Guardians of Liberty: Part 15

15.
The Modern Man

Daniel Ozell’s comm-link whistled at his bedside table. His wife groaned, slapped a pillow against her head. Habit, these days. Ozell fell into his boots and started for the next room, comm-link hooked in his ear.

“Go ahead.”

The bathroom mirror stared back at him, its eyes met his, entirely indifferent to the information relayed. He’d been expecting the call, didn’t need more than details. Didn’t really need those either though. ‘Cause in the end, this was just the way the shit-birds overhead slept at night. They delegated, hands supposedly clean, never realizing the bathwater was just as tainted as the lubberkin within it.

Of course Ozell’d been expecting a call. His team iced two kids in a building the other night, and they weren’t the only with confirmed hits either. Four others did too: Wright’s. Martin’s. Jackson’s. And Ulreich’s.

An hour later, the news-vids are blaring that a building’s up in flames and the numbers are in…

Two for one. Ozell’s was the only one that might look suspicious. So, it’d be investigated. He’d get a call, just to confirm. A chewing out. Everything above-board looking, but ordered nonetheless.

He’d been around long enough to know damned well when he was running an S&D-op. He’d seen ’em in the wars, back before they were considered failed revenue-sharing schemes. Then, it was Governments kicking your ass out planes, telling you a flimsy sheet of silk was your best friend. Not inspiring amid thousands of feet of open air.

Even then he knew career-soldiering was over. Who wouldn’t take next-gen bullet-proof armor, automatic weapons, and a health plan instead of swilling desert with reclaimed nut-sweat? And why not? Bullets were plentiful as mosquitoes now and the bad-guys all had next-gen A-Ks. Worst, Kids get cavities. Paul’s baby teeth were falling out faster by the day. Not to mention Kay’s psych-meds, his own– how could anyone pass on that?

Daniel Ozell was a modern man, sure, but modern men broke down earlier by the day. Too much exposure to shit in the air, water, and food made the bones rot. All so some assholes could fake modesty, pretend they weren’t corruptible? Bullshit. If Ozell knew anything, it was that History was written by victors, and victors are just those that remaining after everyone else has bled out.

He who fucks nuns will later join the Church, so sayeth the Great Gig in the Sky.

Of course the corporations were fucking dirty. Nobody wasn’t. That’s why enforcers existed. Why they needed their own enforcers, as did those. That was the one thing those tech-heads had gotten right; redundancy.

But redundancy wasn’t meant to be digital alone. Physical essence was important too. That, they didn’t get. To a degree Ozell almost expected.

What he hadn’t expected but should’ve, was Martin Black (AKA N1T3), slipping away only to come back on him. He’d known even before the post-briefing that the numbers hadn’t added up. He heard the comm-calls. Counted the dispatch orders– privileges of being a squad-commander. Not high enough to plan the jobs himself, but damned aware of what they were– S&D or otherwise.

HQ’d expected some to get away, but others were ID’d top priority. He could tell by who was placed where. He’d been privy to the briefing before the squads, knew even then the eggheads were underestimating Black.

The whore and her boyfriend had been first on the list, they appealed to perverts, a group obsessive and reactionary. The need to exercise authority and put down possible outcry dictated overwhelming force against both of them.

But it didn’t erase the girl’s choking gasps. The cutting rasp of a murgled scream. The panic in her white, dying-fish eyes as her mouth moved breathless, tense-to-tremors limbs fighting to claw and drag their way forward. Adrenaline: like a deer in the wild with its chest missing.

More dead whores. That’s it.

Guilt panged his gut at its own harshness. He didn’t care, but he did feel it. He sighed, listening to some would-be superior prepping to chew him out for their own fuck-up.

Ozell sighed quietly to himself; Anisa Blanc wasn’t a whore. Not really. She was just kinky; a freak. He and Kay’d had enough wild times to sympathize– before the meds put her half-comatose all the time. Were it just her, Ozell might’ve quit the business altogether to chase one of those new-age Anisa Blanc’s, descend into the wells of madness with her– if only to understand them.

