Caution: this story is not meant to stand alone. The Beyond Happily Ever After stories are vignettes and outtakes showing the O’Kanes & other Sector residents in their daily lives, in between the adventures and often after their happy endings. These stories were written exclusively for readers and fans of the series, and will probably not make very much sense to anyone not familiar with the characters.
HackerFest 2085: 2020 Patreon Reward Story. A short story from Zeke’s POV, featuring Noah, Penny, and a host of new hacker & techie friends from various sectors as they plan what comes next for the Net and the sectors.
Timeline: Set after Ivan
There was a certain irony, Zeke thought, in his current situation.
The leather chair cradling his denim-clad ass probably cost what an average family in Eden made in a year. The floor-to-ceiling window to his right showcased a dizzying vista of Eden and the Sectors beyond, emphasizing just how high in the City Center this conference room sat. Only two floors below the Penthouse, the most rarified air imaginable for a kid who’d grown up in the grungiest streets of Eden.
The view screen embedded in the polished wooden table in front of him was the most surreal part. With a swipe of his finger, Zeke would have unchecked access to the City Center mainframe. The beating technological heart of Eden, naked and unguarded before him…
Just like it had been for those brief glorious moments when he’d cracked the system in his teens.
Violating the City Center servers had gotten him banished from Eden, tossed into the sectors like so much trash. At the time, it had seemed like a fate worse than death. But fate had dropped him out the gate to Sector One, and straight on the path to destiny.
Destiny had brought him full circle. Not an intruder, this time. A guest. A voice of authority.
Zeke was legit.
“I’m not calling this HackerFest,” Penelope repeated, her cool voice clipped with the slightest edge of irritation. They were the only two in the conference room still, and her posture in the chair at the head of the table was stiff. Not with nerves, Zeke thought. Penny was just like that. Stiff. Cool. Always in control.
Penelope Mathieu was hard to irritate. Luckily, Zeke excelled at getting under people’s skin.
“You’re suffering a lack of imagination, Penny.” Zeke tilted his chair back and waved his hands in the air, as if tracing an imaginary banner. “Think about it. HackerFest 2085. It would be legendary. People would tell stories about it for generations.”
Penny glared at him. “This is a meeting. A serious meeting.”
“Well that’s just shitty branding. HackerFest sounds exciting.”
A snort from the door drew Zeke’s attention. The new arrival entered the room in a glide utterly at odds with the sardonic noise she’d made. Vanessa was past seventy, looked closer to fifty, and moved like she hadn’t aged past thirty. Her steel-grey hair was swept up into an elaborate twist of braids, and her silk dress draped in elaborate folds that showed off toned arms and a small fortune in jewelry.
“You’re not a hacker if you’re government sanctioned, boy,” she told him in her warm, husky voice as she moved to claim the chair at Penny’s right. “Take it from someone who was a hacker, back when the government couldn’t fit in a penthouse.”
Zeke held up both hands in respectful acknowledgement. With Vanessa, he couldn’t do anything else. She’d learned to crack systems during the Energy Wars, seeding sedition and chaos by day and infiltrating army command as an escort by night.
Not surprising, in retrospect, that she’d ended up one of Sector Two’s wealthiest retirees. It had also taken Vanessa terrifyingly little time to update herself on the latest network protocols and technological advances once Jyoti asked her to come out of retirement, her brain as supple and devious as ever.
Zeke definitely did not want to piss off Vanessa.
Neither did Penelope, clearly. She inclined her head, that frosty look melting into respect. “Thank you for coming, Vanessa.”
“Someone’s got to keep an eye on you children.”
“Does that include me?” Rhys asked from the door.
One elegant silver eyebrow arched as Vanessa eyed him. “I’m still deciding.”
The Sector Five techie entered with Sector Four’s Noah, the latter his usual silent lurking shadow. They were oddly similar, both tall and rangy, both sporting pale skin, red hair, and a wide variety of tattoos. The biggest difference was age–Rhys had considerably more lines around his eyes and a beard gone mostly silver.
Next to anyone else, Zeke might have called Rhys taciturn. Compared to Noah, he was chatty. And personable. Noah slid into the chair next to Zeke with a grunt that served as an acknowledgement and a greeting. Rhys headed for Vanessa with a smile Zeke didn’t need help translating.
Rhys had fallen head-over-heels in love at first sight. Zeke was still trying to decide if he was brave enough to serve as wingman.
Vanessa could be scary.
“Zayan’s on his way up,” Rhys commented once he was seated. “He’s flirting with Aarya in the elevator again.”
Penny frowned. Zeke groaned.
Vanessa burst into laughter. “Idiot.”
