Cobalt Caliber

1. New York

Daniel sat at his desk with his eyes trained on the screen. Columns and rows of numbers filled the display. Some of the columns increased in value and were displayed in a prominent green. Others seemed destined to approach zero and were highlighted in red. This information might look like chaotic drivel to anyone else. But, to the young CEO of Forcyte Industries, each number held significance and revealed the destiny of both the company and its CEO.

And that destiny was one of bankruptcy.

Sure, the numbers for today seemed fine. And with a little bit of accounting creativity the numbers might continue to allure investors for the next few quarters. But such creativity wouldn't change the fact that the R&D department had an unfavorable year. Daniel had authorized millions of dollars in research which ultimately led to a dead end. But these kinds of problems affected every company.

The real problem was Ajit, the CEO of Daniel's biggest competitor, Penrose-Jaeger, Corp. Ajit had a lucky year. Sure, he was smart. Daniel could admit to that. But in this case it all came down to luck. Ajit called heads and Daniel went with tails and the coin smiled.

Daniel slid away from the desk and paced around his office. On the wall hung an antiquated ship wheel fashioned into a clock with a captains hat hanging on a handle. Daniel often likened himself to a captain, with the company as his ship, chartering the choppy waters of economic uncertainty and turbulent markets. Ferns and hydroponics ran the length of the walls. A painting of the Eiffel Tower hung prominently at the front of the room.

But none of this stuff would mean a thing if Daniel couldn't correct course.

He stopped and stood before the windows where the massive sprawl of New York City spread out before him. A never-ending grid of alternating white and red lights ebbed and flowed, converging into a blur of haze below. Mega-skyscrapers dotted the landscape but none of them marred Daniel's view of the obsidian sky.

His focus shifted from the horizon to his reflection in the window. He was greeted by blue eyes, black hair, and devilish good looks—looks that he never hesitated to exploit. He looked a lot like his father, back when the old man was still alive. They had looked so similar that the board joked about leaving his father's picture up in the lobby to save money on a new painting. Daniel had been less than amused.

What would his father have done in this situation? Certainly the man was ruthless. But, his biggest shortcoming was his inability to embrace technology. His ignorance of things like the KillChain had lead to his demise. When he died it had nearly ruined the company—until Daniel came to the rescue, of course.

Daniel was quite the opposite of his father. While his father had spent his life studying business, management, and accounting, Daniel was more interested in gaming, hacking, and navigating the dark web. Some people played games merely to have fun. Oh, this armor looks nice, that sword looks big. But bust out a spreadsheet and write a few equations and it was easy to combine equipment to maximize strength and crush opponents.

Daniel's favorite type of engagement was one-versus-many. He could top the leaderboard of any deathmatch shooter. Occasionally some new title promoting teamwork would take the gaming community by storm. He always gave them a try but invariably ended up in one of two situations: either he would have a commander barking ill-planned orders, or he would have to lead a bunch of idiots.

The most recent team-based game he had played was four-versus-four squad combat. He was elected leader, he knew the map by heart, and he expertly commanded his troops on which tactics to use. Of course, his troops ended up distracted and made a run for the big pile of guns in the middle of the open courtyard instead of holding position as he had commanded. BLAM BLAM, two of them were gunned down.

Their team eventually won the match after Daniel told his final teammate that they should charge down a hallway and confront the enemy headon. But, Daniel had other plans. His teammates unwitting sacrifice was a distraction so that Daniel could flank the enemy and take them out with a grenade. He had won many games by using his teammates as shields.

His father had tried to teach Daniel to depend on the strengths of subordinates. But, years of gaming had reinforced one axiom of Daniel's decision making: never depend on someone else as they would inevitably fail you.

Daniel's father thought video games were a waste of time and always gave Daniel a hard time. The next relationship bludgeon was when Daniel chose to go to MIT for a tech degree and defy a tradition of attending Harvard. But it wasn't until Daniel dropped out and ended a long line of fancy suffixes that his father stopped talking to him completely.

There would be no greater pleasure for Daniel than to increase the company's profit tenfold from when his father left the helm. But right now Ajit is in the way. Daniel shifted focus back to the horizon and thought more about the assassination of his father. Hell, what was Daniel's bounty up to these days? He should make sure there wouldn't be any surprises coming.

Daniel returned to his desk. After a few minutes of hunting he found a working link to a KillChain server wherein he searched for his name.

> $21,257 - Daniel Ruttan III [STATUS: OPEN]
>
> $10,000: Misc > 57UPiD A$$H013
> $5,000: Ethics > Price Fixing
> $5,000: Ethics > Wage Collusion
> $1,337: Ethics > Peruvian Deforestation
> $20: Misc > Loc4l VR B4b3s 0nl1ne @ alt.sex.us.ny.manhattan.2ab96390
> $-100: KillChain Overhead and Escrow Fees
>
> $ 248,000 - Daniel Ruttan II [STATUS: PAID]
> [Click for Details...]

Daniel relaxed. At this rate he had several years before having to worry about hiring a bodyguard. It would cost at least $250k to hire an assassin to take out a target. Assassinations used to be paid out around $100k; someone would simply pilot a gun drone. But, with the ban on commercial drones, the increase in 3D printer regulations, and the ever-present police anti-drones, such a strategy was no longer feasible.

Checking his bounty suddenly filled Daniel with enlightenment. How did he not think of this earlier? He searched for another name.

