Two for Flinching
From the outset, Daniel Ozell never flinched. Vids didn’t lie. Now, N1T3 had become fascinated with it. Ket was chewing an imaginary thumbnail, a supplement for stress when her real nails were too valuable to damage. Riter stared off in thought at some place in the middle distance.
It was the first time they’d been together in eleven years– until Dru topped that by walking in, making it the first time the four had ever been together. It occurred to no-one. Only the slight hints of awkwardness belying otherwise total intimacy made any inclination toward it.
They sensed they were all unaware of it then.
Nonetheless, N1T3 was obsessed with the vid. The sound was off, had never been on. He was too expert at reading both text and lips to care much. His life was lived in thrumming fans, clacking keys, yet somehow he knew and understood this man– this creature– better than even himself. This modern man, whom instantly and totally adapted. In one breath.
That was the essence of the postdigital child. Yet this one had evidently been working to destroy itself. Knowingly.
Ozell’s eyes said it all: The scene. The slight hesitation. The stop. The breath of recognition. Of acceptance. Of inhalant abuse on the intoxicant of power. The one that meant SQ.CMDR – DIV\I OZELL, DANIEL was a hell of a model employee and about to become the new standard to be set by.
Not a prototype in the strictest sense but a showroom model, the expectation for mass-production perfection, its ultimate goal and purpose. One that, at all costs, knew the system would fuck him given even wind of need.
So, he’d fuck it right back, every chance he got.
N1T3 watched for the sixth time: Ozell instantly adapted. No hesitation. The mental process was autonomic. Muscular, micro-facial movements. The breath of a slump smoothing itself easily into squared shoulders, relaxed arms and torso, legs, and eyes. All of it relaying that every component had processed the same information and the mode-switch was made.
Only one such as N1T3, the others, could have seen or understood it.
It went something like this:
Start. Sensory boot: intake.
The first steps inside: POST.
Mode-cycle switch: engage.
N1T3 downright admired Ozell’s abilities. There was absolutely no lag. His mental system for adaptation was more advanced than N1T3 had ever seen from corp-sec. Let alone a jack-boot. Then he opened his mouth, and N1T3 wished to erase him from Time-Space; past, present, or future.
“People, please, I will speak to you shortly.”
Such nonchalance and smug arrogance.
N1T3 read it there; Ozell knew the score. It was the entire point to his mode-cycle. He knew five people had been hit. Two murdered. Now, he realized he’d have to answer for it– and instantly knew how to benefit– twist it to.
Ozell could squeeze someone else’s balls for a pay-raise over this. Or more. That much was obvious, but so was something else.
Ozell’s adaptability told N1T3 all he needed to know: he was a leader, would’ve put the bullet in An33$a’s back– another prototypical postdigital child. Her lover, “Clockwork” Mike Andover, former world chess-champion, bad-boy, and wunderkind-turned-rogue.
He let them cook her after he pulled the trigger. Daniel Ozell’d known it all along what was happening, had been okay with it. Why, was obvious: personal gain wasn’t just for corps anymore.
N1T3 read all of it in his eyes. in his evolution. Like him, Ozell was a predator. More practiced, practically speaking, but one-half the predator’s coin nonetheless. He could only exist because people like N1T3 did– hackers, rogues, sexdolls, freedom-exiles and vagabonds.
However, unlike N1T3, Daniel Ozell was a predator’s predator. A specialist and assassin not found save in the deepest niches of predatorial nature. Everyone in the room felt it then:
Daniel Ozell existed to kill them.
Ket was calm but firm, “It’s getting too hot. We should get you out of town.”
$trydr argued, “No. Too dangerous. Re-locate in town and lie low. We–“
Dru interrupted, “Can do no. more. than we are doing now.”
He looked about to argue but N1T3, unfazed and still mesmerized, interrupted, “He did it.”
Silence. Confusion. He paused the vid, skipping its UHD-res back frame-by-frame until where he needed it. He flicked at Ket’s server, left as he’d built it for now, and keyed up a few lines of custom code. The script engaged.
Animated, frame-by-frame stills of Ozell’s face: The gleam in his eye. Thoughts. One at a time in his head, cycling him from prey to predator with the releasing of skeletal muscles, posture. All of it habit. This was a creature made to hunt men, and once more being forced to when it had lost the taste.
They all saw it. The gleam. That almost imperceptible tic of the right eye’s outer-corner that spelled guilt. It slacked as the switch flipped, the mode cycled, and the predator re-emerged.
More than that, he wasn’t about to deny anything. He would admit a truth, however tacitly, and another after that– that he was about to do even worse this time ‘round. This, he knew, came as orders of overlords he knew valued him less than dirt. Overlords he, himself, would back-stab if ably suited.
Because that was the game he and they knew– knew, and didn’t mind.
N1T3 spoke, “Daniel Ozell put the bullet in Anisa’s back.”
Ket was least affected. Dru, most. Riter found himself ailed from it. Through them, N1T3 did too, however dully. Ket couldn’t be allowed to feel it. Even two for flinching in her line of work could permanently damage the goods. Good for business, bad for friendship.
“Anisa’s dead. Get riled up over her, it’ll only make you stupid. It’s what they want.”
$trydr looked ready to snap in defense of Dru. She interrupted before he could, stunning all but N1T3. A sudden silence hung in the air before he began to take notice of it. He sensed what was happening, ignored it. His mouth opened, Dru simply spoke faster.
