Interceptor

part 1: foxtrot uniform charlie kilo

This April evening darkness came early. It was hardly past 5 pm and Newport City didn’t stand a chance. It was engulfed by a tidal wave of flickering electric light, mist and a gentle rain.

The big adds on the skyscrapers flared to life, bathing the windows in neon blue, bright green and crimson. The street lights flashed, blinked and faded away, only to restart in less than half a minute.

Oz moved through his nearly empty apartment without making light. Not that he would have needed light ever again… His new prosthetic eyes automatically switched to night vision, showing him his nearly empty apartment as shabby as it felt to him right now.

In the bedroom, he unrolled his sleeping bag, where his old bed used to be. A clean set of clothes waited for tomorrow morning. He sighed, unsure what to do next, he went to the window. His own reflection looked like it always did. No scars, no metal parts protruding from his skin, even his eyes looked like his old ones. Strix made sure, he kept his retinal pattern for security reasons. No one would notice he had prosthetics. Raindrops trickled down the window. Only inches away, one would notice that his pupils would whirr and turn, not contract. He tapped the glass twice and it went milky. Nothing out there for me. He said it out loud. His voice sounded distant and flat.

What now? Izanami asked.

Can I see you? A young woman blinked into existence. She stood at his right side, and wore a grey catsuit. She had her long light brown hair braided into a long ponytail, resting on her left collar bone. Her full lips smiled at him pleasantly.

He had selected her facial features before he had his implants, even before he had his personal AI.

That face was with him, since he was born. It was the face of his mother in her twenties. His distant memories and an old photo of her laughing, were the mold, for Izanami’s facial features and her emotional response. He had set her emo-hub to be a fun person, optimistic and humming away his favorite songs, when he felt sad. Izanami monitored his neurotransmitter levels and knew when he felt stressed. She hummed softly.

Is this projection a hologram?

No. Izanami smiled. What you see, is a construct. I’m inserting your projection of me into your visual data, just before entering your visual cortex. I use the communication hub between implants and neuronal tissue for that. Your high capacity interceptors are made for this task. Do you want to change my appearance?

You are saying… You’re a hallucination? Oz surprised himself with this realization.

Technically? Yes. She nodded happily, and walked over to his left side. Your gaze follows me through space, but I’m there. Izanami pointed vaguely over Oz’s left ear.

There was the AI’s CPU and memory unit implanted into petrous part of his temporal bone. The implants for the AI were only twice his thumbnail’s size. It has been a minor operation, half an hour, or so. He had earned himself a migraine though.

The Uplink implants have been a procedure of several weeks and some hours in surgery. He still got dizzy, when looking at repetitive patterns. There was a weird interference, he hadn’t manage to filter out.

You seem not to like the word hallucination. What about ghost? Do you like ghosts? Izanami asked concerned.

No. Hallucination it is. Let’s personalize your features, security first. I should have done this on our first day. Oz paced up and down his bedroom. Izanami remained stationary where she last stood.

Firewall? Browse, select, cancel? She asked in a mocking robotic voice.

Select high security encryption. Quantum key. Select super symmetrical dummy barriers, select voice command initialized autistic mode.

Selected. Are you expecting an army of hackers? She giggled.

Select visual notifications and warnings, when attacked. Visual and audio notification, if security breached.

Right, war it is. Ok, selected. What about override? Izanami nodded, produced a clipboard and started scribbling away with a yellow pencil. Oz stopped in his tracks. What are you doing?

Taking notes, darling. She cooed.

Then select override mode, if logically impaired… Say, when I’m unconscious, or sleeping, or if I have lower than 50 blood sugar level, or lower than 80 percent oxygen saturation in arterial blood, or when sedatives or poison is detected in blood stream. Supervision only in autistic mode. I won’t have you getting bugged.

Selected. Please confirm settings with master voice command. She nodded slightly, tucking away the pencil behind her right ear.

A knock at the door interrupted. Who is it?

It’s Marcus. Izanami said. He’s alone and brought you beer. Oz walked towards the door. Go to sleep Izanami, we’ll continue tomorrow. Wake me up at 7:30 am. The woman blinked out of existence.

Open up! You think, I let you slip away that easily? The muffled voice belonged to his friend.

Oz swore under his breath. He didn’t need accommodation. Marcus… Dammit. He opened the door and there stood a tall, beefy young man with dark hair. Marcus being over six feet tall, occupied the whole doorway. His dark cat-like eyes gleamed with mischief, he smirked and pushed inside.

Man, Oz… Are you on a Zen trip, now? He whistled, and flicked on the light switch with his elbow. He thrusted two of the four six-packs into Oz’s arm. I brought beer. But I got a head start, so yo need to catch up. He winked at Oz.

Why are you here, Marcus? I don’t need a party. I don’t need your… Oz sighed, shoulders slumping. He knew Marcus stuck like chewing gum to a shoe sole, if he wanted to, and now he very clearly wanted to.

Oh come on, Oz. You got your papers… So, what? You’ve been banned, not thrown into jail. Lighten up! The world isn’t ending. Oz barked a bitter laugh. Marcus turned around and eyed him suspiciously. Are you moving? Where to? Can I help?