“It’s not appropriate,” Penelope started, all of that Eden stiffness back. She might have grown up in the more criminal side of Eden, but Zeke knew all too well that even the loosest morals in Eden were still damn near puritanical compared to the most prudish parts of the Sectors. Any time sex came up, Penny tried to shut it down. “She’s very young–”
“She was an Orchid,” Vanessa shot back. “She can handle a horny child.”
“He’s twenty-nine,” Rhys protested.
“I said what I said.”
Zeke usually wouldn’t doubt Vanessa. But the techie Six had chosen to represent Sector Three was a dark-eyed, tattooed bad boy with the lazy sex-eyes charm of Reyes at his most… sex-eyes. Even Zeke, who tended to prefer pretty girls to pretty boys, had to admit that Zayan was the kind of hot that melted brains.
Not Penny’s though. The first time he’d tried to flirt with her, she’d had him thrown out of the conference room. The second time she’d asked him if he wanted to exit through the window.
Zayan had not. At least he was good on consent. Zeke supposed anyone who worked for Six would be, which was a relief. Noah had looked fully prepared to eject Zayan through the window to defend Penny’s honor, and Zeke would have been honor-bound to assist him.
Wouldn’t Gideon have had fun at the next meeting of the Sector Leaders after that?
The reminder that he was here representing Gideon was enough to sober Zeke somewhat. He smiled at Lena as she slipped through the door. The slightly older woman had brown hair, freckles, and a shy smile that hid a brilliantly sneaky brain. She and her engineer wife had taken over the unenviable task of rebuilding Sector Six’s infrastructure after the war–and they were actually getting it done.
Which was part of the reason they were all here today. HackerFest 2085–Penny could fight it all she wanted, Zeke would make it go down in history–wasn’t just the latest meeting of the newly organized alliance of techies spread out across Eden and the Sectors.
It was the first meeting where they decided what the Net was going to look like going forward.
Aarya and Zayan arrived last of all. Aarya was effortlessly gorgeous, even in the worn jeans and threadbare sweater that stood in stark contrast to Vanessa’s rich adornment. She had her long black hair captured in a loose braid, and her brown skin glowed in the sunlight pouring through the large windows.
She was young. And excited. And, by all appearances, utterly oblivious to Zayan following behind her with his sex-eyes set to stun.
Poor Zayan. Poor Rhys. Falling in love with a Sector Two girl was like those pre-Flare idiots deciding they were going to climb Everest. Even with training, it was probably crazy and you’d have to step over the bodies of all the people who died trying.
Zeke should know. All of the Riders were determinedly pretending they weren’t currently watching Gideon do it.
Penny brought the meeting to order with a gentle clearing of her throat. She rose at the head of the table. “Thank you all for coming. I know we’ve met a few times, but Councilman Markovic thought it was time we make this official.”
Noah rocked back in his chair, his gaze still suspicious. Zeke didn’t think Noah and Penny would ever entirely warm up to each other. They’d gone head-to-head during the war, and each had left with bruises–and lost people they cared about. The fact that Penny’s defection might have saved them all was probably the only reason Noah had shown up to begin with.
His voice was low and rough when he spoke. “What exactly are we making official? Because if you think I’m going to become some fucking City lackey…”
“I don’t think anyone thinks that,” Zeke drawled, kicking Noah under the table. Noah turned that glare on him, and Zeke rolled his eyes. “What does Markovic want to do, exactly?”
“Unlock the restricted archives,” Penny replied in her cool voice. “All of them.”
Silence fell around the table. Noah’s mouth dropped open. Closed. Zayan looked like he wasn’t entirely sure he’d understood. Rhys tilted his head, as if really assessing Penny for the first time.
Zeke slapped the table and gave in to laughter. “Hot fucking damn, HackerFest 2085 is on.”
Penny ignored him. So did Noah. The two had locked gazes, as if they were having some sort of silent conversation. Finally, Noah tilted his head. “Why?”
“It’s a gesture.” Penny settled into her chair, her hands folded in front of her. “It’s trust. But it’s also potentially dangerous. Noah’s infrastructure schematics have given the sectors full access to Eden’s network for the first time. Within a year, we expect it to be approaching near universal connectivity, with your various sector networks integrated into the larger Net.”
“We’ll be whole again,” Noah agreed. “We’ll be supported. The way we were supposed to be from the beginning.”
“And the bad actors in Eden and the sectors will have a new tool to abuse,” Vanessa pointed out. “If you children think Eden’s play-acting at propaganda was bad, wait until you see a coordinated disinformation campaign delivered straight into the hands of tens of thousands of people who aren’t informed enough to tell the truth from lies. Before the Flares, rooms of people like us took down nations.”
