Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Erik heard them in the lobby, dividing up the elevators and the stairwells. He owned the building’s cameras and their audio.

The Situation Commander barked orders. Under no circumstances was the hacker known as ‘HvnSvn’ to be allowed to escape. Under no circumstances was he to be killed.

He was safe.

A streaming waterfall of data cascaded over the displays before him. This was old school. Nobody appreciated the living artwork that was other peoples’ lives being stolen from one place and delivered to another in a sea of glyphs even a child could see the beauty of.

This was a personal piece of performance art, in the stolen vacation property of a media mogul.

As the last bit crossed the threshold, the system began to eat itself. Portals forced open collapsed, tunnels caved in, pathways of light dissolved into darkness.

They were in the hall now. He could feel the thunder of boots through the soles of his bare feet on the polished granite floor.

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.”

A line, from a poem, immortalized in a movie.

“But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

Somewhere in Erik’s brain, a series of bits flipped. Old pathways disconnected and new ones formed. Parts of his mind were closed off behind doors, the bolts on heavy neural locks slammed into place, memories locked away in boxes without apparent keys or lids.

There was a hammering at the door, then it shattered off its hinges. Police with guns drawn stormed the room in a line, fanning out around the man in pajamas sitting cross-legged on the floor, as he rocked back and forth, keening.

“Kitchen clear.” Voices sounded off as the uniformed figures swept the apartment. “Bedroom clear.”

An armored faceless suit was waving a wand around him.

“He’s a no-mech. No mods. No tech. He’s clean.”

A teary-eyed Erik looked up into the face of the Sit. Comm. and stuttered, “I want my mom.”

He was handcuffed and his ankles shackled, then dragged by two faceless figures down the hall and elevator, out into a waiting van where he would disappear into the system for months without a trace.

There were tests. Physical intimidation bordering on torture.

“He’s got the mind of a child,” the psychologists reported.

They brought in new psychologists. They administered drugs, polygraphs.

The middle-aged man named Erik was clearly stuck at a fourth-grade developmental level. He cried a lot, called out for his mother day and night, anytime he was allowed to believe he was alone before the beatings and the questions began again.

“We’ve been set up.” The task force leader poured himself a whiskey, not offering one to his subordinate. “You,” he corrected himself, thinking on his feet, “you have been set up.” He downed half the glass in a single gulp. “He knew we were coming, and he skipped out. Or she, Christ, we don’t know anything, do we? We’re back to square one here.” He waved off a half-hearted defense from the belittled agent before him. “He left this bloody half-wit sitting there, knowing what we’d do to him. That’s cold. If this ever gets out…”

He left the thought hanging in the air.

“Get him out of here. Take him home. Get relations on this, flag it up code black to legal, make sure nobody knows this was our op. Set him up so he doesn’t want to start looking, but make sure he understands we’ll come back if we need to. See if you can get that through his thick skull.”

Erik was back in his own bedroom by dinnertime, in the apartment listed on his guardianship file. They had stocked the kitchen with groceries, and someone had clearly cleaned the place before giving him a stern warning and closing the door behind them.

He was alone. Finally. Safe and once again on his own.

He lay on his bed staring at the ceiling, counting the glow-in-the-dark plastic stars that had been stuck there when he was a child, right next to the smiling cartoon moon.

“Goodnight Moon,” he spoke out loud.

Somewhere in Erik’s brain, a chemical bootstrap loaded.

“Goodnight light, and the red balloon,” he continued after a moment, having run through some almost forgotten mental checklist of things to do to be sure he was safe.

Pathways reconnected, and doorways to his memories unlocked.

Erik sat up, put his feet on the floor and looked around. Clearly, he’d lost time, but the memories of whatever had happened between the data breach and his reboot were safely tucked away for him to review later.

At the moment, HvnSvn needed to get dressed and slip whatever surveillance he’d been assigned.

He’d finished the job, and he was long overdue to get paid.