Original article was published by wrannaman on Artificial Intelligence on Medium
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The following days sailing passed without incident. They swung wide out to sea to conceal themselves from any unwanted attention patrolling the shore. The sea was choppy and the ride was rough. Even experienced sailors found themselves periodically hurling over the side. They had not taken heavy losses but in an unexpected battle, they recognized they were lucky they had Eros on board. Had they not fired those grenades, they would have been dead. Nobody thanked Eros directly. Not that he needed to be thanked. All he got was a nod from the Captain, and the sailors cursed at him slightly less.
The mountains of the Arc came into view as the ship headed directly for the northernmost port. The water was colder here, and almost as soon as they could see the mountain it’s chill hit them. This was the land of the reject, the outcast, the thief, and the assassin, but it was also a place of trade, creativity, abundance, art, and so far, independence. The Sikkas over the years had tried many times to bring the Arc under Imperial control, but each time the Sikkas did damage, they repaired it. Each time they were conquered, they eventually reasserted their independence. It would have taken a standing army of Imperial soldiers to keep the city under their control. Even that they tried every few hundred years, only to be whittled down in numbers from persistent attacks. Though the entire region was ruled by criminals, they were dangerously capable of organizing, even uniting when occasion demanded it. It was not uncommon to see a Hybrid in the Arc. Most of the Hybrids were dumped in the dunes, and many of them stayed there, joining one of the tribes that ruled a territory the sandy kingdom. Others that were dumped in the Arc tended to stay, adapting to the way of life here, and a few of the more capable ones made a home for themselves offering repair services from the abundance supply of broken and discarded material. A human in need of a robotic arm could, with a high degree of certainty, come to the Ark and not only find a replacement but potentially an upgrade. There were ample and colorful doctors who performed the operation, most of whom had questionable pasts. Nobody goes through medical school in Imperial city and chooses to go work in the Arc, though for the most part, operations were successful and uncomplicated. If you could manage surviving the operation while keeping your shirt in recovery, that was considered a successful surgery.
The ship came into port and docked next to what looked like a thieving crew coming back with supplies stolen on a successful run. Their toothless captain grinned as they approached and went back about his business. The docks were bustling with rusted shipping containers being loaded onto and off of ships. The mechanics of it looked flimsy, like everything was made of duct tape and chicken wire, but it held up and was relatively efficient. Billows of emissions came off the crane as a man with bionic arms zipped the containers from one place to another. Cobblers and buskers could be seen just off the docs where a local watering hole was just starting to fill up for the afternoon, easing into the evening. The captain turned towards Eros.
“My comms channel,” the captain said, touching his wrist screen to Eros’.
“In case you need to reach me,” the captain turned back toward his ship. “For saving the ship, and the skin of my crew. If you need something, you call me.”
They shook forearm-to-forearm. The captain swung around and slipped right back intoto barking orders to the loaders about how they were doing it wrong.
Inside the bar, men, women, and hybrids dressed in costume. Some looked as if they lived a thousand years ago, still others decked themselves out as fish or other animals. Some looked like they were from the future. The bar was far more crowded on the inside than it looked from the outside. Wellington’s eyes went wide when he entered, struggling to hide his surprise and tried his best not to stare. Eros walked quickly up to the bar and ordered drinks in some foreign tongue. The bartender had a control system embedded into her skull, and it’s led lights danced in the dark and hazy room.
“What are those things, ” Wellington nudged Eros.
“The Players? They’re a kind of… escort.” Eros tried to explain, paying no attention.
“They offer experiences. Could be that, but you’d be surprised what kinds of other experiences they offer.”
Wellington eyed a particularly attractive hybrid female wearing wings that seemed to attach directly to her scapula. A flying hybrid. Rare. She caught him looking at her and walked over to him. There wasn’t a lot of room in this bar for him to hide behind his formality. Eros sipped his drink and stared around the bar. A loud squawk came from the corner of the bar, where a small, avian hybrid was standing on top of the table telling a very dramatic story for credits.
“The land was burned, a crisp of its former self, like the stuff you scrape off the bottom of an oven,” a couple bearded men laughed, and tossed digital credits onto the table. The table’s screen showed the digital credit bounce towards the creature on top of it and the bird-like hybrid’s screen lit up as the projection touched him. The story ended with the sound of clapping and hollering. The little creature waddled over to the bar scrolling through his wrist screen. He was no more than waist high now that he was off the table, and his bionic wings would poke bystanders if they came too close, giving him a good perimeter around himself to navigate crowded spaces. The wings gave off a little shock when the man wanted them too, evidenced by those who bumped into him and shook a little, slapping the area like it was a bee sting.