> $1,990 - Ajit Apartha [STATUS: OPEN]
>
> $2,000: Ethics > Price Gouging
> $-10: KillChain Overhead and Escrow Fees

Yeah… This just might work. Now what was that incident again? Ajit ran a pretty clean company. But no company got to the top without making stepping on a few toes. Daniel pulled up a few news sites—Bloomberg, New York Times, The Guardian—and searched for articles about Ajit, Penrose-Jaeger, Corp, and entities that had invested in them. A few minutes later and Daniel found it. Six months ago ZYX Holdings, the largest owner of Ajit's company, had won a contract to help China build yet another human-rights-destroying software project. There had been major public outcry, protests, and a lot of social media hashtags.

The next two hours were a blur of excitement. The last time Daniel had this much fun was back when he pulled an all nighter hacking some MIT servers to change his GPA. He took money from one of his offshore accounts and marshalled it through a laundering service. The only thing safer than anonymous money was super anonymous money. Once it was mixed up enough he placed a new bid in the KillChain system. Again he searched for Ajit and this time it contained a new record.

> $11,990 - Ajit Apartha [STATUS: OPEN]
>
> $10,000: Ethics > Profiting from Chinese Gov Human Rights Violations
> $2,000: Ethics > Price Gouging
> $50: KillChain Overhead and Escrow Fees

Various government agencies were always finding KillChain services and shutting them down. Normally authorities would try to go after the author of such a service—cut off the head and kill the serpent. But the KillChain was special: It was built decades ago by anonymous programmers. They might all be dead by now.

The KillChain wasn't just a single fallible server running in a closet somewhere. It was a distributed and automated service with just enough AI to keep itself scattered amongst many different online cloud providers. Each service instance communicated with the others via encrypted VPNs and formed a communications mesh. Decisions were made across hundreds of active services once enough individual servers reached consensus.

Every now and then the NSA or GCHQ compromised an instance and tried to shut down the remaining systems. The remaining servers would eventually detect the subversive commands and blacklist the compromised server.

Running such a system in the cloud required money. The KillChain applied fees to the bounties (a small percent constantly adjusted based on costs), laundered money into disparate bank accounts, and paid hosting fees to the cloud providers.

Of course, Daniel didn't just take a couple hours to put a measly $10k bounty on Ajit. Far from it. The money was placed in a special time-release escrow service. More bounties would be placed on Ajit's head, over random intervals, for the next eight months—only stopping once the target was determined to be deceased. In total, Daniel dumped $500k into the services. Minus the costs of laundering and the KillChain overhead, the total bounty for Ajit wouldn't exceed $450k.

The real cost of his plan wasn't going to be $500k, though. Daniel worked too hard for his money to give it up that easy. The most he would be willing to part with was $100k. Daniel turned off the computer and formed a narrative in his head. All the work he was doing lately really put him under a lot of stress. Yes, a vacation was just what he needed. Somewhere disconnected like the jungles of Africa… A safari, no friends, just alone time.

He turned off the light and left his office. It was time to start planning his African vacation—one with a short layover in Hong Kong.

2. Detroit Subterrane

Jakk awoke in his VR rig while still wearing the headset. He took a moment to yawn and stretch before removing his blanket. Other than the soft glow of the headset and several flickering LEDs the room was completely dark. He instinctively reached over and—after a few fumbles—found the lightswitch. With a subtle click, the warm darkness of the studio surrendered to cold, fluorescent light.

The massive VR rig dwarfed everything else in the apartment. It was about two meters tall, with a few centimeters of clearance from the squat ceiling. These rigs were designed for squat apartments. There was only one type of person who rented a subterranean studio, a class of people crazy enough to forsake sunlight, a subculture that didn't mind living forty stories below Detroit where the rent was cheap and the ping was low: The VR-addicted technophiliac. Jakk was one amongst thousands living in this complex—people who spent most of their waking lives in VR.

But, Jakk wasn't like the other tenants in this complex. Most of them dropped out of school, ran away from home, or threw away their stressful corporate jobs. They sold their worldly possessions, leased a rig, paid the mandatory 1 year upfront fee on an apartment, and plugged in. Once inside they would visit boards and try to secure some sort of income. Sometimes they took the easy way out; buy a realtime voice changer and an expensive body mesh that they would customize for days or weeks, then they would indulge the fantasies of strangers for money. Sometimes they found their way into to the darkest recesses of the web. They might install questionable software on their rig and unwittingly join a botnet. Other times they just solved CAPTCHAs all day.

Regardless of the path they took one thing was certain: Most of them would die, down here, alone. Perhaps they would forget to eat, commit suicide, or become addicted to the latest delivered-to-your-door-designer-drug they found on some obscure forum.

If their rig was paid for, someone would come down to evict them once their year of rent was up. If their rig was still under lease, someone would come down and confiscate it. Either way it wasn't a bill-collector in a suit who came down. It was always a coroner and a team of strong dudes in HAZMAT suits.

Jakk was different from the others because he earned money up there in the real world. And unlike those atrophy-inflicted puppets he actually ventured into the streets above on a daily basis. This subterranean apartment wasn't his home or his life; he was just passing through. And he sure wasn't going to die down here. His VR rig wasn't an addiction, it was merely a tool for training. And train he did.

There was a neverending feed of images being uploaded to social media with metadata for timestamps, geolocation, gyroscope, and compass bearings. Such imagery and video feeds were uploaded by devices like the personal InterBroca. This ubiquitous device could be configured to constantly record and stream video.

Suc imagery was crawled and stitched together in realtime by any number of online services. This resulted in a vast number of highly detailed virtual instances of the real world, available online, for anyone to access. Jakk used such worlds to train and experiment with ideas that would otherwise get the police called on him.

