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August, Again

Even after he saw Ross standing by the entrance to the cantina, all suited up and accompanied by a military officer, Julius kept running. He took another lap, turning corners at all the yard signs that marked the boundaries of the minimum-security prison. This was how he had kept in shape across his twenty years of incarceration—jogging circles around that limited perimeter. More important, it was a kind of meditation to him, and he needed all the cool he could muster if his handler were here to bother him.

Back when he had begun his sentence in solitary confinement, he had run in place just to quell his buzzing anger—the small cell hadn’t been a problem for him, but being caged without his computer had him feeling like a trapped, toothless rat. The tantrums he had thrown from the privacy of his own desk, back in his hacking heyday, had rarely earned him favors behind bars.

Another lap? He avoided making eye contact with the men. The brass, anyway, seemed in no hurry, typing away on his phone.

“Julius!” Ross shouted.

The prisoner tumbled back into a walking pace, folding his hands atop his head.

“Woah there,” Ross joked. “We aren’t taking you in; put your hands down!”

Having caught his breath, Julius dropped his arms. “What do you want?”

Ross clicked his tongue and bumped his head back toward the administrative block. On the way, he introduced Admiral Blanker, the deputy head of U.S. Cyber Command.

“I’m sure he’s hurting, being so far from the water,” Ross said.

“So far from D.C.,” Julius retorted. The commander continued plugging away on his phone. It was always a pleasure to meet the watchful eyes keeping America safe.

They sat in an unoccupied office. Ross shut the door behind them, and Admiral Blanker produced a laptop from his briefcase, opening it and setting it upon the desk. A presentation was ready to roll on the screen. Julius crept his hand out, desperate to caress the keys, but the Admiral pulled the computer away and warned him. Ross might have been a prick, like every mid-thirties Silicon Valley tech consultant, but at least he wasn’t such a stickler for procedure.

“Here’s the story,” Ross began. The admiral reached an obnoxious hand over the laptop’s lid, obstructing the view each time he advanced to the next slide. “The last time you served your country, we were establishing a new centralized internet protocol, enabling unprecedented insight into online activity. We sold it to the public as the new internet, the intranet.”

Julius clenched his teeth, still drenched in sweat from his run. There was nothing he hated more than the surveillance state. He could never forgive himself for agreeing to help design that new system. It had, however, gotten him out of the clink and into the far cushier Club Fed.

Ross continued: “We didn’t anticipate the problems that a centralized system would introduce. The intranet has fewer points of failure, but they’re all far more dire if they fall through. Our counterparts in the intel community are convinced that the Chinese and Russians are going to be launching coordinated assaults on those vulnerabilities by this time next year.”

“You need me to run red team for you,” Julius said. Ross and Admiral Blanker nodded. He’d be leading hypothetical attacks. Wargaming. “I don’t work for free.”

“You’re already in our laxest prison,” Ross said. “We’ll allow you computer access, and we can toss in a little consultant’s fee, but—”

“I want house arrest,” Julius cut in. “Back in California, with a decent radius. A home office, with a souped-up battle station built to my specifications.”

Ross began to sputter. The admiral pulled him aside and muttered into his ear. 

So it’s serious, Julius thought.

“Well, Admiral Blank Che—I mean, Blanker, here,” Ross said, trying to smush his pissed look into a shit-eating grin. “Well, he hears the weather in Cali is just great this time of year.”

On the redeye flight, Julius was handcuffed to his seat and accompanied by a U.S. Marshall, as if he might be able to crash the plane from the seat-back entertainment system. Not a totally unfounded fear, he thought, reflecting on the trajectory of his imprisonment.

This was how it always went, ever since Ross had shown up at solitary seven years ago. For each upgrade package dangled in front of him, Julius had to place his principles on the altar and slice deep—Ross, a tech consultant for the U.S. Department of Defense, seemed to revel in it. Domestic spying? Julius cracked consumer encryptions to escape solitary. Automated speech moderation? He had crafted the censorship algorithms in sharpie on the walls of a supermax cell.

The Intranet was Julius’s worst sin. He hadn’t built it himself, but he had diagrammed the theory across several notebooks that he’d bought at the commissary in medium security.

