Decentralist

Season 1 - Episdode 3

So Many Serpents

Marshal regarded his captors—two men and a black-haired woman who looked like she could kick both their asses. He didn’t recognize any of them. The men were not his earlier attackers, and the woman ... well, he’d remember her if he’d met her. She was about his height, and her layered black tank tops revealed the kind of muscle tone produced by relentless training, as well as some nondescript body art. Man number one was slighter and fairer, dressed in a charcoal Oxford shirt that was open at the neck and rolled up at the sleeves. The other guy was super dark, wore a black knit shirt with a zipper at the neck, and kept smacking his eyelids open and shut.

The group had stuck a bag over Marshal’s head for the drive, and then removed it as they sat him down in the proverbial darkened room with an annoying light. It was some sort of conference room, with a long table and incredibly comfortable, high- backed, upholstered chairs on wheels. The recessed light above was dim, and one bulb had a short in it that kept flickering.

“You really should do something about that,” Marshall quipped, jutting his chin upward. He steeled himself for a physical retort, but the group of three just sat back in their chairs and exchanged wordless glances. The blinking man continued to bat his eyes. Marshal idly examined their action for a pattern, like Morse code, to no avail. Wish Drake were here, he mused. His teammate could decipher anything.

“Mr. Marquis...” Tats began.

So, they were to be civil. “You put me at a disadvantage. And you are—?”

She rejected the urge to smile. “...in possession of your phone. And, therefore, your life.”

Shirtsleeves held up his iPhone and set it down on the conference table, in reach, yet unreachable. Marshal got the message. He couldn’t tell if any of them had a weapon trained on him beneath the table or, who knew, through the damn wall by an accomplice.

Tats went on. “We also extracted the hardware from your friend’s house. We would’ve extracted him, too, if you had been deterred earlier.”

“You mean, on Powell Street?”

Now she did smile, coldly. “At birth would’ve been good.”

Marshal’s hand went to his injured eye. He needed to know if the street assault and this abduction were connected. If so, the team was looking at one enemy. If not, at least two. All he knew so far was that these guys had lifted the tower that held the node. They were pulling double duty, both doing the leg work and the questioning. Whose side were they on?

Marshal grunted. His team lumped all of the forces against them as the Quo—whichever moneyed sector might want any decentralized threats neutralized.

Odds were, this group was working for the Feds, although they didn’t exactly fit the DOJ mold. And this definitely was not a government office. But if they’d represented competing currency interests, they would only have targeted the computer, not its operator. These guys seemed to want a target. To the Feds, detecting crime wasn’t any fun without punishment. Still, he couldn’t be sure. “What do you want?”

Blinker leaned forward menacingly. “To take down your chain.” His voice fell in a higher register than Marshal had expected.

Marshal snorted. “My chain? If I had that kind of info, I wouldn’t be sitting here. I’d be selling it to your competitors.”

“We’d like their IDs, too.” Shirtsleeves raised a pen above a blank piece of notepaper.

Marshal pressed his lips together. “You tell me.”

Just then, his phone vibrated on the table. Tats retrieved it and opened an incoming email. Her eyes narrowed. She leaned over and showed the screen to her cohorts.

Again, they volleyed silent glances. Then Tats pushed back in her chair and stood up, gesturing at Marshal with the device. “Forget them. Let’s start with the author of this message.” She checked the screen. “It just says Archie6449: ‘If you are reading this, I have failed to reset my timer and am unable contact those of you who may be at risk. Take necessary precautions to secure the blockchain and/or your servers.”

A jolt of hot lightning went through Marshal’s body. All of the loosely connected decentralists had been prepared for such circumstances, and briefed on the protocol should their security be undermined. These bastards would have a hard time pinning them down once they scrambled.

Blinker turned his Morse-code stare on Shirtsleeves and proceeded to give him orders. “Run this pseudonym. And check our list for possible real-life Archies. Could be hiding in plain sight.”

Shirtsleeves rose and left the room. Tats still hung onto Marshal’s phone. “Lots of news in a little package,” she taunted. “But you can tell us more, can’t you?”

Can, Marshal thought. Won’t.

He studied her face to see how far it looked like she might go for an answer. This all seemed like a replay of a scene from his previous life—the one that had brought him to this moment.