He would have, but not now. Paul was the future now. The question was whether that future was worth the sweat of his father’s brow that had tried to build it.

Ozell saw things one way and only one way; if slaughtering geeks half his age ensured his son never went without, it was his obligation as a father to do so. He hadn’t been sure that’s where things were headed, but it was a reality he’d prepared himself for. The shit had long been in the wind. Everyone was already aghast at it. It just needed that push to become reality– to hit the fan.

Now, the first shots had been fired. The Corporations were waiting to see what emerged from the ruins. Then, they would war. All of them; corps, people, wild animals, whores– everyone. Shit would light off like a fucking powder-keg, blow the arsenal, and the resulting cockup-cascade would level most of the world.

Whom or whatever remained afterward would have a lot of explaining to do– after all the fucking cleanup, of course.

Ozell’d seen the forest through the trees. Though he doubted others admitted it as he did, like them, he didn’t care. Whichever side emerged victorious didn’t matter two shits for eighty-percent of people. They’d fall-in-line or fall-out, didn’t need to give a shit the rest of the time.

Hacker-kids were just suffering because the world was shit, like everybody else. They were just loudest about it because they’d seized the means of communication.

Ozell might’ve sympathized, but they couldn’t have existed without the world they so despised. They hadn’t yet, and neither had he. Not really. He’d lived through at least some of that so-called pre-digital age. Enough to recall its emergence– if not fondly, than accurately.

And it mattered precisely dick to no-one anyhow.

No-one gave a shit about pre-digital history. No-one gave a shit about History, period. Not in anything non-media based, and not outside non-fictionalized material. Problem was, now there were times being romanticized that had barely fucking happened and didn’t last anyhow.

How could anyone be so dense? So sensitive as to romanticize so easily? It made him angry. It cheapened life. It was the very antithesis to what so-called postdigital children were supposedly so thoroughly devoted to– thought, freedom, Liberty, because who could be so truly in love with everything? It wasn’t possible.

It didn’t make sense and that made him angry. Not with the sheer rage of fury from emotion, but the calm, calculated anger of the rationally-calculating man. The rational man; the modern man.

Ozell wanted to spit in the face of all of those hacker-punks exposing people to shit like Anisa Blanc’s death. What was the point? Everyone knew it existed. Everyone knew it was happening. Of course they were trying to fix it, but the more complicated things were, the more there was to go wrong and the more care and time any solution needed.

This was fucking Society they were dicking with. Humanity’s future. People’s hearts and minds. Already battered and beaten worse by the day, they were now being forced to cope with a reality they didn’t need to. Doing what N1T3– that pissant prick had done, was like flashing gore genitals at an old lady, knowing she’d have a heart-attack, live, end-up in medical debt and be forced into a nursing home against her will.

And for what? To prove a point? Fuck off.

The real evil, the real darkness; was the distractions being used to pilfer the crowd for emotion. Same fucking thing the corps were doing, save with money. How could these assholes ever hope to win? Let alone with high ground?

He sighed again; fighting fire with fire solved nothing. It only burned more of the world down.

Ozell let his superior finish his bull-rushing with all the emotion of a slug on a sidewalk, and killed his comm-link. He engaged and read the public and corp-sec internal feeds via his optical and aural augments, their picture-in-picture divisions across his retinal implants.

Tactical augs were becoming more sophisticated by the day. He smelled hints of lucrative contracts on the wind; adrenal augs, hormone regulators, mental cloud computing. Problem of course, was finding programmers that weren’t also toeing the darkness.

And that was about to get a fuckuva lot harder. Lines had, and were, being drawn. The corps had fired first. Whether or not they wanted to admit it, they had. Even a so-called loyalist like Ozell knew it. There was no point denying it. Admitting it allowed one to plan for it.

So, he did.

Then, N1T3 released his images.

Ozell exhaled angrily, knowing he was once more being drawn toward the subject.