The world had not stopped turning with his imprisonment, and all he helped build since wouldn’t have been possible earlier in the century. He had only been able to keep up on technological developments by bribing other inmates to print things off for him from the prison computers. He was strictly forbidden from touching them himself.

The intranet itself, for example, was the inevitable next step of widespread, high-speed satellite coverage. Surveilling billions of devices, each with some level of autonomy, was impossible. If everyone had to go through the same few dozen access points, however, total information control was back on the table. The Department of Defense wasted no time.

Ross was present at Julius’s new apartment complex when they arrived. Before the Marshall removed the handcuffs, he made sure to equip Julius with an electronic anklet, clamping it down and waving his phone over it until it locked and blinked red. Ross chuckled.

Julius spat at the ground by his handler’s feet, which only made him laugh harder.

As if the anklet weren’t enough, cameras and microphones were bolted down in every corner of the home office. The battle station, at least, had been built to his specifications. The windowless room was armed with a dozen television-sized screens, along with a few smaller ones right above the triple set of keyboards and mice. Multiple systems were hooked up in parallel, all sporting bleeding-edge components that most consumers couldn’t even get their hands on. The workspace was more claustrophobic than solitary.

But he had a computer again, which almost made the house arrest seem insignificant.

Julius booted the system up that afternoon. Who, he wondered, would be leading the blue team? An instant messaging app popped up on the screen the moment the OS had loaded.

The Rossmeister: Hey, hey, hey! How’s my favorite national security asset?

Julius leaned back and rubbed his eyes. Was it really possible? He pushed back into his desk and sank his fingertips into the keys, the rush of typing going straight to his head.

Julius (Convict): If you’re running defense, a Russian fetus could take the intranet down.

The Rossmeister: Done pissing in the wind? Let me fill you in. You’ve got a year to break the intranet as many times as possible. You get to stay on house arrest, thanks to your new friend Admiral Blank Check, but if you break any rules, if we find a major vulnerability after you, or if we think you’re screwing around, you go straight back to solitary, thanks to your old friend, me.

Julius rolled his eyes. Ross was still typing. So was he.

The Rossmeister: You’re hard-wired to a mirrored version of the intranet. A fully simulated copy, full of botnets, senile Gen-Xers, and porn addicts. But I repeat myself, zing! If you crack a vulnerability, the whole replica will shut off and reset. That way, nobody gets hurt. That’s assuming a dinosaur like you could even touch our net, even with the best and brightest of the Air Force’s 688th Cyberspace Wing on your team doing your evil bidding.

Julius pressed enter on a script he had jotted down on another screen, and his entire office went black. Not bad for day one. A brute-force attack on The Rossmeister’s Intranet address had given him access to enough central controls to start screwing things up. A satisfying fluke.

The computer had begun rebooting, but Julius slipped on his running shoes. Might as well test out the radius of his new fashion accessory.

His apartment complex comprised of several buildings connected by a grass-bordered concrete path. It extended around in a square about half a kilometer on each side, per Julius’s estimate. He found some small gardens and fountains, but the entire square was surrounded by a loop of asphalt, which was itself bordered by a tall, unscalable fence. The only way out was a bridge, over which he could see a shopping plaza. Julius paused at its foot. 

Surely the feds would allow him to grocery shop. Surely Ross wouldn’t be so petty.

He took a step forward. Nothing happened. Another step and, again, nothing.

When he broke into a trot and reached the height of the bridge’s arc, however, his ankle bracelet began to buzz. An electronic voice warned him that he was nearing his perimeter. Looking down, Julius saw the device blinking a frantic yellow. A few more steps and a SWAT team would probably be sent to put him back in a cell. How was he supposed to eat?

Once he had backed away, the anklet went quiet. After another lap, Julius returned to his apartment. At the door next to his, he saw a collection of brown bags, each sealed with a sticker, the logo a flying banana. 

Right, he remembered. Most people got everything delivered these days. That explained why Ross had allowed him a phone—albeit one locked down with only a handful of apps.