With his body now accustomed to the cool room Jakk removed his headset, revealing bleach-blonde hair. He set the headset on a bench next to his rig and went to check on the printer. A smooth blue object rested atop the plate. It had three finger-sized grooves on it. Jakk picked it up and confirmed it fit his hand perfectly. He marvelled at the object from different angles and slowly nodded his head. Then, he frowned.

The surface consisted entirely of different shades of blue except for one small spot of brown rust. "Shoot, guess I slept in again" he said. On the floor by the bench sat a machine with a hose attached. He tapped it slightly with his foot and it replied with the sound of sloshing water. "Much good you're doing, huh?"

A plastic bin full of mineral oil and a couple other blue objects sat next to the printer. He submerged the latest specimen into the bin and returned to the printer to inspect a cable dangling from the back. He then tapped on the hopper on top of the printer and caused the contents—thousands of shiny blue beads—to settle slightly from the disturbance. The word "COBALT" was written on the hopper in marker.

He turned to the laptop by the printer and a few clicks later the printer whirred to life. A delicate bead of hot orange metal formed at the tip of the nozzle before being spread around the plate. Orange faded to blue as the smell of hot metal filled the air—most of which was immediately sucked out of the building by industrial-strength ventilation.

Jakk grabbed a cup and dunked it into the dehumidifier on the floor, then he went back to the laptop. Some people used their VR rig for everything. They even ran a 3D bank simulation complete with interactive tellers just to check their balance. Jakk, however, was a member of a dwindling group of consumers who chose to use flat screens for activities like reading news and checking financial situations.

It was from a laptop that Jakk first learned how to program. It was from a laptop that Jakk received the entirety of his education. And it was from a laptop that just a few weeks ago he came across the opportunity of a lifetime: a bounty with the very hefty sum of $320k.

From what he could remember he was hunting around the dark web, looking for some cash, when he came across a recently bumped KillChain bounty. The pay was almost too good to be true, until some quick research indicated the target was the CEO of a prominent company.

Jack was in the VR rig when he found the targets' social media account. He loaded the same account on his laptop a few minutes later and discovered the account had been deleted. Whatever the threshold was before someone notified the target about the KillChain bounties had just been reached and his online accounts were being scrubbed.

Jakk had saved a screenshot of the page and noted that the target had family in Detroit. Most public information associated the target with New York. But, any sane man with a bounty that large would take an immediate vacation somewhere he felt safe. Jakk had spent the next several hours frantically hunting down as much information as he could.

The best piece of information he had obtained was from a neighborhood message board where the target said he and his family really enjoyed the downtown fireworks and that they would try to come back every year. Once he had finished he had everything needed to find the target as well as confidence that he could do so first.

After Jakk's research was completed he had immediately packed his bags and headed to Detroit, moving into this recently vacated apartment, which is where he was today. Jakk choked down the water from the dehumidifier and made a mental note to replace the filter.

3. Preparation

Jakk awkwardly rode the elevator alongside a coroner. Her gloves and helmet were removed and she was filling out forms on a tablet. She peeked over at Jakk a couple of times, either trying to calculate when Jakk's time was up, or more likely, making sure he wasn't about to jump her.

People rarely entered and exited subterranean apartments and when they did they usually had hundreds of pounds of equipment with them. The usual low life's who lived below weren't the most social bunch, either, so it was no surprise that apartment complexes usually had two entrances. The above-ground dwellers had access to several efficient elevators with an entrance at the front of the building. The subterraneans usually had a single slow-moving, industrial grade service elevator with a loading dock to the back alley. This complex was no exception.

Jakk let the coroner depart first and watched as she turned left. He decided to turn right and stepped out into the alley. He was wearing a dark grey hoodie, blue jeans, black boots, a giant backpack, and a black reusable N95 pollution mask adorned with a Misfits mandible. He fit in surprisingly well thanks to the pollution.

In fact, as he marched down Woodward Ave, he accidentally met eyes with a woman who wore the same mask. He thought she looked kinda cute but quickly shook the idea from his head once he realized he'd broken a personal rule: never make eye contact with a stranger while on a mission. That's how people remember you, point you out in a lineup. It's always the eyes. He glanced back at her from over his shoulder then ducked down the next alley.

Over the past few weeks he had crawled all over downtown Detroit. He figured out where the roads led, which alleys were connected, which fences could be squeezed through, and which walls had cameras mounted on them. He even figured out most of the schedule of the police surveillance drones which occasionally passed overhead. They could be flown manually, especially in an emergency, but were almost always autonomous.

He arrived at his destination a half hour later: Campus Martius. Everyone in Detroit who had money went to the park to watch fireworks and sit in the luxurious temporary grandstand for $1,000 a seat. The show combined traditional fireworks with modern holographics.

Jakk made his way out of the alley and was almost knocked over by someone marching straight down the sidewalk. Jakk caught his balance and went to yell before he realized he would fall on deaf ears. The blinking light of an InterBroca nestled behind the man's ear told Jakk that the man was on AutoPilot.

Those devices had two purposes. The advertised purpose was to interpret the thoughts of the owner and essentially act as a personal assistant. The secondary purpose was to enslave the owner. Of course, they didn't know they were slaves. They thought they were letting a computer control their body and walk down the street while they responded to emails or played games. Drip, drip, drip went the dopamine, a distraction from the burdensome reality of walking down a sidewalk.

Once the man turned the corner Jakk focused back on the mission. Where was he going to put the loudspeaker he was lugging around in his backpack? Obviously he couldn't just leave it sitting on the street. It would either get destroyed by the bomb squad or, worse, some homeless guy would try to pawn it off.

