Defender of the People
Walter Webb started awake and jumped to his feet. Cold sweat ran down his face and his head pounded. He was in a hotel room, but he couldn’t remember getting there or what day it was. Entire chunks of memory were gone. He stumbled to the window and pulled back the blinds. He squinted. Skyscrapers. He was in the city, downtown. On a high floor. There was an electric tension in the air.
“News…,” he said. “News on.”
A wall lit up. He concentrated, trying to bring the wide-eyed newscaster and her rush of words into focus “… inventor of cy-brain implants, the Social Model robots, and a dozen other innovations that made him a billionaire, Henry Muross’s jump from the roof of his own skyscraper…”
He stumbled back to the sofa, rubbing his temples. There was a cell phone on the table. And a gun. Why was there a gun? He tried the cell phone. Dead. He grabbed the hotel tablet and dialed the front desk. As he punched in the numbers, he heard heavy boots in the hallway.
The front desk answered, but the polite words were drowned out by a skull-scraping crack. Walter twisted around as the door flew off its hinges and crashed to the floor. He shouted for help into the phone as masked, armored men stormed the room, pointing laser-guided weapons at him. A dark blur flew at him and he was on the carpet being choked. Nose smashed, blinding pain. Darkness.
The door opened and a tall man in a long blue coat and fedora advanced into the darkened observation room.
“I’m Rivers,” he said. “Marcel sent me.” He held out his hand.
The woman looked coolly at the hand and waited a beat before taking it. “Sybil Serano, Lead Detective for the Nemesis Special Taskforce. The chief ordered me to cooperate with Marcel, not a surrogate.”
“Anonymity allows him to tackle his cases much more effectively.”
“Actually, I thought Marcel was an urban legend,” Sybil said. “The ‘world’s greatest detective’, yet no one has seen his face?”
“He’s real. His operatives send in reports. He sends out instructions.”
Rivers walked over to the one-way mirror On the other side a thin young man sat alone at a table. His hands were cuffed, his face bruised and his nose mangled. He wore a plain white jumpsuit that matched the walls of the empty room around him. He sat in silence, staring intensely into nothing.
Rivers’ eyes narrowed. “A pitiful specimen for a master criminal.”
Sybil came up beside Rivers. Just behind his right earlobe she saw the telltale 3.50 mm socket. Cy-brain implant. Marcel spared no expense it seemed.
“They traced the calls to his hotel room. He was found with the phone and a gun used in a previous crime linked to Nemesis. Fingerprints all over it.”
“Not conclusive evidence.” Rivers turned and set his briefcase on the table. “I’m to share the information Marcel has gathered thus far.”
“I’ve worked the case for two years. I have everything known about Nemesis.”
Rivers pulled a stack of papers from the briefcase and dropped it on the table. “Not quite.”
“You can’t hack paper.” He shuffled through the pages. “The first cy-brain implant hack you know of was the ‘Hyena Incident’, at a press conference by the head of RG Bank regarding a pending government bailout. He joked and laughed hysterically about how RG had tanked due to predatory practices by its executives. The conference was stopped and he was dragged off howling like a hyena.”
“Yes,” Sybil said. “And the Moralists loved it — ‘Defender of the people! Nemesis of the implanted elite!’ ”
“And Nemesis was born.” Rivers looked doubtfully at Walter Webb again. “The hacker who had wealthy CEOs donating money with no recollection of doing so, security leaks at government ministries. And now Henry Muross. Dead.” He looked at Sybil.
Her shoulders slumped and she turned away from Rivers’ gaze. The cy-brain hack that drove Henry Muross to jump to his death from the roof of his own building was a blow to the Special Taskforce. People were saying Nemesis had supporters in police and government. And now she had lost control of the Taskforce to Marcel.
“It was bad out there before. Muross’s public death has electrified them.”
Sybil’s lip curled “The Moralists are luddites — uneducated and terrified of change. They squawk for a while, then waddle back to their little lives.”
Rivers gazed through the one-way mirror, hands clasped behind his back. “On the contrary. As with the Luddites, the Moralists are skilled workers losing their livelihoods to radical technological marvels. They formed during the Disparity Struggles, and embrace the principles authored by Rousseau and animating the French Revolution 300 years ago.”
“So where they once chopped off heads they now hack into them? That’s a glorious heritage.”
“Muross’s tactical error was in not bringing his technology to the people on the streets.”
“For which he paid with his life.”
She joined Rivers at the mirror and looked at the pale young man in the other room. His wired blue eyes seemed to be drilling through the glass at them.
“And we have his murderer. Webb had the cell phone, he had the gun. He has the cy-brain implant needed to do the hacks, he has no alibi and claims he can’t remember anything.”
