by Stewart Wilson
The Panopticon-5 satellite orbits serenely, following the terminator line where day becomes night as it crosses the Atlantic. A glittering needle of lights and antennae in the sky, monitoring the communications flow in between the America that created it and their latest takeover bid: the European Union.
Three delicate arms extended from the lower section of the satellite, each leading to a deployment bay. Without a sound, because despite bad science fiction there is not enough air at this level of orbit to carry sound, the deployment bays open. Three ridiculously expensive suits of humanoid armour -- each five metres high -- are shot down the gravity well by compressed-gas jets, accelerating up to terminal velocity. Ten minutes into their carefully angled free-fall, wings slide out of casings and ending pods unfurl like lotus flowers. With a roar the suit engines flare, and the Minutemen descend towards their Incorporated States without a word of radio chatter.
* * *
Malcolm Henderson was fit to be tied. He'd seen neo-nazis and anarchists beating each other to a bloody pulp, the extremes of the political underground showing that everyone's the same inside: strange, purple and easily broken. But this was really going too far.
He'd been digging around in old law texts, hidden away on a secure server somewhere in the Philippines, when the Written Word Association of America goons had burst into his room. There'd been promise of due process when they pointed their shiny new guns at him, but he'd seen none of it. The WWAA had a big hand in the board of American Government Inc. through some obscure legal wrangling with the Republican® shell company, and with the people believing that they had voted the elephant into power there was little he could do.
Malcolm had used his phone call to inform the EFF. The EFF had proudly done jack shit about getting him out. Allowed nothing more technical than a pencil and some paper to write on -- wide-rule, at that -- he did the only thing he knew how to do well. He blogged, emptying his mind of vitriol by lashing out in words against the new protest movement. He'd seen it before and he'd see it again. Likely the EFF would only start really fighting it if he was vanished or send to Guantanamo. Then they'd have some real propaganda to use.
Though he hadn't been charged with anything, he was allowed a single visitor a week. The EFF had done one thing right when they put him back in touch with Jack Carter, a cynical old bastard who had made the mistake of being in Britain when that old warhorse was brought into the fold. They spend the little visiting time Malcolm got talking about almost random things, all of which encoded the state of the world.
As Malcolm lay on his bed and wondered when the quasi-human corporate entity became truly sentient, he was blissfully unaware of how mad things would get come nightfall.
* * *
Jack Carter turned the stolen mech towards the fast-approaching colours of the Minutemen. He'd hoped to tangle with the armoured propaganda squad after he'd got Malcolm out, when there'd still be a chance of causing some surprise at the prison. No such luck.
The chemical laser that sat in place of the suit's left arm streamed light. The lead Minuteman, speeding in blue armour with oversize jets, started into a spin as the beam sliced off half of one wing. Unfortunately, it was already going fast enough to get where he was. The other suits -- white for ranged combat, red for close-range antimech work -- were closing fast. Jack had no jump-jets and no idea how to activate the twin particle cannons sat on his shoulders.
Automated defense programs jumped into life, dodging out of the way of incoming fire. Somewhere, the spider-program from his PDA had found some of the bugs the software writers had hoped to hide. Thank Eris for proprietary software.
Secondary screens lit up with options. Fire control systems awoke from their slumber, analysing incoming vectors and plotting guidance paths. The main guns were still offline, but an experimental military suit was a nasty thing even so. Missile bays unlatched, fire control systems all ready to fill the approaching Minutemen with explosives. More incoming fire. Hyperkinetic needles, the only armament of the blue suit beyond structural integrity and mach-20 speeds. Covering fire for the red as it tried to advance.
Jack's real problem in this situation was playing too much of his hand. If he did fire the missiles, every other Minuteman squad in the Western hemisphere would be between him and the prison. He lashes out with the laser again, and launches a defensive screen of smoke missiles from shin-pods before running for the jail.
* * *
Twenty-five levels below the Cheyenne Mountain USAF installation, the President and CEO of the American Government, inc. commune with their source. The intelligence is alien to them, used as they are to dealing with the simpler corporate memeplexes that evolved out of insider trading and company laws so self-referential they looked like a game of Mornington Crescent.
This was different. This was a new intelligence, barely five years old. All the benefits of a corporate intelligence, but with the backing of the full legal system and history of the United States government. It made the strictly corporate entities look like retarded children. A hypermemeplex inhabiting an expert system designed to manage the most powerful ruleset on the planet. It told it's employees their monthly mission statements, their empowerment methodologies, and reminded the President to clean up his timesheets next time as cocaine fucks with the character recognition system.
With that done, it asked for their opinions on a strange situation with a Perdis, a cross between a political dissident and an economic rival. The CEO advocated caution, but the President felt his pants tighten as he uttered the words "Kill the bastard."
The Incorporated States of America listened to its President. Better footage for the morning news.
* * *
The Minutemen found the stolen suit just outside the Green Rivers maximum security penitentiary. The tactical expert system co-ordinated their attack, pressing their speed advantage. It had to, if only to justify the cost of bringing them out of orbit in the first place. Bio-scans reported nothing inside the armour. It's pilot had to be on foot. The suits advanced towards the prison cautiously.
Software access rights prevented the automated systems from firing at them. Minuteman Red stayed back to make sure the suit's pilot (now identified as Carter, J.; British immigrant, insurgent, radical anarchist, history of violent rebellion) didn't return. White and Blue stalked the perimeter as quietly as a fifteen-feet-tall piece of precision-engineered deathware possibly could.
