Jason saw the colours before he felt the pain. Spotlights flared down on him from some vast urban backdrop as armed people in blue and black swarmed around him. He was pinned to the ground with a piercing weighting on his back and his hands held there with cold metal around his wrists.
There were other strangers too; an old lady, an overweight, pale man, a youngish, nondescript man, and a middle-aged dark-skinned janitor. The old woman was sobbing and the dark-skinned man was praying. Men were pinning all of them down with guns pointed at their heads as orders were shouted around.
And then the pain entered his consciousness! It erupted through his nerve-endings, making him cry out. It was the edge of intense pain and, although painful in its own right, it felt almost like a lingering shadow after some intense pain had already woken him up.
“That one’s awake,” a gruff disembodied voice barked above and behind him, “Hit him again and we’ll load them in for BWeP interrogation.”
A crackling, electric sound appeared moments before the pain erupted again, but this time it was not just the lingering shadow of the pain. A full, fiery lightning shot through his nerves. His muscles clenching so hard that, unable to open his mouth, he screamed through his teeth as he saw stars exploding before his eyes and then, thankfully, passed out unconscious.
The final words he heard sounded ominous: “Prep the deep scans. I’m not ruling out that these are perps but they look more like hacked victims to me…”
“Jason Ludwick Hargrieve? Please acknowledge your name and confirm that you understand what is happening,” a dull, almost bored sounded voice kept repeating as Jason blinked his eyes and became aware of his existence, “Jason Ludwick Hargrieve? Please acknowledge your name and confirm that you understand what is happening? Jason Lud–“
“A-ah, where?” he stammered, realizing that he was sitting in a chair, but his limbs were firmed tied to it and all he could do was move his head–a cord was connected to the back of his head meaning that someone must have hard-jacked into his Conduit, “Where am I? What is going on?”
“Jason Ludwick Hargrieve? Please acknowledge your name and confirm that you understand what is happening.” the monotonous voice repeated.
“Yes-yes,” he said looking around him; though the room was dark and there was a spotlight on him blinding him, he sensed tense shapes in the background, “Yes, I am Jason Ludwick Hargrieve but, no, I do not know what is going on. What is going on?”
He tried to see what was speaking but the voice’s answer made him realize that it was being broadcast into his own brain. Much like everyone these days, Jason had a Conduit implanted inside his brain that connected him with the Web and something was broadcasting directly into this, leapfrogging his ears and making his brain “hear” these words.
“Acknowledged. Identity confirmed,” the voice continued. Suddenly, he realized that it must some low-grade AI talking to him, thus the dull toneless drone of its speech, “Jason Ludwick Hargrieve your body was used in an iridium and rare metals vault robbery. You and others were apprehended by the police and the Bureau of Web Protocols scanners have indicated evidence of a Conduit hack that provides overwhelming evidence that someone had hijacked all of you for this robbery. There will be a BWeP trial shortly and I will be representing you as your free, public sector AI lawyer but I advise against pleading guilty. Given the evidence of your Conduit being hacked, we are pleading the Supra Humanum Imperium defence. This was beyond human control. We are being summoned, Mr Hargrieve, we will upload now.”
Jason felt his Conduit tingle as connections suddenly reached out of the Web and formed secure socket layers with it. He closed his eyes and the dark room with the spotlight disappeared to be replaced by grey, ambient area that now housed his consciousness.
He was in a virtual courtroom.
He looked down and his body was badly rendered and pixelated in this bland arena. Bloody Government, he thought, always cutting budgets. Standing next to him, his lawyer was also badly rendered in an awkward-looking elderly body while the AI Judge of whatever low court this was floated before them in flowing white robes.
“–and so, your Honour, we stand behind the Supra Humanum Imperium defence–Mr Hargrieve is far from the aggressor in this case. In fact, he is the victim and, thus, dragging out this unnecessary proceeding any more is simply cruel.”
The Judge nodded and looked directly at him.
“While the evidence is strongly in favour of the Defendant and I acknowledge the strength of your defence, I wish to ask him two questions directly.”
The AI lawyer squirmed a little and looked at Jason in a moment of panic. Obviously, whatever poor programming it had, it had never encountered such a request.
“Yes, your Honour, you may,” it meekly replied.
“Thank you,” the Judge began, “Mr Hargrieve, are you aware of the wave of Conduit hacks that have seen a spate of rare metal repositories being robbed?”
“N-no,” Jason said, stammering a little as these were the first words he had said in a while. Feeling awkward, he quickly added: “Your Honour.”