Every revelation from the hacker-world shocked people. Whether it tipped the scales into their favor was only ever a question of how depraved the act of provoking it was. That some pissant like Martin Black believed he had the right to rile such deep ire was a matter for another day. That Black believed his was the appropriate means for doing so angered something deep inside Ozell.

Something more than Human.

Ozell was dazed by thoughts as he suited up his ceramic-armored jacket and Guardian .40LX at his waist. He gripped his pistol and a HUD-reticle confirmed an active link. Ammunition and magazine counts appeared, linked via RFID to his HUD to give him total informational overview.

Just like all those hacker’s video-games, except he wasn’t afraid of live-fire. Living and dying by the sword meant nothing for an avatar or its owner. For him, it was day-to-day life.

He arrived at the outpost on time, as usual. The walk wasn’t far; just the edge of a former city-block beside Hyde Park. Guardian had bought the land, bulldozed about 200 years of middle-class history, and built grim, shit-colored concrete everywhere. They did their best to hide it, but a turd’s a turd.

Didn’t matter to anyone involved after the checks cashed.

Ozell found himself standing before the doors of the outpost, flicking his wrist to unlock the door with his badge: a fading remnant of the so-called digital world, Corps were already phasing out for paired HUD-comms and ID-frequencies, chained to them.

At the very least, Ozell figured, any possible “postdigital” reality would be more convenient. But that would happen anyhow. It was tech that did it. Not pissants like N1T3.

“The fuck kind’a stupid name is that anyway?” Ozell muttered, stepping through the door.

If his walk had been A Sunday Afternoon in the Park, the outpost was London amid the Blitz. It took a double-take– one where only his better senses kept him from drawing his sidearm. Then, he understood.

The main lobby, not meant for more than a few people at a time, was brimming with bodies. Sound and heat hit him like shock-waves, staggering him for the brief moment before for the crowd’s attention flocked to him.

Then, they pounced.

Like starving jackals on wounded prey, questions savaged him. Arms thrust phones, tablets, old-fashion digi-corders. It took him none of that half-second to regain his wits and understand exactly what had happened. He knew already; Llewellyn had fucked him.

Someone let all these fucking reporters in, knowing they wanted blood. Someone’s. Anyone’s. And only good blood would suffice– that from those above, always willing to risk those below but not themselves. So, it fell from Llewellyn’s cowardly-ass to Ozell’s unlucky one.

Worst of all, he’d handle it. They knew it he wouldn’t shove it off on another, unsuspecting sap. He had too much fucking honor. That, and because they knew he’d have the balls and skill to end it. Just like he ended those kids.

The Corp had known precisely what they were doing; Llewellyn, his “executive” ilk.

Ozell’s face slacked. Along with many other things, Ozell now had his own advantage. Fact was, in Peace-time, Executives ran things, but it was now War. No-one would admit it yet, but it was.

And War was Daniel Ozell’s specialty. Execs may have ordered the first shots fired, but Ozell, his ilk, were the ones that fired them. The show was his now. Whether they liked it or not.

Short Story: The Proverbial Hand-Grenade

Private First Class, Benjamin Harrison; named for America’s 23rd president that Ben’s father found an inexplicably queer fascination with. Why, no-one by the elder Harrison was sure. Even then, it was doubtful a sufficient explanation could be gleaned from the man’s meticulous, daily research and record-keeping of the long forgotten president. What is a matter of public-record however, is the intense sense of duty and honor in the young Private.

All through his life he was teased; from his rigid-postured, vegetable-eating youth, to his JROTC, fatigue-clad teenage years. Life wasn’t a living hell for Ben, at least not between the off-school hours. Otherwise, for his first decade of schooling he suffered the curious ire of his classmates that somehow formed insults from the half-historically honored words of “President-boy,” “Chief Harry-son,” and even “Army-man.”

