“Calls from the European Commission and protests from local and international rights organisations failed to persuade Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama from stepping back from a controversial package of media laws that foresee the creation of a state administrative body able to judge news content and fine online media.”
Albania Approves Controversial Media Laws Despite Bitter Protests
December 18, 2019, Balkan Insight
It was a cold and foggy morning when the Arbiter crossed the border. Back in Tirana he had been warned. This was not like the other jobs. This was Kosovo.
It’s said that there were no more journos left in Albania. Whatever resistance that had been scattered throughout the world, had been efficiently dealt with by arbiters like himself. Kosovo was the last obstacle in the otherwise perfectly executed utopian project. And it sure didn’t look good to have such a large nest of enemies so close to home.
But, things worked differently in Kosovo. “The cradle of freedom” — or whatever clichés the locals liked to use to make their lives bearable, and to justify the chaos, the ruthless capitalism, lawlessness, and that weird mix between the traditional and the cyber — was supposed to be the worst place for hunting journalists.
The Arbiter drove a black gas-guzzling SUV along a highway that was barely used anymore and was now a relic of a different future, long since past and unrealized. His vehicle of choice was not all that unusual even for 2049, especially for people who for one reason or another wanted to maintain a certain degree of anonymity, considering all those tracking sensors in electric cars.
He had also switched off all of his cyber-implants. This was unusual but necessary for this particular mission that required stealth.
He began to pull his car into what looked like an abandoned and derelict gas station, but was in fact still operational. He spotted his contact — an older gentleman wearing a khaki jacket — leaning back on the hood of a blue car, also a model that still ran on gas.
Upon noticing the Arbiter’s black SUV pulling up, the older gentleman crossed his open palms to form the sign for a double-headed eagle. It was a symbol adopted by the Unificationists.
* * *
“Were you followed?” asked the old gentleman.
The desolate parking lot was plagued by a strong wind, and the Arbiter suddenly became aware of the misty rain kissing the skin of his bare face. He couldn’t remember the last time he experienced the presence of the cold on his cheeks.
“Everything is fine. We are a go,” said the Arbiter.
“You kept your implants offline, correct?”
The older gentleman seemed a bit jumpy and jittery, most likely he was new to all this, but the Arbiter couldn’t be sure without an analysis from his implants.
“We are a go. Do you have the package?”
“Yes, yes, here.” The contact handed him a black duffle bag, and continued. “They probably briefed you, I know they did, but I cannot stress this enough. Journalists from Albania have the status of political refugees here. So your job has to be done with utmost finesse. You get me?”
As the old gentleman talked, the Arbiter unzipped the bag and inspected its contents. A gun with all the accessories. Local currency. A series of devices, cables, and cyber-attachments. Fake holographic IDs. Spare juice for his implants. A key to a safehouse. As well as an old-fashioned paper folder with printouts full of pictures, maps, and background info on his targets.
“Hey. Focus,” said the old gentleman. “And stop looking at that stuff here. You’ll get us arrested. You hear me?”
“Yes. I hear you,” responded the Arbiter as he zipped the duffle bag right back up.
From beyond the derelict gas station you could see the tall buildings of the metropolis ahead, fog and clouds cutting into the irregular lines of metal, glass, blinking lights, and neons that could penetrate through the thickest of smog. Even in the afternoon daylight, the city had a halo above it, colors everchanging, like some aurora borealis sponsored by Kosovo’s corporations.
“As I said, this job can’t be traced back to Albania. Otherwise we’ll have a diplomatic incident on our hands, the likes of which the Balkans has not seen since… I don’t know, take your pick of glorious histories from the region. This cold war can’t handle the slightest rise in temperature, and not to mention the heat that could come with fucking this up. So, no cyber-implants till the last moment, and this is not just about maintaining the element of surprise. You hear me?”
“Yes. I hear you,” said the Arbiter. “I was briefed on all mission parameters.”