No, the best place to hide equipment like this was somewhere it looked like it belonged. Ideally he'd just shimmy up a pole by the grandstand and strap it up high. Anyone who walked by would think it was another warning siren. But, a Jakk on a pole would get a lot of attention. No, it had to be somewhere people could hear, but nobody would see it being installed.

Jakk considered the grandstands again. Everyone was going to sit on them after all. He could just strap the speaker to the bottom of the stands and point it upward. It would sound clear enough and could be heard over the fireworks. Jakk circled the stands for a few minutes as a drone made its rounds then he ducked beneath them once it was gone. A few band-it clamps later and the loudspeaker was secured. If anyone found it they would hopefully think it was part of the show.

He scanned the empty sky then left the stands to head down another alley. Time to find someplace high. A week ago he tried to talk his way into a tall apartment complex but he spooked the secretary and had to disappear. Besides, once it's the 4th, anyone working building security will be trading bribes for rooftop access, and Jakk needed seclusion.

Jakk spotted a derelict tower a few days ago near the park that was closed for construction. The simulations were a little outdated and the building looked like it might still be in use. It was a good thing he was no stranger to the surface otherwise he never would have found it.

Jakk headed to the tower and arrived a few minutes later. Scaffolding wrapped the first few floors. He casually circled the building to make sure nobody was around. On the east side of the building, on the second floor, a window was missing. He jumped up and grabbed the scaffolding bars and hoisted himself up.

With a small leap he made it onto the scaffolding. WHUMP! It was louder than he was comfortable with but in a few days when the city would be full of noise no one would hear a thing. He squeezed into the open window and made his way up the stairwell, climbing what must have been 30 stories.

Once he got to the top floor he reached into his bag and fished out a pair of video glasses. He put them on and started recording. Next he looked around until he found an empty corner office on the top floor. Abandoned welding rigs, water barrels, buckets, and safety equipment littered the place.

He settled on a window with a good view—save for the dust caked on the glass—and removed a roll of duct tape from his bag. He stretched out lengths of about three feet and stuck them to the glass. A giant asterisk was formed on the window after he made several passes with the tape.

Jakk left his project and explored the abandoned construction equipment throughout the floor. After a short scavenger hunt he managed to drag a few items he needed back to the office: a few buckets of water, a large shallow bin, and a claw hammer. He put the bin by the window and dumped in the water. One of the buckets he kicked away and the other he overturned and placed near the window.

With the hammer still in hand he examined the duct tape, cocked his arm back, and swung it at the center. SMASH! The window splintered and bulged outward but was held together by the tape. He took a second and third swing until the glass near the center of the tape was completely splintered. Finally, he pulled out a pocket knife and sawed the tape until a hole was made. Jakk returned the knife and inspected the room. Satisfied his preparations were complete he put the glasses back in the bag and made his exit.

Back on the street Jakk quickly checked to make sure no glass had rained down. After confirming his work went undetected he decided it was time for a drink. He headed east towards Old Greektown to find a pint or two. As he departed from downtown the streetlights became further and further apart. Rich folks didn't hang out here much.

He came across a pub named Exodus and thought it was an amusing fit. He flashed the bouncer his ID and received a funny look in return. "Forgetting something?", the bouncer asked. "Oh, right." Jakk glanced down the empty street and lowered his mask. A nod later and Jakk was inside.

He approached the bar, scanned the menu, and ordered a stout from the local brewery. After a couple of swallows Jakk slunked his shoulders a bit. This was his first time in public without a mask.

Luckily, dimly lit bars were many a questionable-man's haven, and there was no way there would be security cameras in a place like this. Jakk took another swallow and made a sidelong glance down the bar. It was mostly empty, but a few seats down was a woman with a lowered misfits face mask looking at her beer.

It was the woman he noticed out on the streets. She was wearing all black, an anti-capitalist shirt, and Jakk's previous assessment had been correct: she was in fact pretty cute. She looked up and made eye contact with him, held his gaze for a moment as if trying to recall his face, then returned to her beer. Jakk would never let himself get distracted when there was work to be done. But, as of this moment, he was done. All he had to do was lay low for few days. Time to think of something to say.

He ran through some opening-lines in his head when he was struck with doubt. When was the last time he had hit on someone? He couldn't recall any specific situations but he remembered all the motions. Say something witty but not too funny. She'll laugh, a sure sign that he's charming. After that he'll need to keep the conversation from having any dull moments otherwise she'll lose interest.

He must have been too focused on making money lately and not focused enough on having fun. Enough thinking, don't psych yourself out, just go and talk to her. He picked up his beer, slid down the bar, and said "Hello".

She looked up and replied with "hello". So far so good. "I like your shirt", he said. "You have good taste in masks", she replied. They were totally hitting it off. The words flowed effortlessly from Jakk. Overthrow the government, late capitalism is a sick joke, a desperate crusade lead by the rich. Back and forth they talked. Jakk ordered another round and started to melt in his chair. He shared things that he had never shared before. "Oh, by the way, I'm Jakk". "I'm Lia".

Their conversation shifted to recent events in the news. "Can you believe those Unplug activists blew up that VR datacenter a few days ago?" Jakk asked. Lia's eyes widened. "I only saw the news heading. How big of an outage was it?" "Well, it turned out all their operations were redundant so there was no downtime. And of course the whole place was insured. But still, that's pretty ballsy!"

"Well, I've got a story that's even crazier." She replied. "Did you hear about the lawyer in Ann Arbor?" Jakk shook his head. "Well, he was living a double life thanks to a Persona Dampener he had confiscated from a client who smuggled it out of China. His family had no idea! But, what's even crazier, they think even he wasn't aware that it was happening."