Such is the crude humor and reckless abandon of youth that these insults, formed of prestigious titles, turned to weapons of psychological warfare. In their way, they were harmless to all, but Ben wasn’t everyone. He was a person; living, feeling, and with a sense of duty and honor that only made him feel worse when he’d decided to devote his life to protecting and serving his country. Unfortunately, grade-school and junior-high were made all the more intolerable by the occasional history course or class that focused on US presidents.

Each year, Ben’s father would dutifully speak to classes about former-president Harrison. As part of a locally-famed historic society, and due to his knowledge of the aforementioned, he was called in without fail to give small lectures each year. Generally occurring just after the winter break, it made Ben loathe the month of January even more than the normal boys whom were simply peeved at the return of scheduled classes.

Thankfully, most of that subsided in high-school. Joining JROTC gave Ben a sounding board of peers with whom he could sympathize. Having been groomed to follow in his father’s boots and join the service, finding others with a similar goal made life all the more bearable. But again the fickle nature of humans eroded much of his enthusiasm. Contrary to intuition, a boy clad in camouflage fatigues was easier to see in the halls of an American High-School than a sore thumb.

Ben and his JROTC-mates were often the targets of the vile underbelly of the school. Being six-foot tall, crew-cut, and peach-fuzzed didn’t help. He was already gangly, lean, and looked weak; perfect prey for the undesirables that even the ‘heads and jocks disliked. Fortunately for Ben, most of the bullying was done on a psychological level– that curious battle-field seemingly isolated to schools, distant war-zones, and clearance shoe-sales.

The only, minor incident that turned physical could not have come at a better time for Ben, nor ended more favorably. The bully, clearly insecure about his vertically-challenged stature, taunted and tormented for a week before he got physical. He’d cornered Ben and a pair of JROTC girls against a locker. The girls were the usual JROTC types; slightly more butch than the others, average-looking, and one more pudgy than the off-brand, preppy-girls that roamed the halls like packs of parental-wallet succubi. As a result, their confidence was less than stellar, their protests shot down with quick, monosyllabic insults masked as swears.

The aggression was met with a firm tongue, and more rigid posture than Ben had ever manifested. He made himself a target, threw himself on the proverbial hand-grenade to shield his friends from the explosion about to be unleashed.

Indeed, Ben’s quick quip back drew the bully’s attention. He spat a swear with a shove at Ben’s chest. Ben was more limber than he appeared, like a cobra raised up and ready to lunge. The second shove only connected to give Ben his opening. In a flurry of arms and the thrust of a fist, the boy flipped through the air. He landed on the ground, hands clutched at his throat, to gasp for air. Ben’s first girlfriend was the pudgier girl present that day. They lasted all through high-school, her hero and his love.

That proverbial self-sacrifice was repeated years later in a middle-eastern desert. On sweep-and-clear orders, PFC Ben Harrison and his unit came under heavy fire. Cornered inside a bombed-out brick building, laid out like a series of low-hurtles and half-walls around them, they exchanged fire with native insurgents. That day was hardly Ben’s first taste of war, but unfortunately, it would be his last in-country.

They spent over a thousand rounds, pinned down by surplus-Soviet AK fire. The irony that these bullets had been stockpiled to kill Americans during the Cold War was not lost on Ben so long as he thought about it. That day, he did. In fact, he thought about a lot of things; home, his first love, sex with her, beers, smokes…. Everything good and bad seemed to trickle on a steady IV drip through his body while Russian weapons sang songs of middle-eastern pride.

Even so, nothing could have prepared him for what came next. Biggs, the guy with the 249-SAW, was encamped just below a rise of destroyed brick and mortar. He had just enough room to roll to his right, sit upright, and slap the SAW around to reload its box-mag. By the time it finished screaming “Die Motherfucker Die!” Biggs was already sitting up to reload.

That’s when it happened. Even then Ben saw it in a play-by-play. He was holed up a few paces down from Biggs, in a piece of wall still tall enough to stand behind. He peered out, saw one of those assholes across the way had detached to rush along side a fuel truck in front of them. It was a stupid place to take cover in a fire-fight, even Ben knew that. One stray round, a spark; that was all it would take to ignite the fucker, blow it and everything in a few hundred feet sky-high– assholes included.

