The plan was simple. The Arbiter was going to ambush a low ranking member of KIRN and have him reveal the location of the journos. But even though this was technically an intelligence gathering mission, he still had to be careful, since he was going implant-less and blind.
The Arbiter parked his car in a residential neighborhood. He was early. The target wouldn’t show up for a bit. From inside his car he had a view of the target’s apartment building and the street ahead.
He hated stakeouts. He hated the silence and the waiting. Yet he now had no choice in the matter. He was transformed into an ambush predator, waiting for the enemy to make a mistake and fall into his trap.
The Arbiter glanced at the black duffle bag on the passenger seat. He stretched out his hand and pulled out a folder. Occasionally peeking at the street and the entrance of the apartment, he began to review the background info on his target. Perhaps for the first time, the Arbiter realized that these journos looked like any other human being, nothing like the monsters they were made to be. Perhaps that’s where their danger lies, an innocent façade that hides unfathomable evils, he thought.
The task of eliminating the journos seemed so simple — nothing he hadn’t done hundreds of times — yet everyone kept reminding and warning him about the difficulty and sensitivity of this mission. But without the implants he couldn’t be certain. He had gotten used to relying on them for so long, that trusting his own gut seemed like too much to ask. He got a sense that some aspects of this mission were exaggerated. But, he was also aware of his hubris.
He had just returned from a successful contract mission in China, where he had been instrumental in hunting down and dismantling an anti-government fake-news propaganda network consisting of thousands of scattered individuals. This had earned him the moniker, Ying Feng, the Great Eagle Wind, for after he was done with his targets you could only hear the cyber version of wind and burnt tumbleweeds where huge amounts of information used to flow.
Before that, he had led a bloody campaign in Russia, against opposition parties that tried to use informational contraband, censored content, and anti-establishment propaganda to rally the people into protests ahead of the elections. They were infectious weeds that had to be eradicated, and it was done so with such great efficiency and precision that the Russians couldn’t stop recommending the Albanian Scythe to all their allies.
He popped some more pills in his mouth, and took deep breaths. He felt like turning on his implants just for a tiny bit. He missed the link with Truthbringer. He missed the bliss he felt as terabits of data flowed through him each second. He missed the simultaneous communion and communication he felt with all other arbiters. He missed his collective hive-mind. He felt an intolerable loneliness, like the one he used to experience prior to his link with the Truthbringer.
Despite his pain, he did as he was ordered. Eddy Ramadani the Fifth, Arbiter of Truth First Class, was, first and foremost, a professional. And this mission was of utmost sensitivity. It was an entirely different game hunting journos inside Albania, or lending a hand to exterminating the filth with the invitation of friendly (or paying) governments; and it was different going on a mission behind enemy lines.
* * *
Suddenly, the KIRN member showed up at the top of the street walking toward the entrance of his apartment building. The Arbiter pulled out a pair of anti-face-recognition glasses and put them on. They were not as flashy as those worn by the cyber-hipsters he’d met at The Collective, but the sheer black structure made of composite carbon could technically endure a point blank gunshot. He got out of the car, black duffle bag in hand.
He silently followed the man up the stairs.
“Excuse me sir, could you please direct me toward…” and a powerful electric-zap rendered the target unconscious just as he was opening the door of his apartment.
Knock-knock, who’s there?
Artrit Bytyçi opened his eyes to an unfamiliar face. He was tied up to a chair, and the shock from the taser had made him empty his bladder. As he sat in a pool of his own piss, he had no doubt that the person that stood in front of him giving him a strange gaze was an arbiter. How come our warning system didn’t work? he thought.
The Arbiter extended his palm and gently touched behind Artrit’s ear.
“Fuck! Stay away from me, you pervert,” he screamed, furiously spitting in the Arbiter’s face, “I thought you cyber-priests were not into the sexual. Help, help!”
His voice bounced off the bare walls of the empty apartment, which looked like someone had just moved in. Yet the same minimalist aesthetic had decorated this place for about five years now: An old mattress on the floor; stacks of several hundred printed books around the walls; a lamp too dim to be of any use for reading; and a table with two chairs, one of which was now being used to restrain him.