That stopped N1T3 in his tracks. Mostly, because he was surprised how deep his and Dru’s connection still went. They were both irritated; one because they knew they were running out of time; the other because he was running out of time. In-fighting and debate was unacceptable right now. Feelings could wait.
“Knowing Ozell’s the one is important for one reason,” Dru said, sensing N1T3 nod.
He finished, “It gives us a target. Someone to pin this on. Someone aware.”
Ket and $trydr were frozen. Ket had heard but never seen the double-think Dru and N1T3 were capable of. It was no doubt what had attracted them to one another– even as children, they weren’t like-minded, but rather, one-minded.
If he weren’t so gut-certain N1T3 would soon be dead, $trydr might have been concerned. As much pain as it brought him to know, he knew too that N1T3 would be equally amused under better circumstances. Those were yet, if ever, to come.
Presently, circumstance dictated N1T3 and Dru were both right– but it pissed him off anyway.
“Should’ve known,” $trydr grumbled. He spoke aloud for the others, “Find what you can and get us all a copy.”
N1T3 was already typing, “Corp-sec Squad Commander Division One intell-strike. London Outpost. Married. Wife infirmed. Psychosis. Son adolescent. Man himself suffers PTSD from pre-takeover wars…”
Two hours and ten minutes later Ozell’s voice continued.
“… reprimanded twice in the field for acts unbecoming; assaults on fellow officers, and disorderly conduct. Signed Ret. Maj. Revyen McGuire; former C/o.”
Ozell wasn’t angry. He’d half-expected it. He respected the punk-shits for burning him like that. Class all the way. Well and truly worthy of the so-called paradise they occupied. That one amidst the shit-heap refuse that was their culture and world.
That was what he hated most of all; their utter immunity to irony.
They were kids, sure, but not really. They weren’t much younger than him in some cases, and nowhere near Paul’s age either. Caught in the middle of seemingly everything, they had no choice but to rebel. In a way, he pitied them. Almost sympathized.
Then, he read the last section of N1T3’s “release.”
Each syllable began to grate, his jaw setting further as he read, “Daniell Ozell, we have seen the lies in you. Answer for them. If not for your sake, then his.”
The image was innocuous. Almost mundane. Paul stood alone at a bus stop, waiting. It was the residential pick up. Fewer and fewer kids were attending Corp schooling these days, but it was generally agreed to be a result of less births in the corporate sector.
That was a pile of bullshit even Ozell’s less-perceptive colleagues had sniffed out.
Fact was though, the whole pickup area was under 24 hour surveillance. Corp-Sec was tightest there than anywhere. Even in the image, Ozell could see the subtle hints of his teams, watching, waiting, protecting. Doing their jobs– what they were paid to do. All they were paid to do. They made sure those kids were safe. If they weren’t, their parents didn’t work.
Ozell’d known that when he laid out the patrols, the angles. When he planned the surveillance. Everything in the image was a direct creation of his love for his son. It was his hope that others like him would do for his as he would theirs, when he wasn’t looking.
And from this, it looked like Corp-sec were sleeping on the job.
Worst of all though, it wasn’t the drone image meant to seem important. Rather, it was its ability to exist. It demanded examination, explanation; if Daniel Ozell’s child is so safe that he can walk to school alone, why is Martin Black a threat?
The question itself, required the full-scope of the situation be comprehended– that its’ social coding and conflict resolution be known:
If Martin Black was not a threat, then why was Anisa Blanc shot in the back, as tacitly admitted? The return-code question required to close the circuit and produce output then was; if Martin Black (threat 0+) and Anisa Blanc (threat 0) were equal, and neither’s death justifiable, is not your hunt simply murder-driven?
Then, the final return: If so, then why and on whose orders?
Ozell grit his teeth. The bastards as much as confirmed the war then and there, firing back as. Ozell knew would happen. He knew what would come next too; forced retaliation. From him.
The Corps had been itching for war. Nothing thinned the herd quite like it. Corps had never been to war. Not true war. They’d never seen what they could do. Neither had the modern man.
The Tree of Liberty would feed; blood or water, only the season’s star-shine could decide.
Until that moment, Ozell hadn’t known whom he’d be killing. He simply knew he’d be killing. Death, for an experienced dealer in it, was a mood formed of the depraved and their shadow games. Blood-thirst clung to air, thickening it. It stank like cooked bile on a hot summer’s noon. It made every breath taste of ash and fire with the intensity dictated by primal chaos.
Once it came, it would be Tantalus’ eternal thirsting forever more. Paradoxically however, it was not a thing’s existence that caused it. Rather, it was its total-need and utter-absence.
Blood on the air made Ozell rage. Figurative as it remained for now, he was still forced to calm himself. He did it the only way he knew how: analyzing what he knew had and would happen. Otherwise, he’d pop like a cork and take the whole damned post with him.
It would take time, but what little of the game and its players remained obscured was coming to light. The moment his kid showed up, Ozell knew that war was on. Moreover, he knew it was exactly what both sides wanted– however vastly differing their reasons.
Because both sides were terrorists, one just emotionally so. Hackers were the type that preyed on people’s hidden nature for their own ends. Corps were no less guilty. Whether altruistic or not in intent, it was predatory. Until now, he’d sympathized with the hackers personally, if little else
Then, they made his son the poster child for civil-war.