But this particular “insurgent” wasn’t thinking about that. Instead, he lobbed an old-war pineapple grenade through the air. Ben was already in motion when it landed beside his left foot. He dove through a hail of gun-fire, tackled Biggs further sideways. It wasn’t enough for the would-be savior.

To say he walked away from the war would be a misnomer. In truth, he was wheeled away. While the majority of his unit had survived largely unscathed– Biggs the victim of minor shrapnel and facial burns– Ben lost his legs. Both of them. His lower limbs had been torn, shredded to bloody-wet, fleshy nibs by the pineapple. Then, whatever was left had been char-broiled by the heat, the left-over bones pulverized by the shock-wave.

He left for war over six-foot tall, returned two shins and feet shorter. There was a purple heart that came by mail, a lot of doctor’s visits and surgeries, and eventually, some nimble prosthetics that– with therapy– allowed Ben to walk again. There was no welcome home ceremony, no parade, no politicians commending him for his service or sacrifice. Just his parents and extended family; the only ones to notice he’d left, returned, or the pain he’d endured.

One night, he walked into a gas station to buy a pack of cigarettes. He waited patiently in line, posture rigid as ever, behind a man that fidgeted and scratched like a meth-head. In his little town, this particular disease was becoming rampant. There were too many two-bit meth-makers living in trailers on rural land, brewing up cat-piss and chemicals. It had been hard enough to return home half a man, but returning home to this was worse.

It was no secret to any casual observer that this particular man was ready to crack. He needed a fix, would get it however he could. So, of course, he decided to hold up the gas station. And being the man he was, of course Ben dutifully kept his cool, waited for the man to turn away with an arm full of money. Ben stuck out a single arm that clothes-lined the man as he made to sprint. Then, he was on the ground from a hit to the throat, unable to breathe, money fluttering to the ground all around him.

Ben retrieved the gun and held it on him while the clerk called the police. His metal leg pinned the man to the ground as their eyes met.

“Ben?” The junkie asked through his balsam wood teeth, and pale, scabbed skin.

Ben stared at the man for a long moment. It took time, and a firm, prosthetic foot to stir the images in Ben’s mind. Before long he realized this wasn’t the first time he’d bested the man before him. Ricky was the same punk-kid he’d laid out all those years ago.

“You’re going to Jail, Ricky,” Ben finally said.

Clearly Ricky wasn’t right in his mind, too focused on the prosthetic that held him in place, “What happened to ‘yer legs, man?”

“War happened, Ricky,” Ben replied.

Ricky descended into a mental fit that concluded the conversation with incessant rambles, a mental state akin to psychosis. The police finally arrived to thank Ben for his quick thinking and service. A moment later, Ricky was escorted out to a cruiser as he wailed back at Ben.

“I’m sorry, Ben. Sorry for everything. Shouldn’t’ve…. shouldn’t’ve picked on you.” His head was shoved down, his body forced into the cruiser, “You’re the better man, Ben.” The door shut and he screamed through it, “You’re the better man!”

Ben watched the car roll away, Ricky still screaming that tell-all phrase. Ben had heard it all his life, been told it by everyone he knew; be the better man. When faced with bullies; be the better man. When angry or fuming; be the better man. When called to war; be the better man. When life shits on you; be. The. Better. man.

All his life he’d been the better man, lost friendships, love, even his legs ’cause of it. But something about watching his old bully, now turned to a fiend and junkie, being hauled away gave him perspective. If that mentally disturbed man could, in a moment of clarity, find peace in Ben’s betterness, the man himself had no excuse.

In a decisive moment, Ben turned away from the gas station to climb into his car. He didn’t care about smoking, killing himself slowly by the hit. Instead, he was ready to be finished proving himself– both to himself and the world– and start living. He’d thrown himself on the proverbial hand-grenade for the better of others, but was not ready to do it for himself. That needed to change.

He put his car in gear, and drove for home, chasing a setting sun and a better life.