“Buy you a drink, Feathers?” Eros asked the creature. He didn’t look up.
“I’m all talked out for the day, come back tomorrow if you missed it.”
“Your wings look like they’re in good shape, got some upgrades did you?”
Feathers looked up at him, a bright smile came over his face, “Eros, my man, it’s been too long,” he reached his wing up to bump Eros’ fist.
They ordered drinks and found a portion of table to themselves, a cloaked man with his hood up had his back to them.
“For how much has changed Eros, you look the same.”
“Is this storytelling your new gig?”
“Oh hell no, just a hobby, I still make gizmos with the controller. This provides drinking credits and works well with the ladies,” Feathers winked.
“He’s alive then, and well presumably?”
“Very interesting timing. In short, I don’t know.” Feathers looked to Eros, and glanced briefly at the faces in the bar. Eros understood. Something had happened.
“More on that later, perhaps. Not here. What brings you here?” Feathers continued.
“Feathers,” Eros looked around to see who might hear, ”my daughter was taken.” Feather looked at Eros and then looked at his glass.
“What do you mean? By who?”
“Our friends to the North. They attacked the Y, they took her, Wellington’s son, and a few other kids from the Y.”
“Why would they attack the Y?”
“We found something, an insignia, one you’d know. One you’d not want to show publicly,”
“Shh! Not here,” Feather squakked, “there are ears everywhere. And eyes.”
Feathers took a moment to scan the bar. Making sure there were no unfamiliar eyes looking at them. He brought his attention back to Eros.
“Not here, Eros.”
“Where else would I find you, but in a bar?”
“Alright, easy now, follow me. We’ll go back to the lab.”
Wellington escaped from his first encounter with a player, his wallet as full as it was when he arrived. Seemingly unharmed, and perhaps a little blithe, he sat down with them and Eros introduced him to Feathers.
“We’ll be leaving here shortly. Feathers says he has a place more suitable for our requests.” The joviality Feathers displayed earlier while storytelling on the table had vanished, and a suspiciousness came over him.
“We should leave now.” Feathers noticed two men walk in. They were what passed for law enforcement in this zone of the Arc. They picked out newcomers to fish for information or assess if they’d be worth stealing from. They were mostly harmless, and rarely killed anyone. It was the way they made their living that made people uncomfortable. The not so humble residents of the Arc were forgetful when it came to paying local taxes, so the local police found other, more suitable and immediate ways to exact a tax.
They slipped out of the bar and headed further into town. The cobblestone streets had been patched over with a thin layer of translucent concrete. It gave the eerie sense that you were walking on ice. The Arc had a hodgepodge of territories, and once upon a time in a rare form of cooperation, they decided to mark their zones by painting the streets, or buildings in the area. The clear was neutral territory, or supposedly was. Over time the street paint meant less and less as bosses were murdered, or groups collapsed into each other for economies of influence. It could almost be said these groups were the nobility of the Arc, though they were not of noble histories.
It wasn’t lawless, in fact the Arc had more rules than any other province in this part of the world, it was just that many of them were not written down, nor were they enforced evenly. Their rules were dispersed culturally, and as such were more powerful than any written law. And it worked. Those who came here for hundreds of reasons were not asked questions and could resume a normal life here with their family. Yes, there were murders, backstabbers, petty thieves, and more of them than in Imperial City but everyone here had a story, many of them unpleasant and yet many of them were hopeful and triumphant too. Despite horrific circumstances or happenings, many came here to build a life for themselves and they did that successfully. Families were out on the streets this afternoon, bundled up against the harsh wind. Public heaters were attached to streetlights. Nearly every 3rd streetlight was different, prominently displaying their manufacturer’s logo and the half dozen or so sensors on them scanned faces, people, clothing, anything, and everything. The data was sold to whomever wanted to buy it. The local governments used it to keep an eye on the local gangs, and the gangs bought the data to monitor the police. A purely self-interested market equilibrium.