“His implant was infected by the NK virus and some memories may have been deleted. And Marcel found traces of Nemesis in the darknet a year earlier than the Hyena incident.”
Sybil shook her head. “When every branch of government couldn’t?”
“It’s all there,” Rivers said, gesturing to the papers on the table. “He called himself ‘N’. He railed against the government and cybernetics, parroting Moralists about alienation from nature and the corrupting effects of robots and transhumanism. He bragged about hacks he’d done. When cash machines in Moralist neighborhoods started spitting out currency, N claimed responsibility and posted code to prove it.”
Sybil examined the pages. “Why do you think ‘N’ is Nemesis?”
“Nemesis loves to mock his enemies. He left a trail for Marcel to follow. His NK virus had a message buried in the data. Nemesis Knight.”
“But what does it mean?”
“It’s just a breadcrumb. Nemesis is saying that he can afford to play games.”
“Well the games are over. We’ve got him. And a good thing — we can hardly contain the protests. One more hack and we’ll have a civil war.”
“But that’s just it, detective. Nemesis is too good to slip up like this. And Webb is clean. His implant was arranged by his senator father after Webb suffered brain damage in a car accident. But, Marcel found it was done at the same secret clinic all the other victims of the NK virus used — Nova Genomics. The servers are clean but you could check the hardware. The virus has to be jacked in with hardware.” Rivers held up a piece of paper. “The classified address to their location. If they’ll let you in.”
Sybil squared her shoulders. “Oh, they’ll let me in.” She nodded at Webb. “Do you want to question him now?”
“Let’s give it a day and see if anything comes back to him.”
“Or if he thinks up a good lie. All right, I’ll send him back to solitary.” She turned to leave.
“Not solitary. Tell Webb he is no longer a suspect. Tell him we’ve arrested the real Nemesis, but we need to keep him overnight for his own safety.”
Sybil shook her head. “And if he really is the most dangerous criminal in the country?”
“This will lower his guard. We’ll put him in the corner cell, next to my informant.”
“An influential Moralist who’s playing both sides. Nemesis wouldn’t let someone else take credit for his work. My informant will claim he is Nemesis. Webb’s reaction will tell us a lot.”
“It’s your call, Mr. Rivers.” She left the room and clapped the door shut behind her.
Rivers walked down the corridor, past empty cells framed by dark walls and thick steel bars. The small high-security block had been cleared, but the cell right next to Webb held the informant. Rivers saw the time in the corner of his vision ― 20:43:04 ― and he could see Webb’s face inside a small window below the time bar, thin lines of text scrolling over the image.
Sybil’s unit had searched the clinic. As they jacked into the facility’s hardware, a real-time massive hack hit and fried the circuitry. Any evidence there might have been was gone. It bore the trademarks of Nemesis and indicated he kept the clinic under surveillance. The one thing it proved was that Webb wasn’t Nemesis. But he could still be an accomplice.
Rivers slowed as he passed the informant’s cell. The dark-skinned man with glasses was sitting motionless in a chair. He looked up silently as Rivers walked past to Webb’s cell.
“Mr. Webb,” Rivers said. The young man was already standing by the door and gripping the bars. He wore the same white jumpsuit, his face still blue from the beating he’d taken.
“Who are you? What’s happening?”
“Riots are happening, Mr. Webb. Protests and riots.”
“What? No, I mean, when can I leave? They told me I wasn’t a suspect, that I could go as soon as it’s safe.”
“Well it isn’t safe.” Rivers began running his analysis program. Voice, face, body temperature, scent, heart and breath rate. “My name is Rivers. Mr. Webb, the Moralists are convinced you are Nemesis. Someone leaked your arrest, and they are rioting for your release.”
“But I’m not Nemesis!” Walter gestured at the next cell. “He says he is.”
“And you’re his accomplice?”
“No! He must have hacked me. Please, you have to believe me.”
“Walter, I want to help you but you need to be completely honest with me.”
Webb nodded, wide-eyed.
“Nemesis is a dangerous criminal. He pays lip service to Moralist propaganda, but his true intentions are completely egotistical. He is a narcissist and a sociopath, and he will stop at nothing to get what he wants. He wants to see this city burn. Do you understand?”
Webb nodded vigorously, then winced. A hand went to his bruised forehead.
“You’ve been over this already, but I want you to tell me. What do you remember before waking up in your hotel room?”
“Going to sleep in my apartment, ten days ago. No, I guess it’s eleven days now. And it wasn’t my hotel room; I never saw that room before. Please, sir, you have to believe me!”
