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a serialized ethno-cyber-punk novel

The Kaçak Syndicate

As the Arbiter walked down the steps of “The Collective” he increasingly heard the humming and buzzing of the crowd. The bar was full, and the previously laid back and talk-therapist-like bartender was now taking orders and serving with the efficiency of an industrial robot. 

As the Arbiter stood at the entrance observing the crowd, he saw Mohawk among them; who broke off from what he was doing and excitedly approached the Arbiter as soon as he noticed him.

“Welcome back boss,” said Mohawk.

“What’s with the crowd?” asked the Arbiter.

“Meet the Kaçak Syndicate,” said Mohawk all proud. “This is the army you hired.”

The Arbiter just looked for a while. The old fashioned way, without the cyber-implants, analyzing each face individually. Taking it all in. The entire bar-full of hackers, all mobilized and buzzing with activity. The ones standing by the bar had their equipment and their drinks compete for the same space. Others seemed busy stretching and laying down cables, digging the proverbial trenches, turning the bar into a headquarters for whatever war they were about to engage in. It was difficult to find a table or a booth that was not occupied. Some debated lively over holographic projections of maps, others analyzed the schemes with the complicated architecture of electronics. Further ahead, a group seemed to be in a state of work-trance, hyper-focused on writing that perfect script to achieve whatever task they’d set for themselves.

“What’s going on here?” asked the Arbiter. “Why all the commotion?”

“Haven’t you heard?”

“My implants are still offline,” said the Arbiter. “No luck at/with my appointment. They couldn’t fix ‘em.”

“There’s been an attack, boss. A tragic massacre,” said Mohawk. “At the supposed KIRN headquarters. A total blow/setback to the cause. It looks like a lot of KIRN paramilitaries were killed. The news isn’t official yet, but it will hit the media any moment now. This may mean war.”

“What about the journalists?” The Arbiter used the local term for the journos, one the locals deemed non-derogatory and non-offensive.

“We don’t know. Half of the Syndicate is scrambling to find an answer to that question,” said Mohawk, his face suddenly losing the bubbly enthusiasm as his eyes looked at the emptiness in the distance. “I knew some of them, you know, KIRN militia members… We often worked together, collaborated on projects. Good people, you know… all gone now…”

Mohawk continued his blank stares for a moment, reminiscing on the times many freelance projects they worked on to spread the “freedom (of information)”, and then suddenly, as if awoken by a cold sobering chill, took a step forward, straightened his spine, and called out to the crowd: 

“Kaçaks, hear me,” he yelled. “It is a sad day, not only for our fallen comrades, not only for our shared cause, not only for our allies of the “Iowa Accords,” but also for freedom everywhere in the world.” 

A grim silence began to fall all over the bar, the bartender turned off the speakers, and all of the hackers stopped what they were doing and turned their heads towards the Mohawk. 

“Kaçaks, her me,” continued Mohawk. “This is war. And soldiers die in wars. We all know that. Yet, our hearts still bleed for our friends at KIRN. Kaçaks, raise your glasses in honor of the fallen.”

And the entire bar complied. Those who happened to be without drinks just raised their empty hands, fists clenching invisible mugs. The Arbiter decided to do the same. 

“They fought valiantly. And they fell for what they believed in. And, even though we are not warriors like them, we are fighters all the same — it’s the same things we believe in,” that’s when Mohawk also raised his empty fist clenching an invisible glass, and added: “Kaçaks, what do we believe in?”

“Freedom!” shouted the crowd, as they raised their glasses or — more commonly — empty clenched fists, in the air.

“What do we fight for?”

“Freedom!” and fists in the air.

The Arbiter kept his hand in the air, stunned both by the display in front of him, and by the sudden realisation of how these freelancers have reappropriated the meaning of “freedom” for their own benefit. They are no different than the journos, thought the Arbiter. In fact, they may be worse. He was aware of the power that the “Cult of Freedom” wielded with Kosovars. Just like ancient city-states, Kosovo and Prishtinopolis were no different — they too made use of myths to give their existence meaning. And in this pantheon of new values, none was more powerful than the Freedom-myth. 