There was nothing unusual in the prison. No inmates doubled up in cells, no underground excavations inspired by World War II movies. Nothing to suggest that their target had ever been here. Polling the location of Malcolm Henderson proved more fruitful: he had been in the restroom for the past thirty-five minutes. There was nobody in the restroom according to the Minutemen's bio-scans. The controlling intelligence recalled White and Blue, but they were too late. Malcolm and Jack both piled into the cockpit of the stolen mech from right behind Red, before it could bring directional sensors online.
Normally, this would not be a fight. The Minutemen were not hampered by human response times. Optical computing cores ensured that the time between decision and action was never present. The key difference in this encounter was that their primary target also knew this. His code against killing didn't include machine-generated memeplexes, especially ones running on all eight Panopticon stations simultaneously. Minuteman Red moved to sever the laser arm as Jack unleashed collar-mounded Artemis rockets into its shoulder. Blades that could slice water clean in two fell to the ground, and the suit started running again.
* * *
"I had to get you, Malcolm. There's a crisis point coming."
"A what? Is this some kind of religious stuff, like Scientology LLC? Is that why you break me out of jail in a stolen military-grade mech in order to give me a lift to the boardroom of the States?"
"I thought it'd give you something else to do, a chance to see the world past the bars on your windows, that's all."
"You're fucking insane."
"Of course I am. I couldn't free the planet if I weren't."
They ran over fields. The Minutemen were two injured for no real result, and more would be on their way. It was a miracle they hadn't caught up, but Jack also knew that they would head straight to his destination. Them and nine other Minutemen.
"Check the particle cannons, see if the spider's found anything."
"Particle cannons? Why?"
"Because we're going to die anyway and I'd rather not do so without getting to fire the really big fucking guns on the shoulders of this thing when I went to all the trouble to steal it just to reinforce my fucking masculinity. That and how the fuck else are we going to blast through twelve Minutemen?"
"Right. Fine. You got it."
Jack's mind was on fire. He recognised the feeling. He'd been having dreams recently, worlds on fire haunting his sleep. He had been to them before, he was certain. Past lives in different universes, a string of reincarnation across parallel worlds. And here it was, the crunch point. He just wished he had any kind of clue.
Malcolm was mute for the rest of the trip. It turned out that Jack was a rather violent nutcase, but better to go along with him for now and sort things out later than to wimp out when events took a turn for the weird. That was the EFF's way of doing things. Instead, he found a likely looking applet and powered the cannons. A glance at another screen confirmed his fears.
"You were right about the other Minutemen."
"Shit. I hate being right."
Missiles armed once more. A scatter pattern, electromagnetic scramblers and sonic warheads primed amongst the collection of high explosives.
"We're not going to get away with this."
"Flashmob protests say we will. Every major city on Earth that's bought a franchise from the government is currently in the grip of spontaneous protests. Police are arresting people, but I got word to the media through some people in the Black Panthers. The remains of the Hong Kong Blondes are multicasting the media feeds as they happen. People are glued to their televisions as they watch policemen shoot unarmed protesters. And that's just a start."
The suit bolted hard left after unleashing a storm of missiles. Hyperkinetic slugs and pulsed laser fire shot back, pounding into the thick armour plating. More lasers followed the missiles. The mech's laser arm sheared from the elbow mount under the onslaught. The skin of ablative plating fell away. A return missile salvo from a White Minuteman left one leg dangerously unprotected.
The particle cannons swiveled around. Three seconds later, there were seven less Minutemen. As the white light faded and Malcolm watched the cannons cycle, building power for another shot, Jack concentrated on the missiles.
"We're almost out of ammo and we need those cannons to get into the base."
"Why, Jack? Apart from your need to destroy things, at least. We have a clear run. The fallout from the cannons will have wrecked any possible security measures out front. The human guards will be locked down in bunkers while the Minutemen are here. We can go on foot."
One last salvo of missiles, these flaring bright with magnesium light and clouds of sensor-diffusion fog. Malcolm and Jack both ran for the main entrance.
The base passed by them in a blur. Malcolm couldn't bear to watch Jack as he killed their way through to the lowest levels. The man was a machine, whispering prayers to Eris and Mummu as he went. Malcolm couldn't help but follow, hoping against hope that there would be some point to all of this.
Twenty five floors later, they found that reason. The CEO and President of the American Government inc., guns drawn to protect what looked like pure mathematics cast in light. The Governmental Intelligence. The Source. Jack had one gun on each in a heartbeat.
"Whichever of you gentlemen pulls the trigger is going to fuck up the other one's day. When you do, I'm going to shoot as well. So you can put your toys down or all of us can die."
The President twitched. Two gunshots rang out, impossibly loud in the small chamber.
"I told him."
"Jack, what the fuck is going on here?"
"This is the source. The intelligence that runs your world government. The thing you have been advocating removing for the past five years. It's going to kill me. I have committed enough crimes that it can't help it. You on the other hand have done nothing that the WWAA could make stick if they actually brought a charge against you. Someone who walked past a law school could get you set free in court, which is why you've been locked up through pretrial for so long."
"So why am I here? You came here on some macho suicide kick, fair enough. But why me?"
"Because you are going to sit and talk to this thing and have a good old political natter and when it realises that you are a representative of the people its core programming says it's there to serve, it will lis-"
A gunshot rang out. Jack Carter fell backwards, blood leaking from where his brain used to be.
Malcolm turned to the light. "My name is Malcolm Henderson. We have a lot to talk about. You and I represent different extremes of the population of the nation-state currently known as America...."