"Wow. That's incredible." Jakk replied. "Just a few hours ago someone walking around on AutoPilot ran into me. There's so many people in this world who want to check out and become some sort of puppet. They aimlessly wander around playing some minor role in a large system they have no control over and no desire to learn, forever leaving their destiny in the hands of others."

"Well, what destiny would you want?" Lia asked. The question caught him off-guard. Had he lost sight of his dreams? This rat race to make a buck, living in underground apartments, traveling to cities he cared nothing about to hunt bounties? Why was he doing it?

Europe. That's what it was. He's always wanted to run away from here, from these bad memories, from the people he had crossed and the people who had crossed him. Start anew in Europe. Learn a new language. He explained this to Lia—except for being a KillChain bounty hunter. "What about you? What's your story"

"All my exes live in Detroit", she said. She explained that she grew up around here and had graduated from a local college. She earned money as a programmer, dabbled in art on the side, and was trying to get enough cash to reach exit velocity. The air here made her sick and she wanted to move to a European Clean-Zone. "I want to get out of here, out of this life" she added. "Tell you what, if I ever find a way out, I'll take you with me" Jakk replied with a smile.

Lia returned the smile. "It's getting loud in here, wanna go?" she asked. They closed their tabs, left the bar, and walked down the street. More crazy stories heard from the news were exchanged as they made buzzed conversation. The occasional white glow of an overhead streetlight guided their journey. Holographic OPEN signs sputtered and wavered in the windows of head shops as they passed.

A few blocks later they came to a stop at the base of a large concrete tower. Lia motioned towards it and Jakk's gaze followed it up to where it disappeared into the dark hazy sky.

"Wanna come in?"

4. Onslaught

Jakk woke up in his apartment again, only this time he was laying on a mattress in the corner. His thoughts were intertwined with Lia, whom he was with only a couple nights earlier, and his mission, which would come to fruition later this evening.

Lia. She gave him her handle that night, but he still hadn't contacted her. Today was Independence Day, after all. Was she waiting for his call? Had Jakk ruined any chance he had with her? He brushed the thoughts aside. Mission first, Lia second.

He went to the printer and checked on the final piece. He held up a long hollow cylinder and felt how smooth it was. He hardly believed the resolution that modern 3D printers could achieve. Satisfied, he dunked the final piece into the oil with the others and carried them to the bathtub.

Jakk sat on the toilet and pulled off his shirt. Then he reached into the bin and pulled out one glistening blue piece at a time, locking the pieces together. Mineral oil ran down his arms and collected in the tub.

He reached into a small box and took out two glass lenses and fit them into the top of the device. He also grabbed some springs and pins and other small steel pieces his printer couldn't reproduce. With the final components in place he held the device up to his eye and looked down the scope of his new rifle. His finger found its way to the trigger. Click.

His project was finally ready. He tore the gun down again. But, instead of putting the parts back into the bin, he put them in plastic bags. He dumped some oil in with them and squeezed the air out before sealing the bags shut. He placed the bags in his backpack, cleaned up, and approached the now-obsolete 3D printer.

Several years ago a law had passed which required all metallurgic printers to report any mesh being printed. This law was made to prevent people from doing what Jakk had just finished doing: weapons production.

Of course, he knew how to get around the reporting. The trick was to buy a blackmarket bypass circuit, disassemble the printer, and install the bypass between the motherboard and the inventory tracker. If police found a printer with a bypass installed it would result in a visit by a polygraphist with a military-strength InterBroca. All the plausible deniability in the world wouldn't save you from such an interrogation.

With the gun complete the bypass was now nothing more than a liability. Jakk grabbed a screwdriver and tore down the printer. He unplugged the circuit and returned the ribbon cable to its original socket. He then reassembled the printer and tossed the bypass into his bag.

Of course, not only were these printers phoning home, but everything purchased online was also scrutinized. Whenever a product was shipped it was sent through a scale and an X-Ray machine at the post office. Certain materials raised a flag. For example, if Jakk had ordered several pounds of steel, it would get confiscated and he would get questioned.

Otherwise, materials impractical for weapons manufacturing were ignored, such as the particular cobalt alloy that Jakk used. Any gun using this alloy would quickly rust and be rendered useless with prolonged exposure to air. On the other hand, if one were to keep it submerged in oil, it would last forever.

Jakk made some final preparations before heading out. He grabbed three titanium-tipped bullets that he had acquired before arriving in Detroit, a few bottles of hydrogen peroxide, and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. Everything he owned that was incriminating was now in his bag.


The city was alive with the bustle of people excited to catch another year of fireworks. This was the most people Jakk had seen since he arrived in Detroit. He took a main street for a couple blocks then ducked down another alley, slowly making his way through the city back to the abandoned tower. The last time he was there was before he had met Lia.

Jakk caught a glimpse of a police drone above him as he neared the building. He circled the block a couple of times until it was out of sight and there was no one else around before climbing up the scaffolding again. His bag was a lot heavier this time which prompted him to take a breather before making the ascent.

Once he was in the office he removed the bags of oily gun parts and peroxide and set them next to the window. He grabbed a bucket, the backpack, and the alcohol, and went to a closet on the other side of the building. The backpack, now obsolete, was pitched into the bucket. He dumped alcohol on the bag, lit a match, and set the whole thing on fire. It was better to take care of this now before the sun set.

Back by the window he sat on the overturned bucket and checked the time. The show would begin in a few hours. He looked out at the grandstand; some people already took their seats. Was his target amongst them? Best wait until the show started before assembling the gun and using the scope; corrosion wasn't worth the risk.