As he fished his key from his pocket, his neighbor, black haired, mascaraed, and dressed in monochrome loungewear, opened her door to collect her groceries. Immediately, her darkened eyes dropped to the flashing cuff around his ankle.

“House arrest, huh? For what? Don’t tell me my new neighbor is some kind of kid fucker.”

He didn’t meet her gaze. “Treason to the Government of the United States of America.”

“Oh.” She paused, having pulled in all her bags. “That’s pretty chill, actually.”

Her door shut. Julius, still holding his key in the knob, felt a smile sneak across his face.

Their screennames had changed, Julius found when he logged on the following day.

Ross Da Boss: You’re clever, Julius, but the blue team is fully online now.

Julius (Cyberslave): Hope you changed your password, too. Your childhood pet, really?

Ross Da Boss: Three-step authentication! Can you still count to three, old man?

Thus, their game began in earnest. Every day, Julius sat down at his station and tried to force a simulated intranet blackout. If he didn’t succeed, he suffered Ross’s ridicule.

For the first few rounds, which stretched over most of the Fall months, Julius enjoyed one victory after another. Unsurprising, given the fact that he had been instrumental in the intranet’s design. It didn’t hurt that the Air Force’s 688th Cyberspace Wing seemed, to Julius’s bittersweet surprise, semi-competent. What’s more, they had hands-on experience with the intranet systems, having already blue-teamed them for a few years. Some of them tried to shoot the breeze with Julius in between ops, but Julius, as the kids those days said, left them on read.

His focus, above all, was on bloodying Ross’s nose, even if only in the replica intranet.

He got so used to winning, he nearly choked on his coffee when, on a December morning, one of his attacks was successfully repelled and traced back, locking him out from his own system. His fists began to shake, and before long he began to smash them on his keyboard, popping some of the letters from their sockets. He paused and recollected. He was in his late forties and still acting like this. Maybe prison hadn’t actually matured him. How much could one grow in a cage?

A knock came at the door. Keira, his darkly dressed neighbor, asked him if everything was alright. By then, he had learned that she commuted into Silicon Valley to work as an aerospace engineer. Today must have been a remote day for her, and the pounding must have gotten on her nerves. He was about to apologize, but, at the sight of the battle station, she immediately pushed past him to gawk.

“I figured out what you did,” she said, trying to make sense of his setup. “Outing all of those intelligence agents operating on foreign soil. Quite an impressive killstreak you got.”

“I was just publishing information of public interest,” Julius muttered, standing outside of the office. There wasn’t enough room for two.

“It took some sleuthing to find your story. They didn’t give you the Snowden treatment.”

“Didn’t have the wisdom, in my twenties, to have a plane ticket ready for Russia, either.”

She began to ask questions about his setup, taking the liberty of looking at all his screens. She had apparently dabbled in coding, but only to run mathematical simulations, never to write software of any kind. She asked if his handle had always been Julius (Cyberslave)

“No,” he grumbled. “Augustus.” After a few pointed questions, he explained his situation.

“So, like, Neuromancer, but completely lame.” Kiera curled her fingers into claws. “When I was a little girl, I used to be so psyched for the day I could trade my nails for implanted knives. Where is the cyberpunk dystopia I was promised?”

“You’re living in it.” Julius said. “It just came on slowly. With none of the cool parts.”

Kiera rolled her eyes and pulled a flash drive from her pocket, putting it between her lips as if to suck on it. With the press of a button, it glowed.

“What the hell is that thing?” Julius asked.

She blew out, filling the entire office with a sickly-sweet smog.

“A vape pen? And here I was hoping you were cool enough to tear the system down.”

As she sauntered out from the apartment, a message flashed on the screen:

Don Rossio: You’re gonna introduce us at some point, right?

The win-loss ratio continued to even out into the new year. Julius was still furious, even though his failure to breach the intranet meant that he might successfully earn his permanent house arrest status. Whenever he wanted to punch a hole through the screen, or tear the cords from their outlets, he reminded himself that Ross was watching. 

