The old veteran, stroking his jaw with his mechanical digits, nodded thoughtfully. Together, the five of us have got all we need to take on the world and its owners, he said, except that we don’t know exactly what it looks like from the top down. To make the right moves, we need somebody with the big picture. Back when I had my own face, the masked woman said, I knew a guy in special ops who’d be just the ticket, but he’s no longer in circulation. They called him the wizard. He’s an ex-codebreaker whose brains got shot up and had to be reconstructed from an old video game, wired up inside a skull that’s mostly stainless steel. When he came on to me with his shiny head, I took a lot of heavy fondling, some of it pretty public and all of it inch-by-inch thorough. I thought he must be crazy about me and couldn’t restrain himself, but he was only taking measurements. Later he told me we’d made love hundreds of time, but I don’t remember one, though maybe I should because he has a way of projecting his games out into the world the rest of us live in, or think we do. I’m not sure, for example, he didn’t grow tired of his virtual me and send that mortar into the truck himself as a gambit in his world that spilled into mine. He got famous years back for inventing drone warfare and killer robots. Everybody does it now, but simple robotics is kids’ play for the wizard. He can dream up full-scale intercontinental conflicts that don’t exist and never existed, and then suddenly they do. A bi-hacker, you might say. Very useful for the owners of the world, the old veteran remarked. Yeah, but he’s an unreliable ally. He doesn’t believe in what we call the real world and he’s not on anybody’s side. It’s the game itself he lives for and he’s happy playing solitaire against himself. He needs a power source for his brainpan, and I hear they have him plugged in in some dark hidden place where they can vet his moves before releasing them into their own games, and no one knows where that place is. I can find him, said the blind man.
Through their multiple networks of connections and the ranger’s burglaries, hacks and phone taps, they learned that the wizard was being kept in a padded, fully equipped, steel-walled cell at a military base on top of an insurmountable mountain, the only access being a closely guarded funicular up the one side that wasn’t a straight drop. No problem, said the airman, I’ll fly the ranger up under the cliff face on the back side. The marksman said he could track their coordinates and cover them from below. The ranger probably nodded, but by then they were in the dark again and he was the only one seeing anything.
So they went there the next night and the airman took off his pants, pulled on heavy fireproof chaps to protect his thighs and privates from the blastoff, the blind guy climbed aboard, and up they shot. They first found and knocked out the generator to create a blackout, giving the ranger with night vision a momentary edge. They got set upon by guards and dogs, but, though they couldn’t hear the shots, their attackers dropped with little grunts, groans and whimpers, even those hiding behind buildings. In the blacked-out anteroom outside the wizard’s cell, there was an old sergeant standing guard whom the ranger once knew as a gutsy old boozer with more wounds than body parts, and he convinced him with the aid of his little fold-up Sten to open the cell in exchange for his life, which favor he was happy to provide for old times’ sake. The wizard was reluctant to give up his playroom and toy box and they had no time to argue, so they unplugged him, threw him over their shoulders and jetted out of there.
Back at the blind ranger’s quarters, they plugged the wizard in and the old soldier briefed him on the game they wanted to play, omitting the revenge motive, though the fellow figured it out pretty quickly and factored it in. He told them they should start with the president. Whoa, sounds like fun, the old soldier said, but ain’t that guy just a flunky? It’s the thugs behind him we’re after. I know that, the wizard said, but we don’t have much time and it’s strategically smart openers. Your targets are mostly faceless and invisible, but they not only own all the world’s arms and armies and the presidents and generals who control them, they also need them like you need your prostheses. The president is one of their key front men, a man who made himself famous as an inventor of innovative professional interrogation techniques, which was how he got elected, as the owners’ selection process is sometimes called. His patented inventions are mostly variations based on old methods like waterboarding, electric shock, hamstringing, sensory deprivation and the thumbscrew, but technologically and medically enhanced to be more persuasive. The owners of the world love him. Removing such a central player from the game board sends a signal. The owners without their proxies might have to show themselves, and we can start tracking them. The model here is still kings and castles, the wizard explained, though the dimensions have changed and there’s a corporate twist. That is to say, networks of kings and castles under competing logos, which sometimes act like people but aren’t people. It’s my understanding it’s not your objective to choose sides, you want to immobilize the entire complex. You got it, dude. All right, we can go for that, but we have to move right now because, after your pick, they’ll be trying to shut me down, and I’m not hard to find. When I’m plugged in, I beep. That the wizard was using the first person plural was a good sign. He’d already forgotten the game he was playing before and was now excited about this one. The airman pointed out that the president’s mansion is a notorious fortress, how can this possibly be done? We just walk in and tell him what we want him to do, said the wizard calmly. We’ll have to get through a million heavily armed secret service agents and crack antiterrorist squads, said the marksman. I probably can’t reload fast enough. I’m aware of that, the wizard said. It’s time to send in the Mona Lisa. Why do I get the feeling, the masked woman asked, that I’ve been redesigned merely to be a player in one of your games? The wizard might have smiled, it was hard to tell. His stainless steel head was only minimally expressive. Now I recommend you unplug me and vacate this space instantly, he said, his eyes flashing red. So they did that, leaving the building on the double just as it was pulverized, the old soldier porting the blind ranger, the airman rocketing out of the exploding window with the inanimate wizard strapped to his back.
Capturing the president went exactly as planned. The masked woman, unmasked, led the way into his mansion, the troops guarding him falling with a flutter like that of a shuffled poker deck. There was a vast array of locked steel gates barring their way, but the wizard had provided the blind ranger with a sensory upgrade, and he clicked them right through. They reached the president’s bedroom, where they found him in flagrante delicto with an anthropomorphic corporate mascot. The masked woman, wearing her mask once more, seemed to be blessing their union with her inscrutable smile. The old soldier chased the mascot off and they powered on the wizard, assuming the owners would be reluctant to eradicate the president, he being a major asset, but the wizard told them they were mistaken. We have about two minutes and 40 seconds before they trace my signal and destroy this place, he said. Two minutes, 30 seconds. The president panicked at that and tried to run but got tripped up by his own tuxedo pants, still around his ankles. We need to get to the war room, a signal-proof shell that I designed myself, said the wizard. My powers will be somewhat diminished in there, but they can’t track or hack me and I can still run most programs. The old soldier picked the president up by his nape, pants dangling, whacked his honorable ass with his rifle butt and ordered him to take them to the war room. Why don’t you just turn that fucking beeper off or take it out? the ranger asked. Can’t, the wizard said. They implanted it in my heart. In fact, that’s the high-frequency sound it makes.