Jakk checked his watch again: 18:50. The fireworks would start in ten minutes. But, equally important, everyone would be recording soon. What would they be recording? The sky, of course. But some people would take selfies. And some would livestream the show. That's what Jakk was waiting for. He took out the gun parts and slotted them together, piece by piece, and rubbed down the oily surface with a nearby rag.

Five minutes. He disengaged the bolt and slipped one of the three bullets into the gun, mouthing the other two like a carpenter with extra nails. Three was just the right amount. While it was true that Jakk had never fired this exact gun, the machine he printed the parts from was so precise that there was no question as to the guns accuracy. And while it was also true that Jakk hadn't shot this model of gun in real life, he had practiced in VR every day for the past several weeks. While Jakk had only really climbed these stairs twice, he had actually visited the building and peered at the grandstands from this angle and took practice shots in VR countless times.

The footage he had taken from his previous excursion had proved invaluable in increasing the fidelity of his VR simulation. The layout of the top floor had become second nature. The bullets were expensive and accurate. If he missed he would only have one chance to try again. If the first bullet was a dud then the second wouldn't be.

He scooched the bucket closer to the window, pointed the barrel out the hole, and scoped out the crowd. It all felt strangely familiar; of course, it was a little different than in VR, but overall it left Jakk with Deja-vu. In the simulations his target was in a different seat each time. He even took a photo of the target and mapped it onto a 3D mesh to help him recognize the target better.

He saw plenty of rich people in nice clothes, parents with children, dads holding beers, daughters and sons taking selfies and playing games with their InterBrocas. And then Jakk found his target.

The target sat near the western corner of the stands where he talked with his daughter. At least, Jakk was pretty sure it was the target, who was slightly obscured by a hat. What was the name of the target again? Ajit. Yes, that's Ajit, and he's wearing a black hat with a white Penrose-Jaeger, Corp logo, undoubtedly a half-assed attempt to avoid recognition.

Jakk took a pass over Ajit's neighbors. There were a few beefy dudes nearby who didn't seem to be with family. They must be bodyguards. Next to Ajit was his daughter, who looks a lot like him. She has the same hair color, skin color… Nope, stop, don't even think about it. This money is far too important.

Only two minutes to go. After taking a shot he'll have to get the hell out of here. He will have to wait until a firework explodes to lessen the odds of his shot being heard. Not to mention, once the police technicians arrive it would only take a minute to trace the bullet's trajectory. He also didn't want a situation that was too loud, like a concert, since he wanted people to record the speaker.

Oh no, the speaker! He reached into a pocket and pulled out a small remote. He flicked a switch and a light on it blinked a painful red. Jakk was annoyed with himself, he should have done this as soon as he arrived at the tower. Relief washed over him a few seconds later as the light switched to green. This meant it had sent a ping to the computer in the loudspeaker and received a response. He set the remote on the ground next to his foot and centered his target back in the scope.

Jakk tried as hard as he could to clear his mind and focus completely on the target. But, there were a few nagging factors involved. First, once he fires he'll have to reload the bolt-action and find his target again, in case he missed.

Second, Ajit's daughter was sitting on the other side of him and was in the bullet's trajectory. This posed a serious problem not only because Jakk doesn't want to hurt her but because the KillChain penalizes any bounty having collateral damage. This was designed into the system purely for self-preservation. If such a penalty didn't exist then bounty hunters would simply blow up their targets in large populated areas and kill bystanders. This would undoubtedly increase the amount of effort spent trying to destroy the KillChain.

Wheeeeeewwwwwww… POP! A firework exploded in the sky above downtown Detroit. Red sparks scatter and drop from the sky as a perfectly timed holographic projection of a dragon manifested in the air. The dragon writhed and wrapped and breathed fire. High resolution cameras on nearby rooftops relayed real time video feeds back to firework technician tents where servers quickly analyzed the data and instructed the artificial dragon to move in harmony with the unpredictable motion of the firework.

The holograms were projected by three different banks of laser projectors. Two intersecting lasers don't do much. But when a third intersects the temperature was high enough that the air crackled into plasma, which was subsequently colored by the lasers. Rapidly moving projector mirrors cause thousands of laser-induced plasma bursts per second. The result was a beautiful synchronization between hologram and firework that might look realistic if it weren't for the flickering laser beams coming through the haze.

Could Jakk shoot Ajit with his daughter on the other side? The bounty of $320k would probably drop to $240k if he hurt a bystander, or $160k if he killed a bystander. Jakk didn't think he could live with himself either. There were services which could remove a memory from one's consciousness but they were costly.

Could he waste a shot, cause everyone to panic and run, then try to take a shot at Ajit once he was clear? No way, he didn't anticipate having to practice with moving targets. It was too much of a risk.

Another firework whistled as it climbed higher into the air and exploded. Jakk could tell it was green as the light shimmered on the surface of a police drone passing by the stands but he wouldn't dare take his sight off of Ajit. As Jakk contemplated trading dollars with ethics a third firework exploded blue. Ajit's daughter rose to her feet and pointed up at the display.

Jakk squeezed the trigger without hesitation.

The recoil effect was stronger than in the simulator, not to mention this time Jakk could physically feel it. It almost felt like a lie, since he had been in this exact moment so many times in VR without feeling a recoil. He quickly ejected the brass shell, reloaded, and refocused on his target.

Ajit's brains were splattered all over the empty seat next to him. His daughter turned and screamed. Sorry, kid, but maybe if your father wasn't an evil corporate monster who profited from human rights violations then this wouldn't have happened.

