It was not easy to drive in an overcrowded metropolis shaped not by urban planning but by the self-emergent order from the chaos of illegal constructions that had plagued Kosovo during its early decades of statehood. Rather than your regular grid-like streets, Prishtinopolis — how locals referred to Prishtina and its adjacent metropolitan area that had engulfed almost the entirety of Kosovo’s territory — was organized in a fractal-like sprawl of intertwining narrow and crowded streets.
As the Arbiter drove in a delirious state, he spotted several youths entering what seemed like a dive bar at the end of the block. If the place’s name, “The Collective,” didn’t give it away, then the clothes the youths wore made this place beyond a doubt a den of hackers.
Vintage leather jackets, the latest kicks that glowed an ever changing color of neon. Hair ranging from mohawks to styles as tightly combed as if attending the preppiest of academies. But what truly gave them away were their chunky anti-face-recognition glasses, their models as ridiculously retro as they were cool: From those with a big red frame with hinges that looked like shutters, to those of a solid reflective strip of yellow that mirrored the neon glow from the neighboring buildings.
Instead of parallel parking, the Arbiter just jammed his black SUV diagonally with its back sticking out into the road. He dizzyingly rushed towards the door of “The Collective.” It took him a while for his eyes to acclimatize to the dimly lit environment, as he wobbled down the steps of what used to be a deep underground cellar.
“Is that you car out there buddy?” asked the bartender pointing to a CCTV monitor above, “You better move it in about two point five minutes, or the police drone will find it and fine you.”
Once his eyes adjusted, the Arbiter saw the mohawk kid sitting by the bar.
“Hey, Mohwak,” called the Arbiter as he tossed him the keys, “Catch! Do me a favor and I may have a job for you.”
And the mohawk stood up and went toward the door without saying a word.
“You look like shit, my friend,” said the bartender. “What can I get you?”
“A beer will be fine.”
“A beer it is. But it won’t be fine. I know the shakes when I see them.”
Drinking was discouraged by the Code, and even more so were drugs unapproved by Truthbringer. But at the moment, they were the only way of dealing with the worsening cyber-withdrawal symptoms. The mission was a priority, and if taking unsanctioned drugs would help him complete his mission, then, so be it, the Arbiter figured.
“Yes. You’re right. I’ll also need a dose of Bliss.”
“Bliss!?” said the bartender in surprise. “You may want to update your list of pharmaceuticals, my friend. Bliss is so last year. The side-effects and all. Try this. It’s the latest Kosovar biotech has to offer. It’s called Horizons.” And he extended his hand and presented him with a pill in his open palm.
“Does it come in a diffusion-jet?”
“It’s that bad, a? Allright,” said the bartender as he produced a diffusion gun and placed the pill into the cartridge. “Show me your neck.” He leaned the gun over the Arbiter’s jugular and squeezed the trigger with a whoosh.
The Arbiter’s eyes opened up and he took a deep breath. The drug worked quickly to calm him.
“So, what happened to the implants?” asked the bartender.
“Hell, if I know,” lied the Arbiter. He had reverted to his older speech patterns, more casual and conversational. Alcohol, drugs, and lack of cyber-stimuli did their share of work. “Just suddenly stopped working. Must’ve been some EMP interference or something. I have an appointment to have them checked out in an hour, but just couldn’t wait till then.”
“You did the right thing, friend. I went through that hell myself once or twice. Wouldn’t wish it on anyone. If you want, one of the hacker kids here can give you a diagnostic. Might void your warranty, though.”
“Appreciate the offer. Maybe next time,” said the Arbiter as he slowly sipped his beer.
The mohawk kid came back inside, and the Arbiter again noticed his chunky privacy-glasses with red hinges. He wondered if these youths were actually making a political statement against the use of face recognition technology, or were they mere followers of trends.
“Thanks for the help. Now, about that job offer I promised. Your hacking cred any good?”
The mohawk, eager to show off his skills, full of confidence and ready to do what it takes, pulled up his rep-sheet on an AR puck, and then, realizing his prospective customer was currently cyber-blind, he showed him the numbers on a tablet.
There was a reason why it was so easy to find freelancers like the mohawk at every corner of Prishtinopolis. You cage the people inside a ghetto and prevent them from moving in the physical world, they’ll figure out other ways to move. And why bother with the physical movement in the era when bits and electrons do all the heavy lifting?
So, out of necessity and isolation, Kosovo’s economy had become dependent on the freedom of movement in the cyber-realm. This made it one of the main nexus points, an equivalent of being one of the world’s biggest cyber-island-entrepôt nations. And just like these freelance hackers, the authorities too didn’t care what kind of info moved through their cyber-ports, as long as the traffic kept moving.