The program finished. The probability Webb was being sincere was over 99%. “I do believe you. But, think again! Do you remember anything at all? Even the smallest thing ― a sound, an image, a scent.”
Webb thought, his face straining. “I… I don’t know. A lot is missing. Not just the last few days, but stuff from before. I can’t remember what my apartment looks like. Or my dog… do I have a dog?”
“Think harder Mr. Webb. Your life depends on it.”
Webb closed his eyes. “Okay, uhm… there’s…”
“Maybe a smell. Like chemicals or… something medical.”
“And what do you see when you smell that scent?”
Webb frowned and grimaced. “It’s a light. A green light, shaped like… I don’t know, like a swan.”
“The green swan logo,” Rivers said. “The clinic where you were implanted. Nova Genomics.”
Suddenly Webb’s face contorted. He cried out, hissed through clenched teeth, then clapped his hands to his face. “Letters. Green letters.”
“What do they say?”
Webb shook his head, fingers digging into his temples. “I don’t… I can’t.”
“You have to, Walter!”
“Nemesis Knight,” Webb spat out. “Nemesis Knight.” He exhaled sharply and relaxed a little.
Rivers paused. Webb still held critical information. This next part was dangerous, but Nemesis had eluded capture for years, the Moralists were ready to revolt, time was running out.
“Listen to me Walter,” Rivers said. Walter looked up with bloodshot eyes. Rivers spoke softly so that only Walter could hear. “I know you’re innocent; I know Nemesis is setting you up. I can help you, but you have to trust me.”
Webb looked cautiously at him.
“Perhaps you can’t trust ‘Rivers’, but…. My name is Marcel.”
Something inside Webb snapped. His eyes popped wide, his face twisted. He dropped to the ground like a sack, clutching his head screaming.
Someone shouted from down the corridor. It was Sybil, running towards him. Her eyes searched the corridor, then settled on the man she knew as Rivers.
Sybil shouted over the screaming. “The rioters are headed here. Someone leaked his location,” she snarled. “We’ve mobilized the riot police, but they might not make it in time.” She ran up to Webb’s cell and pressed her thumb on the display. Then she punched in a code and the door popped open.
“We have to get him out of here.” Sybil ran in and knelt, turning Walter over. She slipped out a mini-tab from her jacket and connected the jack behind Webb’s ear. She typed on the keyboard.
“What are you doing detective? This is the safest place he could be.”
Sybil just kept typing. Webb stopped screaming. He closed his eyes and lay, breathing slowly.
“I said… “
Sybil pulled the mini-tab free then shot up and rammed into him, slamming him into the bars. She took his pistol from its holster, stepped back, and aimed right between his eyes.
Walter heard voices but they were distant, like leaves in the breeze. He couldn’t move or open his eyes. He remembered a scraping pain that had burned through his skull like fire.
There had been a hotel room, men with guns, prison. And the man with the hat had said… Nova Genomics. A window smashed open inside his mind, and he saw letters.
But the man said something else.
My name is Marcel.
There had been pain, screaming. Then more windows opened, one after the other. Then a door opened, and Walter saw it all. He opened his eyes.
The man ― Marcel ― stood against the wall, his arms raised and his hat thrown to the floor. A woman was pointing a gun at him.
Walter pushed himself off the ground. “Sybil,” he said.
“What’s going on here, Detective Serano?”
Sybil said nothing.
Walter moved his head slowly from side to side, his neck bone cracking. “Can’t you piece it together, oh great detective?”
The man he had known as Rivers frowned in thought, then it clicked and his eyes widened.
Webb stepped forward. “Surprise! It’s me. My people infiltrated the Taskforce months ago. They helped Sybil kill the cameras and activate the jammer. Nothing your cy-brain is seeing will leave this building. You’ve been tracking me, Marcel, and you’ve been getting in my way. I knew you’d get me eventually, so I got you first.”
“Nemesis? So you’re hacking Webb’s brain, and Sybil’s?”
“I don’t have a cy-brain,” Sybil snapped. “I’m a natural.”
“You say that as if… “
She grinned. “As if I’m proud? As if I’m a Moralist?”
“How could you?”
“How could I not? How could I not stand against corruption and perversion of nature? Against sham-human robots and mechanical brains?”
He shook his head. “Nemesis is not your ally. He’s a murderer, arrogant, manipulative, and he’ll stop at nothing.”
“Nemesis is a hero! He killed Henry Muross and started a revolution. He risked everything to find you. He trusted me.” There was fire in her eyes.
“Rivers,” Walter said, amused. “I figured you’d use a cover, and I knew you’d come. You followed my clues, and when they caught me you had to see for yourself.”