“Rooms of people like us took down Eden,” Noah growled.
“Yes,” Penny said softly. “All of us, together, took down Eden. And now we have to decide what to build on the rubble.”
“We need information,” Lena said immediately. “Most of our sector is illiterate. We need to be able to educate ourselves. We need access.”
“Free access,” Zayan rode over her. “No restrictions. No more tyranny from Eden.”
“Did you listen to Vanessa, boy?” Rhys retorted. “You make this a free-for-all, you’re only helping the people who want to use it to do bad shit. The sectors could have used a few more fucking rules.”
Zayan scowled. “And how many is a few?”
Aarya spoke for the first time, her voice clear and confident. “The question isn’t how many rules. The question is who they’re going to protect.”
“And how you intend to enforce them,” Vanessa added. “Rules without consequences don’t do a damn thing. But you can’t be throwing people in secret cells anymore, either.”
The argument continued, flowing over Zeke as it rose and fell along with the passions around the table. All of them had fought and scrabbled in life–even Penny, who had grown up rough on the streets of Eden and ended up in one of those secret torture cells. Markovic had pulled her out of it, earning her loyalty.
Not so different than the way Gideon had secured Zeke’s when he rescued him.
And maybe Gideon was the answer. All that damn power… but Gideon didn’t want to control people’s lives. Zeke had watched him, year by year, dismantling his own base of power. Giving away bits of it. To his sisters, to his trusted followers.
To his Riders.
Gideon only stepped in when people were getting hurt. When power was being abused.
“That’s what we have to do,” Zeke said out loud.
The conversation froze. Noah frowned. “What do we have to do?”
“Figure out who this is going to hurt most.” Zeke leaned forward and braced his elbows on the table. “Vanessa has seen it in action, but there have to be other old-timers out there, too. And records in the archives. Hell, the Base probably has a comprehensive archive of pre-Flare cyber-warfare. I can get Ashwin to pry it out of their servers.”
“And then…?” Penny prompted.
“Then we figure out the worst-fucking-case scenario,” Zeke said.
Aarya nodded. “The most vulnerable.”
“And we protect them first.” Zeke shrugged. “Aarya nailed it. We don’t need a ton of rules. We just need the right ones.”
Rhys leaned back and rubbed at his beard. “Figuring out the right rules will be the hard part.”
“Doesn’t have to be,” Zeke countered. “We work with what we know. We make rules. Then we watch, and if we find someone they’re not protecting…we make better rules.”
“I’ve got a few ideas about where to start,” Vanessa said, flicking her fingers casually over her tablet. The holographic display engaged, and Penny flicked the switch that tossed Vanessa’s screen up onto the huge display wall. “We’ve got divisions, and they go deep. We’ve got stereotypes.”
She pointed a finger at Noah. “Sinful demons.” Zeke. “God-cult weirdos.” Zayan. “Street-kids and thug wannabes.”
“Not sinful demons?” Zayan demanded, pulling an affronted face.
“Hush.” Vanessa’s finger drifted to Lena, and then Penny. “Dumb farmers. Evil prudes.”
Penny’s brow furrowed.
“And what about us?” Aarya asked.
Vanessa grinned. “We’re the devious whores, darling. Though you defected to the joyless robot sector, so there’s that.”
“Fine,” Penny ground out. “We have divisions.”
“We have baggage,” Zeke corrected. “A whole shipping caravan’s worth.”
“Baggage that can be exploited,” Vanessa pointed out. “Yes, the walls are down. Yes, there’s movement between the sectors. But most of the people? They’ve never met anyone but their own kind. And they grew up on stories about how everyone else wanted them dead.”
“They weren’t all stories,” Zayan grumbled. “Some of you did want us dead. And tried real hard to make us that way.”
“And that’s why this is dangerous.” A map of the sectors appeared on the wall, all eight ranging around the tight circle that represented Eden. “If I wanted to ruin this new peace? I’d find the pressure points. The resentments. Sector Seven doesn’t even have a leader anymore. Two, Three, Five, Six, and Eight all have new leadership.” She gave Noah a stern look. “Just about everyone thinks your boss is a secret emperor and all the new leaders are his puppets.”
Zayan burst into laughter. “Okay, lady. You go tell Six she’s a puppet. I’ll wait here. In Eden. Out of the stabbing reach.”
“I didn’t say it was true, kid.” Vanessa arched a perfect eyebrow. “I said people think it. They think it about Jyoti too, and no offense to Dallas O’Kane, but that girl could tie his intestines into knots without him noticing, if she felt like it.”
“Not with Lex around,” Noah muttered.
“Fair point.” Vanessa smiled. “I always liked that girl. She grew up good. But that’s neither here nor there.”