What was it about Ross that frustrated Julius so much? His age? Ross, from what little Julius knew, had been a hacking prodigy. Before he had even graduated from high school, Ross had been recruited to lead an endpoint team at DataDillo, one of the world’s top cybersecurity firms. He had probably, with that experience, built the intranet mirror himself. From DataDillo, he was only a hop, skip, and a venture capital injection away from starting his own consultancy, after which he started advising the Department of Defense.

That was it. The thought that somebody so young, somebody with such skill, would flip to the feds so early in their career. Julius remembered the idealism of his youth—how, above all, he valued freedom. How could one not, when one’s hobby revolved around shattering rules? 

Ross could have been the torchbearer for a new generation of virtual freedom fighters. Instead, he was keeping Julius on a leash, laughing all the way to the bank about it.

Keira popped in now and then, bringing coffee or snacks as an excuse to sit down and pester him with more questions about his past. He explained how he’d kept his coding sharp in jail by handwriting programs and giving them to other inmates to type out and execute. He might have been able to bust himself out had the security network not been on its own kind of intranet.

In return, she answered some of his questions about the intranet satellite system. She had been nominally involved in engineering its recycling process at her last job; when a particular unit reached the end of its lifecycle, NASA would launch a new one into orbit. The retiring one would adjust its trajectory and burn up in the atmosphere. Julius listened intently, feeling not unlike one of those satellites. Fresh off his reflections on Ross, he wondered why Keira, who had some kind of rebellious streak, seemed to be living a system-compliant life.

“So, why’d you sell out?” she asked. Had she read his mind? Even without razor-nails, she sure loved to go for the throat. “Did you get comfortable getting comfortable?”

“Just biding my time,” Julius growled, knowing it was a total bluff. It was January, now, and he had no such redemption plan. The realization began to anger him. “Want to go on a run?”

Keira smirked and then, as if realizing that Julius was totally serious, snorted. “Nope.”

In the spring, Julius prepared a particularly crafty assault. Ross, unable to see his screen, seemed to take his calm demeanor as a sign of resignation.

YUNG ROSSIE: Looks like the wild west internet is finally sunsetting.

Julius (Reformed Terrorist): Are you familiar with “Eternal September”?

YUNG ROSSIE: Why do I feel as though I am about to get preached to?

Julius (Reformed Terrorist): Back in the early 90s, the internet was only accessible to researchers, programmers, college students, and the rich. Barely anybody had computers in their homes. To get on the net, you had to either know what you were doing, or you had to pay someone. Every September, a new class of college students would get online, not having a single clue about internet etiquette. They had to be instructed on how to behave, or else abused until they left. It was a yearly ritual that all the old users dreaded.

YUNG ROSSIE: Falling asleep here, pastor. Zzzzz…

Julius (Reformed Terrorist): When AOL and others started offering access, suddenly anyone could get on the net with a click. The internet was overwhelmed with an unending flood of new users, and the old culture was destroyed. The September that never ended. Shitheads like you, all lining up to sign your freedoms away for convenience like sheep to the slaughter.

Ross didn’t respond for a few minutes. Then, the red team informed him that their attack had been thwarted. Ping! Another message.

YUNG ROSSIE: You didn’t think that botnet attack would work, did you? We outsource DDOS protection to DataDillo. You can’t F with them using entry-level tactics like that, idiot.

Julius froze up. He hadn’t considered that there might be other third parties at play here. This whole operation, which had taken an entire month to orchestrate, was a bust.

YUNG ROSSIE: It’s rich that I’m getting lectured on freedom from a man who spent the prime of his life in solitary confinement. You know what I was doing while you were crying in a cell? Collecting a fat paycheck from Cyber Command and snorting coke off SoCal call girl butt cheeks. You talk a big game about principles, but I’ve got you leashed up like a bitch.

Julius’s hands were clamped onto the corners of his screen, and he was pressing his thumbs deep into the display, imagining that he was gouging Ross’s eyes out. It was all he could do to keep from ripping the monitor from its mount upon the wall.

After a few concentrated breaths, he released his grip and fell back. He had left two dark pools in the liquid crystal. Ross was watching, doubtlessly overjoyed with the outburst he had provoked. In fact, he was typing once more. Julius put on his running shoes and left.