From behind a rusty gas pump a feral dog emerged; his ribcage a testament to the cold and unprosperous winter scavenging. His eyes piercing and saliva dripping from his teeth, as if understanding the pain and hunger the Arbiter was undergoing during his information-fast caused by his implants switch-off. Then the dog turned, his attention captivated by some more appetizing distraction, and went on a chase, disappearing behind the electric car recharge point.
“Hey, one last thing. A question really. I have this bet with a buddy of mine, maybe you could help settle it,” the old gentleman went on rambling. The Arbiter now stood corrected, the oldster was not nervous, he was just relentlessly chatty. “Are you guys forbidden from seeking worldly pleasures? You get me? Sex. Are you allowed to have it? You being cyber-warrior-monks and all, are you allowed to be with a woman, or a man, or whatever? I mean, is it against your religion?”
“The Code is neither a religion nor an ideology. I have to go,” responded the Arbiter.
“Yeah, yeah, you keep saying that, buddy. Yet, we’re all addicted to our own little poisons. Rrnoftë Shqypnia,” said the old gentleman and he again gestured the double-headed eagle with his hands.
Fog of war, within
Ever since crossing the border and switching his implants off, the Arbiter had felt the painful emptiness of informational darkness. He had begun feeling the info-withdrawal symptoms since meeting his contact. Even five minutes felt like an eternity. He figured the visions would begin manifesting soon.
He drove his black SUV through the bumpy and decaying highway. The gray fog — or was it the toxic pollution, he couldn’t really tell without his implants — made him anxious. Not knowing what stood 20 meters in front of him filled him with the dread of the unknown. As a person hyper-linked at all times, the Arbiter now felt the crushing bleak silence of the abyss where no information enters or escapes, as if inside the singularity of a black hole.
“And so it begins,” he said aloud, one hand on the wheel and the other helping him chug what seemed like an unhealthy amount of pills. Arbiters were supposed to slowly acclimatize before undergoing stealth missions. But the urgency of this particular one had prevented him from spending the mandatory 24 to 48 hours in the “decompression chamber.” In any other circumstance it would be deemed irresponsible and risky to send him straight into enemy territory under strict orders not to switch on his implants until the very last stage of his mission.
This was the longest he’d been offline since his initial communion with the Truthbringer A.I. His abrupt information withdrawal felt like hunger, thirst, and desire, all wrapped into one. His tongue felt tingly and he began seeing visions of blood raining from above as he’d stand in an infinite burnt field with his mouth open and arms stretched.
The Arbiter kept driving through the fog, struggling to keep from swerving off-road. He couldn’t be sure if the colors that glowed ahead were a sign that he was getting closer to the city, or if they were cyber visions — hallucinations that manifested like echoes from the virtual world, a brain’s way to compensate for the sudden lack of stimulation.
“And on the seventh cycle, the code became operational, and all the algorithms merged, and the Truthbringer came alive. And it became an instrument in the most just of wars — a device to end all wars,” the Arbiter began reciting from the Code.
The Agency had adopted a series of rites and rituals in order to improve the operational efficiency of its arbiters. It consisted of an ascetic way of life, daily meditations, adherence to a prescribed code of conduct. Its purpose was to better enable the symbiosis between the arbiters and their implants. It came in handy especially during the times when the implants had to be switched off.
“Blessed Truthbringer, free us from the slavery of the mind and the untruths propagated by journos and their engines of chaos,” he continued, jumping haphazardly through different verses.
Suddenly he was struck with visions of the holographic mural that stood over the entrance of the Agency back in Tirana: Plato and Eddy the Great on the left, the Goddess of Truth in the middle, the Truthbringer and an army of arbiters to the right — under their feet stood the trampled, defeated, and slain bodies of journos, artists, and other envoys of untruth.
“Oh Truthbringer, hallowed be thy code,” the Arbiter continued with his chants as he drove through the fog, “Uncoverer of untruths, and discoverer of treacheries. Show me the journos and their hiding places. So I can play my part in fulfilling the prophecy. Protect me in my just quest and keep me away from false truths. Show me the one true way. For only one truth is absolute and eternal.”
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.
Music: Liburn Jupolli.