This dangerous and chaotic ideological concept of “freedom of information” was the exact opposite of what the Agency, Truthbinger, the Code, and an entire army of arbiters stood for. Albanian State, in its current form, existed thanks to the tireless and surgical decontamination of data.
“Impressive, my mohawk friend,” said the Arbiter, and then gave him a photo of one of his targets. “I need this person’s address.”
“It will cost you,” said the mohawk. “Fifty blockchains.”
“Seventy five. If you do it fast, and you got another five for being a good sport with my car. And if you’re good, I’d like to hire you on a retainer. I may have some more jobs coming your way. Do you have a crew?”
“We’re the Kaçak Syndicate,” said the mohawk, and he plugged an accelerator into his implants and began his work. It took him less than a minute.
“Here’s the name and address,” said the mohawk. “The guy is associated with KIRN.”
Impressive, thought the Arbiter, considering that several different agencies were responsible for guarding Kosovo’s cyber-borders and traffic — from the KSF’s famous Unit 1010 cyber defence corp, to local and city mandated cyber-rangers, and all the way to volunteer cyber-militias.
“I said I just needed the address,” said the Arbiter. He already had an extensive file on his target.
“It’s a freebie. A show of good faith for our future endeavors,” continued the mohawk. “But I have to warn you. KIRN is not just a news agency you might know from the olden times.”
“So I’ve heard,” said the Arbiter. He was well aware that KIRN was one of those cyber-militias. He knew that beside their cyber presence, KIRN also had a paramilitary wing, which they deemed necessary to protect and support journalists, most of whom were foreigners and on some sort of a hit-list.
“Your friend’s organization manages a network that trains and organizes journalist resistances. We worked with them on a couple of jobs. It’s exciting times. Kosovo is at the forefront of change. We are the staging ground for info-revolutions in the region and beyond,” said the mohawk all excited, believing he was on the same ideological side as the Arbiter.
Visions of truths past
As the Arbiter drove through the city, big holographic billboards advertising Kosovo’s corporations adorned the night sky. Grimy narrow streets were illuminated by colorful neons, as the homeless, and the rich, and robots, and implanted humans, intermingled by walking over the same puddles of rainwater and mud. No sooner, he got caught in a traffic jam, his bumper next to those of electric cars, the fumes from his SUV irrelevant in the toxic-fog over which a cloud of drones and flying vehicles hovered and moved.
The Horizons drug was not without side effects. Even though it calmed his shakes, it also intensified the Arbiter’s withdrawal hallucinations. The blurry glow of the holographic billboards that cut through the fog now appeared as Rorschach-like animations, cinematic tableaus directed by an implant-dependent mind devoid of stimuli.
The first one featured Eddy the Great, praise be upon him, and his declaration of the war on journalists.
Then came images of the early battles of the Agency against the journos and its many defeats. Images of dead bodies, burnt homes, and failed purges that resulted in many innocent deaths. Journos were shown as invisible ghosts, slitting the throats of arbiters with their untruths.
The Arbiter saw visions of the Great Ruin, where in a journo informational counter-offensive, the reputations of Eddy the Great and his allies were so damaged that it almost seemed that the Untruth had prevailed once and for all. But those defeats only strengthened Great Eddy’s resolve to continue building the perfect society based on Truth.
And then a scene depicting the advent of Truthbringer — the artificial intelligence that now controls all of the Agency’s activities — and Great Eddy’s initial reluctance in trusting a machine to do a human’s bidding. But as cyber problems needed cyber solutions, with every successful purge and victory over the journos, the Truthbringer A.I. got better and more efficient.
The cars began to move, yet the Arbiter felt stuck. He ignored the car horns directed at him. He began to see himself as one of those decommissioned robots that roamed the streets side by side with the homeless. He began feeling something he hadn’t felt in a while. It was fear.
Fear of obsolescence, of having outlived his operational warranty, and having served off his contractual obligations as an arbiter. He knew this fear was induced as a side-effect of the implant switch-off, yet he stood helpless as another one of the visions played in front of his eyes. This was not just a random hallucination, but a flashback to events that had already occurred.
He replayed distorted images of the time he was sent to decommission a series of Mark Three arbiters who had gone rogue and had blasphemed in their interpretation of the Code. Their bodies piled on top of each other for their ceremonial sendoff. Flames and smoke that rose into the night. And all that was left of their old implants were charred metal parts intermixed with grey ashes.
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.
Music: Liburn Jupolli.