Lap after lap he ran, as fast as he could and without care for his breath. It cleared his mind, but the rage remained. How stupid he had been! Even in his victories, when he had been so proud to defeat Ross and the blue team, what had he actually done besides help shore up the defenses of the very intranet he wished he could obliterate? But what could he do? All of his resources were within the mirrored environment, and he was forbidden from other computers. He and his ego were being played. It was a game that his enemies categorically could not lose.

There was nobody to confide in. He couldn’t get in contact with his old friends from before prison—he had refused to give up their names when the feds rolled him up and shipped him to a black site. His parents had died while he was imprisoned. Even Keira, who might have understood, was at her office today, and he wasn’t sure when she’d be back.

He reached the bridge for the fifth time and leaned on his knees. The way into town was wide open. On the other side, sitting around the café and walking down the road, people were living their lives, all looking down at their phones. “Slaves,” he muttered under his breath. Yet, as Ross had observed, they were out there, and he was stuck in here—literally running in circles.

No, he told himself. I’m going to be free if it kills me.

He stepped onto the bridge. Nothing. One more step. The anklet buzzed and began to blink. He reached the middle, and it warned him he was close to breaching his boundary.

Refusing to obey, he bounded forth. The buzz turned harsher, and with one last step, a shock sent him cratering to the ground. Then came another shock, far more painful, and another one, and another, and another, until he had dragged his spasming body back across the bridge.

Thoroughly fried, he rose back up to his feet, but his anger overtook him again, and he clutched the fence and began to shake it—rather, shaking himself against it—shouting in rage up into the sky as if at the intranet satellites. Nobody in town looked up at him.

A black SUV turned in from the street. The tinted backseat window began to roll down, and Julius half-expected to see some kind of agent, ready to chastise him or toss him in the trunk.

It was Keira, wearing a black hoodie, shades, and a non-plussed expression.

“Is this how you get your kicks?” she asked, taking a drag from her e-cigarette.

He let the fence go. “No. I run. Should I ask again if you’d like to join me?”

“Should I reply again that I’m not really an enjoyer of daylight?”

Walking over to the window with his hands on his head, he told her about the failure of his latest op, and about his recent revelations. “I’m just a little pissed, is all,” Julius finished.

“Just a little?” She pouted. He was hoping for sympathy, but it was hard to find any from behind her cool, cybergothic façade. “You know, you can suffer silently like a good boy, or you can get mad and get even. But getting all worked up and doing nothing? That’s just pathetic.”

He remembered his biding time comment. Submerged in shame, his lit fuse flickered out.

She raised her hands up as if making a half-hearted appeal to the heavens. “Think outside the box, space cowboy. Drop the stars outta the fucking sky if you have to.”

Her guidance given, she ripped a fat vape cloud right into his face, put the window up, and had her driver roll away, leaving him to stew in her smoggy exhaust.

Julius began losing time to rumination, choosing to avoid his computer in favor of journaling, reading tech magazines, and, of course, running around the apartment block. While he was anxious leaving his terminal untouched for a few weeks, his only real disappointment was that he had not seen Keira since his breakdown. They had established a rhythm of coffee and take-out dinners during which they’d discuss the future or their favorite cyberpunk fiction. Keira, who had seemed like a confidante to Julius, was either working hard or hiding from him.

Emotionally distant from his screens, and for once writing out his thoughts, Julius reflected upon his life. He remembered the massive, screechy computer that he had learned to use in his childhood home, back when he was only four and his mother had been a busy computer science researcher. How incredible it had felt, cooped up inside like that, to be able to experience total freedom on the screen, and to do, say, connect to, and read absolutely anything he had the wherewithal to find. The romanticism infected him throughout high school, college, and afterwards, into his days as a hot-headed, anonymous hacker of government secrets. Until, that is, a SWAT team broke down his door in the middle of the night and tossed a flashbang in.

In the present, his anklet felt tighter than ever—his legs had grown larger over the year.