“You, Walter Webb, can’t be Nemesis. I ran programs, facial scan, voice analysis. You were telling the truth.”
“I was. Because I wiped my own memories.”
“No. The clinic was hacked in real time. Walter Webb couldn’t do it, he was right here under surveillance.”
“I had the virus already uploaded onto the unit’s devices. When the glorious Taskforce hooked in to scan the hardware — frazzle!” His eyes widened and his open-mouthed grin showed his teeth. “I didn’t hack the clinic; the cops did it for me. It’s your own fault, Marcel. You say I’m arrogant, but you treated the cops like children. You took the case right from under them, and you didn’t think even for a second that one of them could get the better of you.”
Walter turned to Sybil. “The informant. Take care of him.” A grin crept across his face. “Use Marcel’s gun. Then watch the corridor.”
Sybil handed him her own gun and left the cell. Webb watched his opponent drop into a chair in the corner and bury his face in his hands.
“What’s the matter, Marcel? Is it really so shocking that someone could outwit you? Do you need a moment?”
There were two loud cracks from the next cell, and then a thud as a body dropped.
“You’re tricky, my friend. I tried to find you for months. But you were always so careful, so good. I knew you wouldn’t show up unless the suspect might really be Nemesis, and you’d never reveal your identity unless you were convinced the suspect was being framed. I wiped my memory, but made sure that as soon as you mentioned Nova Genomics, I’d say Nemesis Knight. And at the second trigger — when someone told me they were Marcel, I would begin to scream. That was Sybil’s cue to come in and restore my memories.”
“Clever. So you’ve won your little game.”
“This isn’t a game. I did it because the technocrats thought if only they could live a little longer and think a little faster, make a little more money, why not become soulless cybernetic copies of human beings.”
“My mind is my own! Think about it, Marcel. What’s next? Implant enough people and program a good virus and bang ― hive mind. Armies of obedient cy-brain zombies. Governments are already working to develop that virus, to weaponize it. Someone has to lead the people ― light the way.”
“Light the way? You think you’re the light?”
“No, Walter Webb is not the light; he’s the helpless victim of Nemesis.” Walter smiled. “You see, it turns out Nemesis was actually Marcel. He worked the case to cover his own tracks, and when two of his accomplices were caught he decided to eliminate them before they could reveal him. Marcel jammed the signals, shot one suspect ― your unlucky informant ― and came after poor confused Walter. Thankfully, Detective Serano showed up in time to stop him. She shot Marcel in the head, scrambling his cy-implant and destroying all evidence. Something tells me poor Walter’s memories will be unreliable, so Sybil’s testimony is all they’ll have.”
“Then what? You’ll create a new world, the only cy-brain among naturals? Where you are smartest, fastest, most powerful? Tell me Walter, do you think you’ll be ‘god’ of this new world?”
Walter smiled. “I already am.” He raised the pistol. “I think right between the eyes would be nice.”
The next moment the detective’s eyes went blank, and he crumpled to the floor. Walter’s brows rose.
He never pulled the trigger.
“No!” Walter screamed. “Goddamit… NO!” He lifted the motionless man by his coat front and shook him. “Marcel! It’s you, it has to be. It can’t be a hack ― we jammed the signals. You have to be here, in the building. MARCEL!”
There was an echoing clang as his cell door slammed and locked. Walter ran to the door and caught a glimpse of a dark-skinned man with glasses as he turned and walked away. Sybil was lying in a pool of blood in the doorway of the next cell.
“Marcel?!” Walter screamed but he could no longer see the other man. All he heard were footsteps, fading in the distance.
“Defender of the People” © Bojan Ratković, April 2017. This is its first publication
Bojan Ratković is a writer from Serbia, now living in Ontario, Canada. His work appeared in the First Issue of Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, as well as in Escape Pod, Every Day Fiction, Liquid Imagination, and Fiction Vortex. He holds a PhD in political philosophy from the University of Western Ontario. When not writing about fictional worlds, or the completely authentic and not-at-all-fictional world of politics, he enjoys making YouTube videos about Japanese Anime. On Twitter: https://twitter.com/Bojan_Ratkovic
Editor’s note: Bojan has been published previously in Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores. See his story of 2016: “Then We Stood Still”. It is set in the same world as “Defender of the People”, taking place some short time before.
“Who’s Hacking Who” photomanipulation by Fran Eisemann
“Hacker” by Pete Linforth, HypnoArt, Birmingham, U.K.
“Perspective Test” by Spenelo, MinorphicPhoto, Artist, Photography, South Africa
“How Hackers find Your Site” by J.Buis, Canada