The firing and the hiring had happened almost simultaneously. Marshal’s performance on his Special Forces A Team formed a lopsided bell curve over his ten- year term: it had built slowly and steadily toward excellence, enjoyed a prolonged plateau at the top—and then fell like a hammer into a lake. Some called it a crisis of attitude or morale that had been his downfall; but, more accurately, it was an evolution in morality.

A young Louisiana tough who’d proven himself during basic training, Private First Class Marshal Marquis had soon found his way into the Special Forces Q Course at Camp Mackall. He’d watched as his fellow qualifying candidates dropped out, were kicked out by Army doctors, or battled it out over the first three weeks of intensive training. By the time they finished the Trek, anyone left standing was either selected or prompted to retake the course later. The infamous march over thirty miles of rugged North Carolina hill country had been the end for some, but a piece of cake for Marshal, who’d spent whole weeks on his own, slogging through the bayous outside his native Lake Charles, playing at survival.

With a facility for weaponry and hand-to-hand, Marshal honed his specialty over a year of MOS training. He completed the remaining qualifying phases, and was ultimately detailed with a financial espionage support detachment of the Green Berets, aptly known, Marshal thought, as the Snake Eaters. It reminded him of home. The term would become a metaphor for his team’s objectives: consume the snakes who committed financial crimes against the state.

The kinds of people who backed their misdeeds with firepower made straightforward targets. Marshal went about his missions with righteous zeal, believing he was fighting for the capitalistic forces of good. Rarely did he learn the full case histories of the money launderers, extortionists, and other thieves whose grand designs were unraveled by his ODA. It had been enough to know he was on the right side. But, little by little, that certainty faded.

There was always another mission. His team knocked down one or two clowns, and five more popped up. The greed was never-ending. But some things, Marshal knew, were finite.

The wildfires of the West hadn’t yet begun to escalate. But the violent storms that Marshal knew firsthand with Katrina were piling up year after year, as first 2010, then 2011 and 2012 tallied record hurricane numbers. With his boots on the damp ground,

Marshal gradually connected Mother Nature’s blowback to his enemy targets’ relentless surge forward. Something had to give.

It was about that time that Marshal’s ODA was put on a surveillance detail of a low-level digital coin promoter. The target wasn’t a hacker who had stolen from a blockchain, nor someone looking to undermine U.S. currency in any way. So, for the first time since blanketing the Army with his loyalty, Marshal rebelled. The mission failed. And the brass couldn’t expose him at a trial because it would imperil the larger investigation.

So, of course, they enthusiastically encouraged me to resign, Marshal recalled now, as he sat at the conference table before his captors, playing to win for the other side. It hadn’t been official, but his Army superiors had made it clear that forced resignation and dishonorable discharge were interchangeable to those who knew. He’d never have a place in the armed services again.

Which was exactly what The Architect was looking for, he reflected smugly, sure now that his captors had not uncovered his employment relationship—or the only name he had for the team’s project manager. While they might not have identified him, he was obviously a person of interest. His interest in Marshal, though, might prove to be his undoing.

Archie had reached out to the disgraced sergeant about six years before, just a few days after he returned to Lake Charles from his deployment. They’d spent some time messaging back and forth, and Marshal dove into the info links the decentralist proponent had sent to support his theories, which included shifting monetary power from the top to the lower 99 percent. This, Marshal had thought, could jam a stick in the spokes of the wheel of greed that was killing the planet. It could turn everything around.

What he learned had all been so compelling that he swiftly agreed to relocate, take up residence at the loft, and build a team of defenders for a cause that got more pressing every day. He and his team would earn DCX money into existence, as living proof that decentralized capital—based on human capital, not debt—could work.

That initial fire returned to his belly now. Sustainable money meant a sustainable place to live. He must protect The Architect at all costs... if his friend were still alive.

Team DC’s job was made for night owls like Bentley Harrison, who could spend all night in two or three dance clubs and top it off with a four A.M. breakfast at Denny’s. A few hours’ sleep and a wicked green drink she called “Reanimator,” and she was good to go the next day. So, this evening’s mandatory overtime was no biggie. Her boss’s predicament, however, was.

“I’ve got a lock on his phone signal,” Bentley confirmed to Drake, who perched at a standing desk in the loft that held three monitors, each tuned to a different section of city map.