“Well, there have been a large number of these cases flowing through this court,” the Judge replied, “While the poor victims have to be let off due to the Supra Humanum Imperium defence–which rightly separates the crime your body committed from your own consciousness and intent–the police have neither found the actual hacker nor the iridium, ruthenium, osmium, and rhenium that has been stolen in all these cases. While none of the other victims of this hacking had any notable programming skills, you, Mr Hargrieve, are employed in the production of Conduits themselves. Not just would this give you the tools to hack Conduits, and the knowledge of where the rare metal repositories are, but it also would give you the channels to sell these rare, valuable metals into as the black market for illicit Conduits is a large and lucrative one.”
The virtual courtroom grew tense. Jason suddenly felt like his–or his brain–was being scanned. His muscles tensed and, vaguely, he felt himself gripping the chair in the room that his physical form was still sitting in. He shifted his weight nervously, a lump forming in his throat and he felt the walls closing in on him. He had a sudden urge to run away or cry. He looked at his squirming lawyer for help, but the Judge started speaking again.
“I repeat, Mr Hargrieve, the evidence is strongly in favour of your defence and I acknowledge this fact. But, Mr Hargrieve, I want to hear it from you: are you really the victim in all of this, or are you guilty?”
“Please! Please, your Honour!” he cried out, falling to his knees as waves of intense brain scans seemingly rolled over his neural pathways, “All I remember is getting home from work on Wednesday evening! It was late and I fed my dog and I sat down at my computer and, and–and I don’t remember anything else! Next thing, I’m on the ground and police are tazing me and, and–“
It was all too much and Jason collapsed sobbing.
“OK, OK, OK,” the Judge mumbled, waving a virtual hand and the brain scans stopped, “You appear to be telling the truth. The evidence of a Conduit hack in the case of Mr Hargrieves is clear and the Supra Humanum Imperium defence is upheld. Case dismissed.”
Jason’s head was still tender when they discharged him from the public sector hospital that the police had dropped him and the others off at. The medical bots had buzzed around them a bit, measuring and scanning while the BWeP restoration codes were uploaded into his Conduit to help repair some of the damaged sectors.
And then they had given him a dispirin and put him out onto the street.
He pulled his shirt–still the work shirt he had worn to work on Wednesday!–tighter around him. It was chilly and softly drizzling with rain. His shirt hardly helped. It was grubby and torn in a place, probably by the policeman who had pinned him to the ground, and it had what looked suspiciously like someone’s blood on one sleeve. Maybe even his own?
This nightmare is almost done, he kept reminding himself, almost done. All he wanted to do was to crawl into his bed and sleep for a week. He really, intensely wanted to get to his bed.
He pushed out a request from his Conduit into the Web and, moments later, a driverless taxi slid up in front of him. He jumped in and, as it pulled away, he rolled his head backwards, pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes with a sigh.
This nightmare is almost done. Almost done…
A couple hours later, Jason closed his front door and knelt down patting his dog. She was lovely and so excited that her Master was home, finally.
It was now Friday evening.
He sighed and walked to the kitchen. The poor beast had not eaten for two days, so he scooped an extra-large pile of cubes and plopped them down into her bowl. Almost immediately, she began to wolf it down.
He sighed again, this nightmare is over, he told himself as he took his ruined shirt off and threw it in the bin. It was time for a shower–a long, hot shower–and then he would crawl into his own bed.
He walked out of the kitchen, down his short corridor to his bedroom and then froze at the open door to it! His eyes widened and his hands tightened into fists! Lightning shot through him and his heart exploded in his chest as a wave of intense nausea hit him!
He ran, scrambling through the bedroom, to his en suite bathroom where he threw up what little was left in his stomach into the toilet.
Slowly, he raised his head from the porcelain bowl and looked back at his bed. His skin began to crawl and the hair on the back of his neck rose. Slowly, a geo-tagged, locally-cached memory that was set to trigger in him when he walked into his own bedroom began to leak into his Conduit and then into his mind.
Slowly, it began to reinstall and he began to remember…
He wiped his mouth with the back of his arm, stood up and walked to the bed. There lay a number of black suitcases and, somehow, he knew all their combinations. Somehow he knew if anyone put the wrong combinations in, the contents of the suitcases would be atomized into gases and, thus, destroy any evidence.
He leaned down and, one by one, put the correct codes into the suitcases and flipped them open.
Jason Ludwick Hargrieve stood with a growing, wicked smile spreading across his face and looked down at all the iridium, ruthenium, osmium, and rhenium bars that he had stolen. It would be worth a fortune on the black market and, after he had reworked it into illicit Conduit hardware, it would be worth even more.
Although he had been caught this time, his fail-safe had worked brilliantly and they had merely labelled him as another Supra Humanum Imperium victim.
In the kitchen, his dog finished eating and he could hear her scampering to him in the bedroom. The nightmare is over and the dream begins. He threw his head back and began laughing wildly.