Everyone in the stands were either screaming or frozen, except for the highly trained bodyguards. One of them tackled Ajit's daughter onto the ground and covered her. Maybe he thinks it'll save his job. The other bodyguards were barking updates into their cuffs. The attendees who were recording the show pointed their cameras at the gore that remained of Ajit.

Confident that his target was dead, and that the ceremony was broadcasted, Jakk stepped on the remote button. The sound—faint as it were from up in the tower—was one he had heard in countless KillChain recordings. It was reminiscent of the old dial-up modems from decades past which people used to access the internet.

The audio contained a very simple binary message designed by the original KillChain authors. The message encoded two things. The first was a marker to signify a KillChain kill just happened. The second was the address of Jakk's cryptocurrency wallet.

And just like that, dozens of people who live-streamed their view of the fireworks now unwittingly streamed the assassination of Ajit across the internet. People viewed these streams and left comments like, "Oh my god that guy was just killed" or "Whoa, do you hear that noise? #killchain".

Moments later, hundreds of decentralized KillChain servers were crawling those live streams, parsing social media tags, and extracting audio and geolocation data. The KillChain servers were always crawling streams. Different servers ingested the many streams and communicated back and forth and agreed that a kill had been made and that a wallet address was broadcasted.

The police drone near the grandstands broke free from its automated loop around the park. Instead of flying in an ovaloid shape it dropped down about ten meters to get a better look at the stands. The flight path it was taking was no longer guided by mechanical precision. Instead, it awkwardly banked, sped up, and slowed down in the awkward manner that only a human pilot could achieve. Damn, that was a lot faster than expected.

He jumped to his feet and pocketed the remaining two bullets—he would have to discard them when he had more time. He momentarily thought about shooting down the drone but dismissed the idea just as quickly. He just wasn't trained to hit a moving target. Besides, he needed to run before anyone discovered his position.

He dismantled the gun and coated each piece in peroxide. Little white bubbles formed within seconds, kickstarting the oxidation. He tossed the parts into the tub to finish the process. In a few hours there would be nothing left but rusty brown water.

He sprinted across the floor towards the stairwell. Rays of white light visible in the dusty air burst through the windows from the left side of the building. Jakk risked a quick glance out the window and saw a second police drone. Was it doing an automatic patrol or was it in manual override? How in the hell could they have found him so quickly? If they had, he'd be trapped if he stayed in the building. All he could think of as he descended the stairwells was that the sooner he left, the better.

He reached the second floor completely out of breath and cautiously looked for police through a window. There didn't appear to be a crowd of police with guns drawn waiting for him. He looked up into the sky; the drone went on, blithely performing its automated duties. He still had a few minutes until someone would find the bullet embedded in an aluminum seat and calculate which tower Jakk had been in.

Once he was certain nobody was watching he climbed back down to the street.


Jakk sat back in his VR rig. It had only taken him a few minutes to pack and the apartment was clear of any evidence that Jakk had lived in it. He browsed KillChain ledgers, watched local news, and checked the balance of his wallet. Still no payout.

Two news stations interviewed people in the park. The city had cancelled the remainder of the firework show. The loudspeaker, which was incapacitated hours ago, had been confiscated and was being inspected by police.

One of the news crews interviewed a grieving woman in business casual and runny makeup as her daughter sobbed. Jakk turned away. They said his name was Ajit Apartha. The other crew interviewed an officer who went through Ajit's wallet. Yes, the man's name was Ajit. No, there hadn't been any other casualties from the incident. A few minutes later his wallet contained a hefty $350k; another bounty or two must have been added since Jakk last checked.

It was time to get the hell out of Detroit. Jakk opened a folder of programs he had written. The folder was a bit old and he didn't remember what most of them did. But, the program labeled detroit_exodus.bin grabbed his attention. What had he programmed it to do? Definitely launder money from his wallet to somewhere safe, and probably purchase a bus ticket. Was that it?

Jakk thought again about Lia. He wanted to take her with him. But, there would be cops everywhere. Traveling alone was much easier, and certainly safer for Lia. Could he ever tell her what he had done? Probably not, she would never speak to him again.

He had promised to help her get away from here. Did he mean it? Or was it just the beer talking? He pulled up her handle. What could he do to help her leave Detroit?

He switched back to his bank account. How much would it cost her to tie up loose ends? Break her lease? Hell, the bounty had jumped an unanticipated $30k. Screw it. Jakk entered Lia's handle into the money transfer screen and wrote a message.

Once the transfer was complete he executed the program.

5. Paris

Daniel sat on the upper deck of a restaurant boat floating in the Seine River in Paris. Millions of tiny, chaotic waves echoed against the walls of the busy channel and bumped into the hull and each one imperceptibly contributed to its gentle rise and fall. He could clearly see the Eiffel Tower from his vantage point.

It was noon. Daniel had reserved the boat, hired a crew to set up a party, and flew himself and several important members of Forcyte Industries to Paris to celebrate their wildly successful quarter. Record-breaking profits had been earned, and a team of internal analysts published a report which explained how Daniel had single-handedly turned the company around. Some outside journalists suggested they only did well due to the untimely death of the CEO of Penrose-Jaeger, Corp.

In a public interview Daniel explained how much he would miss Ajit, a man who he respected and had a professional relationship with, and how it was a tragic loss for their industry.

A couple walked by on the sidewalk and noticed the restaurant. When they approached the dock a staff member turned them away. "Sorry, we're closed for a private party." "What do you mean? There's hardly anyone here!" "Yes, well, I'm sorry, but we're closed. Please come back again tomorrow." Daniel overheard the exchange and smiled. If there was one thing he loved, other than Paris of course, it was having enough money so that someone else had to tell tourists to kindly get lost.