Vanessa gestured to the wall. “I could exploit these weaknesses in my sleep. Set up bot accounts. Set people against each other. Drive the wedges deep. Lay enough tinder, and one spark will burn the whole thing down on us.”
“That’s why this can’t be a one time thing,” Penny said. “We need a tech council. We need full time staff operating in each sector. We need people trained to find trouble, and empowered to stop it. We need to build access to information and make sure it’s not what destroys this alliance before it gets a chance to start.”
“You’re talking resources,” Zayan said flatly. “O’Kane or Rios might be able to throw that kind of money around, but Sector Three is just getting on its feet.”
“And we burned Six to the ground during the war,” Lena reminded them. “We’re struggling just to replace the basic infrastructure we had, much less expand.”
“Markovic knows.” Penny flicked her fingers. Vanessa’s display vanished, replaced by a number.
A very, very big number. Zeke wasn’t sure it was a reasonable amount of money to have a credit symbol in front of it.
“This is a portion of the money reclaimed from illegal accounts and the business holdings of the corrupt councilmen.” Penny flicked her fingers again. A much smaller number appeared. It was still more money than Zeke could entirely conceive of existing. “This is the budget we can expect from dividends on the conservative investments we’ve made with the principal.”
“Total?” Zayan asked, his eyes wide.
“Annual,” Penny responded.
Rhys stared. Lena’s mouth dropped open. Zayan rocked back on his chair, clearly trying not to look impressed. Even Noah seemed a little startled.
Aarya tilted her head thoughtfully and Vanessa nodded, as if unsurprised. “That seems like a reasonable operating budget.”
Fucking hell, women from Sector Two were insane.
Zeke cleared his throat. “So, uh, what are we supposed to do with this ridiculous, insane amount of money?”
For the first time, Penny smiled. “We’re supposed to make the world better, Zeke. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted to do?”
“Well, yeah. But no one has ever handed me a billion dollars annually to do it.”
“Nope,” Zeke cut Aarya off. “Any number that big might as well be a billion dollars.” And with that money, they could do so much. Hire programmers. Train kids coming up and have jobs ready for them to take. Innovate. Get tablets loaded with books and literacy software to the kids who had never had access to school.
Hell, with a network up and running they could give kids access to school.
“I’m in,” Zeke said, slapping his hand down on the table hard enough to make Noah start. “Fuck it. HackerFest 2085, here to save the damn world.”
“What a modest goal, Ezekial.” But the smile Vanessa granted him was warm and approving. “Let’s do this.”
“If she’s in, I’m in,” Rhys replied.
“How can we not?” Aarya said simply. “We have the resources. We should use them to help people.”
“It’s what my grandfather wanted.” Noah’s face was solemn, but there was something in his eyes. If nobody made any sudden movements, the bastard might actually experience an emotion.
Lena shrugged. “Of course we’ll take help. We’re not proud.”
Zayan shot her a sour look. “Is that a dig?”
“It’s a statement, Zayan. Pride doesn’t feed hungry children.”
But pride was the only thing that had kept plenty of hungry children from Sector Three going. Zeke imagined Zayan had been one of them, just like Sector Three’s current leader. Just like Laurel, who had a haunted, hungry look in her eyes that all the security in the world couldn’t soften.
Knowing Laurel had let Zeke understand that what looked like pride from the outside was really the brittle, brutally reinforced knowledge that no one was coming to save you, and any gift offered without strings was a trap.
So he told Zayan the truth. “It’s not a handout, man. It’s an investment. Just like your boss and her schools and her free breakfasts. We all win if the kids grow up smarter and safer than we did. Maybe the sectors will finally get a generation that’s not just traumatized orphans punching each other in the face.”
Zayan’s jaw clenched. The ink on his arms seemed to shimmer as he clenched a fist, then spread his fingers wide. “I have to talk to Six about it.”
“Of course,” Penny agreed. “Councilman Markovic will be discussing this with all the leaders. But I wanted to talk to you first. Because I need all of you if this will work.”
“Fine.” Zayan jerked his head in a firm nod. “If Six okays it, I’m in.”
The screens embedded in the table lit up as Penny sent the basic outline of her plans to each of them. Zeke skimmed it, one part of his brain cataloging the information easily. The rest of him savored this moment.
Him. Ezekial James. Eden street rat banished to the sectors because he’d been sneaking his fingers into the rich people’s wallets and passing those credits to the starving kids who needed them more.
And Eden was handing him access to their restricted files and a stack of credits tall enough to reach the moon.
Maybe Gideon was right. God had a hell of a sense of humor.
And HackerFest 2085 was going to rule.