Feathers led them down alleys, and up makeshift escalators to ease transitions between streets as they stretched up, down, and around the rough mountain side. Some complexes vaulted upward into the sky, yet others were burrowed into the rock, with a steady stream of steam smoking out of a chimney. There were those here that still worked in the old style of offices, where units of people with a common interest and common ownership would build something. They wore neutral tunics to show they were businesspersons, and not associated with any particular gang, though they often had business relationships with several at one time, making things that would be too expensive for each individual gang to make themselves.
Feathers opened the door with an attachment on his wing that folded into a key shape and pushed it into a special groove in the door. The wing applied heat and a ping indicated a successful attempt. The door scissored inward and re-configured itself to allow them to walk through it. They walked into the brightly lit and marble floored courtyard. The door man was another hybrid, a huge bulk of mass that sat on his shoulders and arms. He had obviously gone through a few too many enhancement surgeries, but fortunately for them, he had turned himself into a living weapon and made for an excellent security policy.
“The past few years have been stable. Stable as they could ever be, as we could have never imagined arriving here all those years ago. We were sad you didn’t join us here, but understood choosing the Y given the circumstances,” Feathers meandered through the hallways and finally opened a nondescript store hiding a large Warehouse. Wellington scanned from Feathers to Eros, they worked together, in Imperial City, he thought to himself.
“I don’t remember it being that clean of a choice. Does the controller still live here too?” Eros asked.
“We’ll get there,” Feathers walked over to his workbench. It was the only clean space in the warehouse. The rest looked like it had a tornado blown through it and scattered shards of metal everywhere. Despite the mess, the space was laid out in just the same way as Eros’ was in his garage at the Y, which was just the same way that the controller had taught them both when they apprenticed under him.
“As I was saying, the Ark has been the most stable it has ever been, until a few weeks ago when our spotters found evidence of increased activity by Trackers. They didn’t seem to be doing much other than reconnaissance, but it put the city on alert. The controller was here alone that night, we have video showing him leaving, and we have footage of him all the way back to his home. Once he went inside, he never came out, or so it would seem.” Feathers took a gulp of a bubbly drink he had poured for himself.
There was always the possibility that this was a crime from someone in the Arc who had a grudge against him, or just didn’t like him. There were plenty of people that could have done it. In fact, the most competent people on the planet to do it were right here. But if the controller was killed by a contract job in the Arc, it would be inconsistent with the way that things were generally done in the Ark. The way that crimes were committed here was very different from the way they were committed elsewhere in the Imperial region, or even in the Imperial City. If you were looking for an assassin, this is where you would come. They would do it effectively and efficiently, for a fee of course. But the homes of murderers, and the land of Assassins, operated with strict cultural norms. Taking someone like the controller, who though personally reviled by some, but otherwise respected for his craft, without any indication of why was a profound breaking of the unwritten laws that govern this place. While it was possible that whoever did it lived right under their noses, it was much more probable that whatever had happened was not done by somebody who lived here. There were many families of nobility in the Imperial City that may have had the manpower and the credits to capture the controller, it could have even been the Imperial ruler himself who requested some particular weapon and needed just the right people to build it.
“What was the last project he was working on?” Eros asked, looking around the torn up warehouse.
“I know where you’re going, it was one of six projects, though none of them look suspicious.”
“What about the footage?”
“I have it, it’s set up over there,” Feathers pointed to an empty desk with a monitor, a track mouse and a keyboard.
Wellington went over with Eros to the workbench and sat down. Feathers cinched up the chair and began typing away, bringing up the beginning of the video footage they had. They watched it forward, and backward, they watched it again, and again. They watched clips of a few days before, and requested and received video for a few days after. They ordered food and stayed up together watching, reassembling footage and data from other sensors. Feathers had retired to his cot in the corner, where he sometimes slept when he was either homeless or working late nights, but mostly when he was without a home, which was most of the time. Not to say he couldn’t afford it, he was a well-known maker himself, and had ample credits for a nice place. He simply preferred the transient lifestyle. It gave him comfort to know that he could leave at any time and with a small pack could bring everything he cared about and dash off into the night sky.
It was Wellington who noticed it first. There was a brief moment when the controller was walking into his home, and he turned a corner where the light hit his hand in such a way as to make it clear.
“It looks like he’s holding something” Wellington said, pushing into the region around the Controller’s hand in the video. They zoomed in and as they did, it became clear. In his hand he held two equilateral, overlapping triangles carved in some kind of obsidian. The forbidden sign of the Wrannamen.