The upper deck of the boat was all but desolate. Tables with floral centerpieces filled the open space. A few signs with the latest Forcyte slogans and HR-funded taglines fluttered. Balloons in the company colors wrestled in the wind. Waitstaff gossiped in the corner and occasionally looked over their shoulders to see if Daniel needed anything.

He had advertised the party as a breakfast and went for a walk when it was over. The staff then asked his colleagues to depart. They were none-the-wiser that Daniel had rented the boat for an entire day. He returned to the boat once they were gone with plans to spend the day on the river, sipping wine, and enjoying the view of the Eiffel Tower. He wanted to do so in solitude without having to explain the next quarterly strategy, where he went on his vacation, or why his vacation—which he had expensed—ended up costing $30k more than anticipated.

One-by-one the waitstaff had grown bored and disappeared to the lower deck. A straggling waitress came over to refill Daniel's glass. It was the same blonde who Daniel had gotten a little too friendly with earlier that morning—she wouldn't make eye contact with him and was in a rush to return to the refuge of the lower deck.

Another tourist approached the boat and checked her InterBroca. She seemed to be looking at the name of the boat and second guessing where she was headed. Poor thing, probably wanted to make a reservation for her and her boyfriend. She locked eyes with Daniel and climbed the ramp.

She was kinda cute, almost Daniel's type, but she desperately needed to put on some makeup, throw out that gothy outfit, and buy some big-girl clothes. As the drew nearer Daniel grew more annoyed. The weirdo didn't even break eye contact. Did she think she knew Daniel? Where's the waitstaff to kick her out? He looked around, they must still be slacking below deck. Daniel must have a word with their manager later and demand a partial refund.

"Sorry, sweetie, this is a private event. The whole ship's reserved." he said with a grin.

"Oh my god, it is you." she replied.

Daniel scowled. She knew him? He looked her up and down and wondered if she had been a one-night stand. Was he blackout drunk again? Hell, he couldn't even remember the details of his trip to Africa. He really must've went too far that time. Had he met her on his trip?

"I'm sorry, but do I know you?"

The question had an interesting effect on her. Daniel expected her to lose her cool, maybe even storm off and leave him in peace. Instead, she let on a slight smile through her annoyed demeanor. "You don't remember me, us, at all?" Daniel shook his head. She reached into her bag and pulled out a tablet and slid it over to Daniel. He played along and looked at the screen. It displayed a letter:

> From: Jakk <BlakkJakk42>
> To: Lia <LialaneAristene>
> Subject: Exodus
> 
> Lia,
> 
> It isn't much but it should be enough to get you out of
> Detroit. I have to leave the city and I won't be able to see
> you for a while. I'm Sorry I couldn't say goodbye in person. If
> you'd like to see me again, reply to this address. I'm heading
> to Paris in the autumn.
> 
> Jakk
> 
> -----BEGIN PUBLIC KEY BLOCK-----
> Q3JhY2tzIG1hcnIgdGhlIHN1cmZhY2UKT2YgeW91ciBwcmlzdGluZSBmYWNlOwp
> OZWdsZWN0IGFuZCBzb2xpdHVkZQpMZWZ0IGFjcmlkIGRpc3Rhc3RlLgpGZWFyLC
> BhbmdlciwgbG9hdGhpbmcKR3VpZGluZyBldmVyeSBzdGVwLiAKTGlrZSB0aGUgU
> GhvZW5peDogcmlzZSBhYm92ZSwKT3IgcGVyaXNoIHdpdGggcmVncmV0Lg==
> -----END PUBLIC KEY BLOCK-----

Daniel read the letter twice. "I'm sorry, lady, but I don't know who these people are, or what this letter has to do with me" he said, sliding the tablet back to her. "Now, if you're done, please…"

"I did write back!" she shouted. Is this woman the Lia in the letter? She regained her composure and continued, "I wrote and I never got a reply. You really don't remember any of this, do you?"

Did Daniel meet Lia in Africa?

"Do you know how hard it was to track you down? I saw your face on the news. Some hot shot CEO was killed in Detroit. I was a few blocks away when it happened. It was all over the news for weeks. They interviewed everyone. I caught an interview one day and lo and behold you were the one being interviewed."

Did Daniel really go to Africa? He remembered the flight. He flew there, not direct of course. He had a layover in Hong Kong. It was a long layover… He stored his stuff in a locker and went out for a few hours… What did he do again?

"How much did it cost? Other than that cheap dye job, of course. Was it worth it? Where'd you get the persona? Is any of Jakk based on you, or was he entirely made up?"

Daniel, trying to piece together what he had been up to, couldn't reply in any meaningful way other than slowly shaking his head.

"Jakk's gone, forever, isn't he?" Lia asked.

Panic set in. Lia knew far too much and probably had enough evidence to put him away for life. She apparently knew things even he didn't know. He needed to have her removed. Could he pretend to be this Jakk character and win her trust? How much had he netted this quarter? How much would another trip to Hong Kong set him back?

Lia reached into her bag again and pulled out some sort of brown and blue object. Daniel sneered—whatever it was it left a brown, rust-like stain on her hand.

"Just kidding. I already know he's gone forever."

Tags: #fiction
Thomas Hunter II Avatar

Thomas is the author of Advanced Microservices and is a prolific public speaker with a passion for reducing complex problems into simple language and diagrams. His career includes working at Fortune 50's in the Midwest, co-founding a successful startup, and everything in between.