So typical, thought the Arbiter, for a people who could barely move freely anywhere outside their border, to revere such an aspirational deity. Illyriana the Free was the unofficial/state-sanctioned patron-goddess of Kosovo, and she embodied an updated conception of freedom, one that also reflected the present-day cybernetic values that drove the country’s economy. They even referred to their country as “The Cradle of Freedom,” thought the Arbiter. And the Arbiter couldn’t swallow the hypocrisy of his northern neighbors when they referred to the Code as a religion, yet failing to see their own fanaticism in idolatrous practices that even involved statues, temples, priests, rituals. Perhaps it is a vulnerability that could somehow be exploited, figured the Arbiter.

“What will we die for?”

“Freedom!” and fists rose in the air again.

“Condolences,” said Mohawk in a more solemn voice. “And may their deeds bring them glory.” 

“Glory!” they all shouted again.

“Kaçaks, her me. Our fallen allies will be remembered, and our work will continue. The cause we serve has many names, but it has one ultimate goal. There are many battles to come,” and the Mohawk turned to the Arbiter. “Kaçaks, I present to you… your new boss!”

And with that they unleashed one last roar with their clenched fists in the air.

Mohawk’s impromptu speech caught the Arbiter by surprise. He didn’t expect this youngster to be so eloquent and so charismatic. When he hired his services, he didn’t realize he was buying an army of hackers. All pleasant surprises; a feeling he realized he had missed during the times he had spent viewing the world through his cyber-implants.

“Quite a crew you got there,” said the Arbiter.

“For the right price and the right ideals,” said Mohawk, and showed him the Kaçak Syndicate’s insignia that was being projected on one of the walls. “Libertas et merces. Liberty and wages. That’s our motto. Speaking of which… Please follow me, boss. We have much to discuss.”

They slowly began to step down from the stairs which had served as the make-shift podium, and Mohawk led the Arbiter to the back of the bar, to a more quiet place.

“Forgive the questions, Boss, I have to ask…” began Mohawk, “What happened to your KIRN friend I had tracked down for you?”

This, on the other hand, was not a surprise. He had expected this question to come up, and had been mulling over all kinds of scenarios on how to deal with it. He even briefly contemplated swiftly snapping Mohawk’s neck and then quickly eliminating the rest of the people inside the bar. But maintaining his stealth was essential to his mission. And bringing that kind of unwanted and unwarranted attention was a scenario of last resort. Plus, after learning of the size of Mohawk’s little hacker army, he could figure endless ways of putting them to a better and more productive use.

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” said the Arbiter and he tried hard to make his face appear somber. “Especially since these last developments.”

“I can’t track his cyber-signature,” said Mohawk. “He appears offline. He too might be dead.”

The Arbiter wondered how much Mohawk knew. Was he on to something? 

“But, forgive me, boss,” continued Mohawk, “I have to ask… about the timing of all this. How come at the same time you are interested in a KIRN militia member, they all end up wiped out.”

“I thought your lot didn’t care about the details?”

Freelancers like the Mohawk and the Kaçak Syndicate prided themselves on their protocol of conduct. They were used to working with employers with fake holographic IDs, who often spun some ridiculous covers and background stories. It was not unusual but rather encouraged by the nature of their jobs. And since most of their work consisted of these kinds of incognito transactions that valued the protection of privacy, they always called their employers “boss”. It was unspecific enough and it did away with the need to ask for unnecessities like IDs and motivations. 

“Correct. That is the premise — and the promise — of a freelancer contract. The Kaçak Syndicate survives and lives by that rule. But considering the circumstances, boss…”

“I can not tell you the details of my mission, you know that, right?”

Mohawk nodded.

“But, how about this: The person you searched for me was supposed to be my contact. I needed his help to complete my mission. It hardly matters now. We have to focus on new things. I want to know who is responsible for this.”

“I can tell you who isn’t,” said Mohawk. “You. The attack had begun while you were still here, at The Collective, talking to me and the bartender. I can’t say I didn’t have my doubts, boss. And that’s why I had to ask what I did.”

“I want to know everything that went on and what is going on at that KIRN headquarters,” said the Arbiter.

“And boss, what about your implants?” asked Mohawk.

“I think it is safer if we don’t tinker with them. I’ll have to endure my withdrawal symptoms. I don’t want to paint a target on my back. I got lucky this time.”

“I understand,” said Mohawk. “Better be safe than sorry. Whoever got our KIRN friends, could also use your implants to track you down.”

“But what about your crew?”

“Oh, don’t worry about us boss. We’ve got it covered.” Said Mohawk, but his lack of elaboration alarmed the Arbiter. What technology did the Kaçak’s have under their sleeves?

Categorized as: bonus | fiction

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