantime, we ought to start looking for their hiding place."

She lifts her cigarette, taking a drag and hissing the smoke out through her teeth. Improbability continues to roil slowly back into the area, resaturating it. Idris' illusion regains itself slowly, returning him to a normal appearance. "Your assignment was to acquire their possible hiding places."

Idris smooths back his hair, releasing a slow breath through his nose. "Yes. You're quite right. Why don't you go back to your piss-stained tent and wait until I'm done. You can explain to our employer why it is that you let the target escape."

"My assignment was to locate and immobilize the target. I located the target. The target was immobilized." One more drag then she drops the cigarette and crushes it beneath her boot.

"You failed to properly tranquilise the man and then engaged in a ridiculous gun battle instead of neutralising the other two," he retorts, blunt. "Don't insult me by trying to play your incompetence off as my responsibility."

"The target was immobilized," Ed repeats. "Forewarning would have been advantageous, correct. Your emotions, however, are a greater impedance to this job than what just happened. Piss-stained tents. Dear disposable idiots. Popguns. Firecrackers."

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SECURITY CLASSIFICATION: RESTRICTED | DATE OF REVIEW: 01.04.2098 |
AUTHORITY: NETWORK COMPLIANCE COMMISSION | AUTHOR: NETWORK COMPLIANCE COMMISSION |
DOCUMENT STATUS: FINAL VERSION | VERSION: 1.0 |

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Cooper pulls his collar higher and tighter to hide his flushing neck as he leaves the InterNationBank. The two guards -- seems it's been the same two woman forever -- look up as he walks past. "G'day," they say cordially.

"G'day," he returns, glancing at the game table between them. He feels unsure about what to expect on the board for the first time since he can remember -- chess, no clear winner. Just like every week. But he pulls his shoulders tighter and presses on, unable to shake his unease.

Everything was just slightly off-kilter, even the training. Not the fact Durbin suggested Cooper wear a blindfold for much of it-- that's a common technique for them, and they take turns, but the tone of Durbin's fighting was unusually condescending, bullying.

Afterward, when he sketched out how the Network is planning to portray Haccadine, Durbin seemed distracted and bored. It was as if he already knew. When he mentioned Haccadine's recent clashes with Ebenezer, Durbin's expression remained impassive. Futile, he decided then, to even ask what was going on. What he doesn't understand are the reasons Durbin asked him to monitor Haccadine's situation at all, given this apparent new lack of interest in his information.

Perhaps most upsetting is that he caught one of the guards peeking into the gym when he and Durbin were only a few minutes over schedule. Standard security procedure, he consoles himself. Don't take it personally.

As he turns left at the end of the block, a boy in a blue hood joins him. He paces alongside him, and both walkers remain silent and keep their eyes ahead. A plucky dealer or panhandler, probably, and best ignored, Cooper figures. By the time they turn again at the next corner and are halfway down the block, the boy speaks.

"Awwyeh, that Haccadine been rolled up 'n throwed onto your show, like. Pssht, s'a shame we all say but then we all say maybe not. Guy's a good guy, real good guy. Hurts our hearts to see how they treatin' him. Poor Guy, poor guy, been treated like that. S'torture, we see. Terrible, terrible we say. Make the kids want'a fight in'is honour, for 'is honour. No one should take that away from anyone, nawmean, Lagerfeld. Honour?"

Cooper stops and turns. The boy meets his step and smiles broadly up at him.

"You always behind them cameras, bet it'd be real weird-like to watch yourself on one, I bet. Like, say, fightin' blindfolded, tellin' shit 'bout your work. Bet that'd put a twist in yer fancy silk ginch, like." He laughs and lifts his hand to his forehead before suddenly lifting his chin and sniffing the air. "You smell that? Burnin', like? Smells like.. fancy threads on fire, you'd know that smell, Lagerfeld. Damn, 'n that.. that's unmistakable. Everyone knows burnin' hair smell. Awwman, this one's particular, long and black and smells just like yours, but longer. Bet it's a pretty young girl. What a shame, damn shame. These things can always be avoided, nawmean?" He finishes the salute and slouches off across the street.

At least your instincts are sound, Cooper, he thinks, and he finds his fists gripped. He doesn't know what makes him angrier -- Durbin's threat, that he sent some snot-nosed kid to do it, or that he didn't even try to just ask first.

 
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