“Shoot it over here.” He cut and pasted the GPS coordinates from the IM to one of the map search boxes, frowning. “No way to know if he’s in the same spot as the phone, though.” He mentally riffled through the protocol hierarchy they’d devised in the event of someone’s capture. They’d need two exit strategies: one trained on the phone location, and one to be announced. Marshal would know how to prepare on his end. He must be kicking himself now.

After Marshal was hauled off in the wrong van, Bentley had run for the front seat of “Rita” as Drake started pursuit. They’d twisted and turned through the shadowy streets, finally losing their boss’s vehicle beneath one of the Bay bridges. Now, a scant hour later, he could still either be in that area, back in the city, or even on his way to a drop-off point in the smoky Muir Woods. A forest fire would be excellent cover for anyone wishing to dispose of a body, dead or alive. Or, he could be held in the same place as his phone. Which, actually, would not be good.

We go with what we know, Drake recited to himself, sighing, already formulating Plan A. It would involve extricating Marshal from a fortified area surrounded by wooded parkland and shot through with dead-end streets. Not an easy task, but also one that the opposition would not expect them to undertake.

How to get into an unidentified bunker in a 250-year-old stockade, rescue a live human being—they hoped—and get back out again? This same thought running through Bentley’s mind provoked a moan, but it made Drake’s pulse quicken. The more difficult the puzzle, the more he clamped down, like a pit bull on a hunk of meat. Once he solved that one, he could move on to parsing the unknown scenario.

With Marshal gone, Drake’s rank increased. “Bent,” he commanded his partner, “get the E-pack together. And throw some explosives in there. Gently,” he added. Bentley jumped up to comply, reaching for her sword-like shinai, which leaned against the wall nearby. She caught Drake’s skeptical expression. “You said E-pack. Any emergency can boil down to a melee, hey?”

Drake shrugged. “When C-4 fails, there’s always hitting people with sticks.” Bentley gave an evil grin. “You get one of these up your boonggy, trust me, you’ll be crying for momma.” The cyber wizard was also a master at the Japanese defensive art of kendo, another detail that adversaries would not be expecting. If Drake’s strength was blending in, Bentley’s was standing out so well that no one would peg her as a threat.

If nothing else, Drake knew he could count on her to get down in the pit and fight with him till someone dropped the meat. “Hurry up,” he said, grabbing a slew of thumb drives and devices and jamming them in a canvas messenger bag. “Let’s roll.”

Bentley knew better than to try to talk to Drake when he was in “fixer” mode—monitoring the GPS and ticking off points of the plan in his head, while piloting the van toward a hostile destination. Her mind whirled also as she watched the streets and buildings flit by like channel-surfing rejects. What normally would be a thirty-minute drive wound down after just fifteen, when they entered the national park and navigated its winding, foggy streets.

“Any change?” Drake barked. Bentley reported that the ping location had held steady. He swung the van onto the parkway, through a tunnel, and over to an off-limits access road without missing a beat. They slowed as they neared their destination, if the GPS were correct.

“Holy shit. The Army batteries!” his partner exclaimed. “He ain’t gonna like that.

No love lost between Boss Marsh and Oncle Sam, hey?” Bentley’s Bahamian-by-way-of–New York accent grew stronger when her blood was up.

“If they are holding him here,” Drake pointed out. If not, Plan B’s success was much less clear cut. And time might be running out. Drake knew Marshal would be counting on them to try every avenue. The man may have been a Snake Eater, but a guy could handle only so many serpents at once. “You ready with phase one?” he asked Bentley tersely.

“Ya, mon ... wait! Hang on a minute.” Bentley trained her attention on her locator.

“Looks like that phone signal is on the move.”

This kicked the urgency up a notch. They had to be ready to either unleash fury on their unknown opponents or to preserve a human life—or both. If they made the wrong choice in the first salvo, Bentley’s melee skills wouldn’t be enough to save either of them.

“Tracking, tracking...” Her eyes were glued to the lit screen. “It’s—coming this way.”

Drake slammed the van to a stop. “It’s here!”

Bentley looked up to see Marshal standing at the roadside, his iPhone glowing in hand. Her jaw dropped.

Drake, too, was thrown for a loop. His eyebrows threatened to sail off his face as he threw an incredulous look Bentley’s way.