“Relax Mr. Bytyçi, I’m just reaching for your cyber-implant,” the Arbiter said coldly as he attached something to Artrit’s port. Then, the Arbiter took a step back and slowly wiped off the spit from his face. His other hand held a device whose cable dangled from behind Artrit’s ear.
“Help!” Artrit began to yell again, “Help, anyone!” And then changing the tone: “Fuck you, you brain-fried-fuck.”
The Arbiter calmly took a couple of steps back and from a black duffle bag that sat on the floor produced another device, this one somewhat bigger, looking like a black box. He connected the two gadgets together, and turned them on. Artrit felt a small jolt of electricity as his tongue became tingly.
The Arbiter, on the other hand, seemed as if he was in the midst of experiencing ecstasy. Which, in a way, he was, being devoid of all cyber-contact and information streams for so long, this was the kick he needed to regain his edge.
“Help, anyone! I’m being mistreated. I’m in danger! Help!”
“No one will hear you,” said the Arbiter. “The interrogation will be over momentarily. Please try to relax.”
“I am a citizen of the Republic of Kosovo. This is an illegal act. Help! I have rights.”
“I am aware. I regret the unfortunate encounter. Please try to relax, it will be over soon.”
“Fuck you, motherfucker. You have the wrong guy. Help! I’m not an enemy combatant. I’m a journalist. I’m protected by international laws. Help!”
“That is not what my intel says,” said the Arbiter.
“Just double-check online, you’ll see my articles and all.”
“Nice try,” said the Arbiter, “I admire your persistence to warn your comrades. I know you are with the KIRN militia. So just relax, it will be over soon.”
“You arbiters think you are so righteous,” Artrit suddenly changed his tone, “Yet you are just puppets of corporate greed. Your ideology only making the cofferes of your bosses richer. Tell me how’s the Saudi Republic this time of year? Or perhaps you were more of a China campaign type of a guy? Do you even get a percentage when your Agency contracts out services worldwide?”
“Very well. I can also play your game. A journalist, you say, yet the cause you affiliate with profits black marketeers, fake news, propaganda outlets, porn kings, cyber criminals.”
“If I have to choose between freedom and censorship…”
“Albania is a free and prosperous country. And its citizens’ minds are liberated from the untruths sown by your kind.”
“Spare me the Plato’s Cave metaphor, you brainwashed fuck,” and then he again began to yell, “Help! Anyone! Help me!”
“No one can hear you, my friend,” said the Arbiter calmly.
“I am not your friend, you tool. You are a tool of a tyrant, you know that, right? A tyrant who may very well be immortal. They didn’t fry your brain completely not to understand that. Or are you arbiters as ideologically brainwashed as they say, that when your minds merge with that A.I. you cease to have true free will.”
“We join the Agency voluntarily. Cyber-implants and maintaining a link with the Truthbringer are just tools that make our jobs easier.”
“Yeah, right. Tell me, is the rumor true? Did Eddy the Great upload his consciousness into the Truthbringer A.I.? Are you still doing Edi Rama’s bidding? Of course you are. It’s the will of the Great Eddy, or whatever you guys chant in that religion of yours.”
“The Code is neither a religion nor an ideology. I have to go,” said the Arbiter in the exact same way he had responded with the old Unificationist gentleman, as if pre-programed.
A whooshing sound was accompanied by a long screeching. The background of Artrit Bytyçi’s room suddenly began to pixelate and physical objects started disintegrating.
The entire scene had happened in the virtual realm. The whole extraction process took a split second just outside the KIRN militia-member’s door. He never even got to enter his apartment. He never spat on the Arbiter’s face. He was never tied to a chair.
But, unfortunately, he was now dead.
It happened sometimes with those who resisted the interrogation and extraction process; and he did resist longer than usual.
The Arbiter felt happy. He would soon be able to turn on all of his implants. He had successfully learned the secret location of his targets.
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.
Music: Liburn Jupolli.