How real had that golden age been? Had prison recoded those memories in gold? Perhaps it didn’t matter. The intranet as it existed today, a gang-bang rape baby of corporate and governmental power, filtered and curated and moderated and surveilled, was an abomination, and an abomination, Julius thought, deserved nothing less than destruction. Destruction required anger, of course, but it didn’t seem like anger alone was providing much progress. All it had earned him, so far, were two black holes in the middle of his central monitor.

Early one morning, when he knew neither Ross nor the red team would see him online, Julius booted up his battle station. He was surprised to find a backlog of messages had formed during his time away. The latest were a handful of notes from members of the 688th cyberwing, which started as simple queries regarding his whereabouts to full-blown letters of encouragement and even admiration. He didn’t deserve them at the moment, but Julius wondered if there were any true hackers among them who had simply been sucked into the system.

Then there was the message Ross had been typing before Julius had last logged off.

YUNG ROSSIE: The saddest thing, Julius, is that I used to really admire you when I was yung (young). Well, more accurately, I admired Augustus. I cheered for you when you published that list of agents. Your trial was behind closed doors, but I yoinked the courtroom tapes, just to see my hero standing proud against his enemies, even when all odds were against him.

An attachment was included. It was a clip from the trial, playing on repeat. A scrawnier, paler version of Julius was screaming at the judge and throwing papers and notepads around the courtroom. He was quickly restrained. All that fury… for nothing.

YUNG ROSSIE: That’s when I realized I had to play for the winning team. You were no crusader for justice. You were like every little kid screaming in an online game lobby. Now, every time I watch you throw a tantrum, I get embarrassed that I ever looked up to you.

Julius lunged his hands for the keyboard but stopped as his fingers hovered above. Instead, he let them drift to the power button, and the room was soon dark.

He was sitting on his couch when a knock came at the door.

“You know it’s unlocked,” he called. Keira came in with a pair of brown bags.

“I brought Japanese.” 

“Apropos of our cyberpunk dystopia,” Julius said, clearing space on the coffee table.

They toasted with plastic-cup shots of sake and slurped ramen until Keira spoke:

“I’m not good at apologies, so I’ll just say the words, I’m sorry, and ramble a bit.”

He set his bowl down, unsure of what she could be sorry for. She went on:

“It was already bitchy of me to be so cold with you, only to barge in and bother you whenever I wanted. But when I said that shit at you from the car, that was over the line. I can’t judge you for being angry—I can’t imagine what decades behind bars does to someone.”

“It wasn’t prison,” Julius said. “I was always like that. Everything you said was true.”

“Still, I was angry for you not doing anything, but who was I to talk? I act and dress like a rebel, but I’m a poser. I wish I could do something and be cool like you, but I don’t have the skills or the guts. I think I was frustrated with you because you reminded me that real renegades actually exist. Here I am, wearing a trench coat. I’ve never seen a trench in my life.”

Julius paused. She had been wondering a lot of the same things about herself as he had.

“If we were all rebels,” he said, “we’d have nothing to rebel against but ourselves.”

“Maybe that’s where the rebellion always has to start,” Keira mumbled. “Ourselves.”

He looked down at one of his notebooks on the coffee table. In a sketch he had made of the planet, a web of satellites formed the bars of a cage with their orbits. Then, he pictured his rage as a roaring firestorm that could blaze with the intensity and randomness of an ignited oil field. He wondered if he could tame it down to a pilot light in his chest. Something ready to burn, but something measured and controlled. Think outside of the box, Keira had told him.

They finished eating. As she got up to leave, he asked about the satellites’ cybersecurity.

“We weren’t endpoint security experts. We outsourced that.”

“To DataDillo?” Julius asked.

She rolled her eyes. “Ha, as if our team had that kind of extra funding. Why?”

He returned his gaze to the cage of orbits he had drawn. Deep inside of it was him.

“You want to fuck with the man? Maybe there’s something you can do.”

She smirked and curled her fingers like claws. “You know where to find me.”

In the last remaining weeks of his contracted year, Julius sat back down in his box of screens, for once not entirely relishing the feeling of keys under his fingers.

Rossasaurus Rex: Long time, no see! Have you come to terms with how completely futile the destruction of the intranet has become thanks to your help?