Hurriedly, she wriggled out of her seatbelt and climbed over the console. Marshal yanked open the passenger door. He looked surprisingly whole and untouched, at least by this recent episode. His puffy temple and weepy eye were none the worse.

The freed man turned off his phone and settled into the front seat. “Perfect timing,” he said. “I was just about to call you guys.”

Back at the loft, the team replayed its earlier action in reverse. Marshal watched Bentley rearrange her telescoping cudgels and shinai in their corner. “Aw, Bent. You brought your boonggy busters! For me? I didn’t know you cared.”

Bentley faked a scoff. “Not for you, boss. These are the swords of justice. I work for the people.”

“You just weren’t expendable yet, Marsh,” Drake summed up. “Once you solve this capitalism thing, though, look out.”

Marshal took the disses in stride with a thin smile. Once he solved this capitalism thing, he could die a happy man. “Fair game, I reckon.” He sobered. “Look. Those goons who grabbed me decided I wasn’t ready for the chopping block yet, either. Why?” Bentley frowned. “You’re more valuable to them at large.”

Drake dumped the contents of his messenger bag on a leather couch and sat down next to them. “Like as not, they think Marshal can lead them to our fearless leader. Little do they know, no one can do that.”

There was a silent pause. They all knew they had the genius of The Architect to thank for that. His identity was known to no one—nobody they knew of, anyhow.

Of course, Marshal was the most direct link. But even he had never met Archie face to face—or even spoken to him by phone. That paranoid motherfucker knows how to cover his ass, Marshal thought with admiration. And ours, he added to himself, with a measure of gratitude. Even a seasoned Snake Eater didn’t want to go down for the team if he didn’t have to.

“So, who are they?” Marshal quizzed his colleagues.

“Feds,” Bentley surmised, grabbing a throw pillow and sinking to the floor with it. “New money,” Drake said, meaning the latest batch of Digital gurus who were floating new coins to make it so much easier for folks to do business with them. “Who do you think?”

Marshal lowered his brow. “Someone in between.” They waited for him to explain. “These guys who nabbed me—they weren’t your typical suits.” He walked over to the kitchen to rummage through the fridge and came up with a half can of tuna that had been open too long. Bentley had already scavenged everything else palatable. He brought it and a fork over to the mosh pit, as they called the briefing area in the great room, where they usually had to bump something aside to find a seat.

“Obviously, the new money guys need to stay clean, so they would’ve out-sourced a hit job,” he went on. “But, so would the Feds if they wanted to keep their probe under the radar. I can do some looking, see if I can home in on one side or the other.”

Drake fiddled with set of ear buds he’d picked out of couch pile. “A better question might be, why? Why Gatsby66? Why now?”

Marshal swallowed some of the desiccated tuna. “I’m almost more interested in what they learned from me just now. It must’ve been valuable enough to send me on my way in hopes of more.”

Bentley hugged her pillow. “You said they got the mass email that went out to all the blockchain. They probably think some brah named Archie can tie it all together in a nice bow for them.” She eyed Marshal. “D’you think that compromises our dear leader at all, eh?”

“Nope. Failsafe. I am a little worried that they tapped into my hotline encryption, though.”

Bentley reached forward. “One way to find out.”

He pulled his phone from his belt and gave it to her.

She scrolled and scrutinized. “This looks clean. But, boss... Didja know you had an unread flag?”

His expression told her he did not. She tossed the device back, and she and Drake waited for Marshal to run through the security maze that took him to the latest incoming message. The look on his face went from concern to alarm. If they thought the evening’s events had already peaked, they were in for a surprise.

Marshal read from the phone’s screen. “We’ve got a new contact! Something about inroads and go-betweens. The guy must be a real insider, maybe playing both sides. We’re to set up a meeting....”

“I’ll do it,” Drake volunteered. “You’ve had enough exposure.”

“But ... there’s more.” Almost to himself, Marshal murmured, “Archie never cries wolf.” He looked up at his friends. “He says he’s in some kind of danger. To go to DEFCON 2.”

They exchanged worried glances. Then Bentley tried to put a good spin on things. “Well, at least it ain’t DEFCON 1, hey?”

“Oh, that’s just great,” Drake groaned.

“Yeah,” Marshal seconded the emotion. “The worst is yet to come.”