Julius (Intranet Enjoyer): You should feel utterly privileged, Rossasaurus Rex—like the dinosaurs, you get to witness the total obliteration of your entire world, today.

Rossasaurus Rex: So the game is still on! Gonna do us one last service before you retire to a slightly larger house arrest radius? 

Julius (Intranet Enjoyer): Just imagine, the intranet destroyed. International finance, crippled and dataless. Nuclear strike capabilities rendered inoperable. People forced to look up from their phones, with only the most capable and determined able to connect online via the relics of the old system. Can you imagine the chaos? The freedom? It’s a hacker’s wet dream.

Rossasaurus Rex: Ha, relic! That’ll be your next screenname. Or maybe “wet dreamer”.

Julius (Intranet Enjoyer): Question for you. How thoroughly have you personally checked the third-party security of the intranet satellites? Do you trust it?

Ross took a while to respond. Julius had already set the rest of the red team loose to rampage as they pleased, knowing it meant nothing in the mirrored intranet. How divine it was to see so clearly, without anger blinding him to the bigger picture.

Rossasaurus Rex: It’s something we can look into. The satellites aren’t accounted for in the replica environment we’re working in, so it’s no sweat between us.

Julius (Intranet Enjoyer): That’s why my new protégé is currently attacking not the mirrored intranet, but my own mirrored connection. Call it a virtual jailbreak. Once the mirror is smashed, so to speak, I’ll be able to see out, and the satellites will be within my reach.

No, he hadn’t taught Keira how to hack in just a month. Ross would have rolled him back up if he had even come within earshot of her computer. He had, however, slipped a notebook full of code under her door, with a note on exactly how and when to execute it. Scattered on his desk were notes she had given in exchange—specifications regarding the intranet satellites’ thrusters.

Ross began to type, but the indicator disappeared without a message having come through. Julius checked the time and launched one last program. In the chat, his handle changed.

Augustus: Ross. Real talk right now. I’m sorry for letting you down all those years ago. Hope this makes up for it. Come find me in whatever world comes next.

One by one, the screens began to spaz into cascades of error messages, notifying him that his connection had been interrupted. Eventually interpreting the failures as a wider collapse of the mirrored environment, the computer reset itself to black.

The door to the apartment swung open. Julius wondered if the feds had been a step ahead.

But it was only Keira, dressed in an all-black running outfit, headband and shoes and all, her pale flesh emanating an oily shimmer as though it had a gallon of sunscreen sprayed atop.

“Since I’m apparently trying new things today…” She paused, perhaps feeling ridiculous, only to lean into it: “Well, if I want to be a razorgirl, I need to get in better shape, huh?”

Julius took one last look at the empty screens and then put on his shoes.

They took a lap around the apartment blocks, but Keira was winded by the time they reached the bridge. She took a few steps out onto it, leaning on the railing and trying to clear vape residue from her lungs.

“You can’t go any further, right? She gasped. “Good run, I guess. Ugh, fuck meatspace.”

As she was about to turn around, though, she stopped and looked up. Bright fireballs seemed to be flashing in the deep blue, burning across the sky like an orderly meteor shower. She looked back at Julius, her jaw agape, perhaps wondering if he were seeing the same thing.

Julius, however, walked out past her onto the bridge. The anklet began to buzz. A few steps further, it began to flash and screech.

After taking one last look at the intranet satellites frying to crisps in the atmosphere, he broke into a jog. The anklet, having received one final signal from space, flashed green and snapped free from his ankle.

“Julius?” Keira called. “Oh my god, Julius, what did you do?”

Quite certain she would figure it out herself, Julius kept running.


Sinclair Cabocel studied English and Economics at the College of William & Mary (as a 1693 Scholar) and at Oxford University. A fixture at several writing groups and open mics, he can often be found holding court at various cafés and clubs across Lower Manhattan, where he currently resides. August, Again is Sinclair’s first published work, and his fiction is also forthcoming in the Chicago Quarterly Review. He is presently querying a short story collection and writing a novel. Follow him @sinclaircabocel on Instagram and Twitter and at


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