-No. Oz put the beer on a box near the living room door. He crossed his arms before his chest. Izanami and I can manage.

You’re the dumbest smart person I know. I’ll sign you up for the Dummy Olympics…

Am I? You know where the door is. Oz puffed annoyed and pointed towards the door.

It‘s not good to stew in your own juice. I told you, and the AI you’re so fond of cannot… Marcus breathed. I want to help. He smiled and held two six-packs up. That’s the start.

Oz wasn’t having any of that. I don’t need your help!

Yes, you do. Your dad made a scene, and you’re hurt. I understand.No, YOU DON’T! Oz shouted, his fists clenched into white balls of sinew and bone.

Man, chill. It’s been two months already. You’ve licked your wounds. Come off of it… Marcus spoke, as if to a rabid animal. Look, I got good news. You remember Professor Henriksen, pharmacology in second year? I showed him your work, and he liked it. He wants you to be his assistant. The job isn’t payed well. I know! But it’s a start. Oz looked at his toes. What do you say? Monday’s your first day! This was going to be painful.

We can share my lab. Marcus flashed his biggest smile and looked most pleased with himself. He turned around to put the beer unto the kitchen counter and got a glimpse of the letter laying there.

The temperature in the room dropped. He grabbed the paper and spun around. His face was the face of a deadly wounded. What’s this? Marcus’ voice trembled. Oz? The skin on his cheeks was ashen, eyes wide and watering.

Oz was caught by surprise, stammered. None … None of your business… The suicide note for his father would be hard to explain.

What the hell!? Marcus closed the distance between them in a blink. Oz backed away from the sudden notion, against the wall. His friend loomed over him, like an avalanche speeding down a mountain side, towards a box with puppies.

What were you planning? Oz turned his face away. TELL ME! He couldn’t stand those accusing dark eyes. The reaction wasn’t what he expected. He could feel Marcus’ beer-breath on his jaw. Is this what you want? He got pinned by his shoulders to the wall. Say something… The grip was strong. Anything… Marcus’s fingers dug into his tee and the skin beneath. It hurt. Oz bit his lips, tasted blood. He was disappointing again.

You want to die? Marcus voice broke. You really want to die? He took his left hand from the shoulder and pushed his forearm hard unto Oz’s windpipe. The bony part connected with his Adam’s apple. A surprised grunt escaped Oz’s mouth, with shock his eyes darted back to Marcus’.

You think you got it bad? Huh? You think you’re the only one suffering? You think you’re the only one struggling, from day to day? Marcus’ face was now white, distorted with rage. Oz tried to push the arm away from his throat, which made Marcus lean unto him harder. TELL ME! Marcus screamed.

He leaned on Oz with his whole weight now. The piercing pain in his throat clawed at him. It felt like glass shards being slowly pushed under his skin. His tongue felt raw, working against his teeth. You never worked hard for anything in your life! Everything was given to you, you little shit. At your first failure you toss it all aside, as if it was a filthy broke toy. And now you throw away your life too! You have no right to!

Marcus…Oz choked. No. Marcus’ eyes burned with hate. …Stop. He wheezed. Air refused to leave his lungs. The blood in his ears sang to the rapid thumps in his chest. Please. He kicked Marcus, but it went unnoticed. He reached out for his eyes, but his arms were too short, only touched his cheeks. He couldn’t swallow the saliva in his mouth anymore. The pressure at his temples blurred his vision. Iza-namiii… He had to do something. Fast.

…Your eyes! Marcus backed away suddenly, as if bitten by a snake. Tears ran down his cheeks.

Oz fell to his knees in a coughing fit. Before his eyes, the room blackened. He held his throat, sucking in greedily air, choking on it. Marcus looked at his hands, as if they were bloody.

The entrance door exploded.

Three men stormed in. Their guns stormed in too. Their movements looked to Oz like a black blur with six feet, stepping between him and his friend. Oz breathed. Each of them wore an undercut, black jumpsuits, bulletproof wests. Sort of military, Oz thought. They trained their guns at Marcus, who slowly raised his hands. Two of the men had weird looking semi-automatic rifles. The oldest of them had only a handgun. “Are you all right, Dr Wellington?” He squatted down near Oz, touching his shoulder.

Oz sat up, and croaked. Who the hell are you, people?

The man raised an eyebrow. “You’re welcome.”

What’s going on? Marcus didn’t dare to peel his gaze from the guns.

Sir? One of the men nearest to Marcus asked. “Cuffs.” The man barked back.

Oz stared in disbelief as Marcus got yanked around, hands slapped behind his back and zipped. He stood up supporting himself by the wall.

“Do you wish to press charges?” Oz shook his head. “Your call.” The man shrugged. “We got you a room in HQ. Lets go.”

Wait. Lemme say … something. Marcus begged. The man at his wrists looked quizzically at the oldest. “You’re a mistake away from another hole in your head.” The man said in a businesslike tone, and nodded .

You never understood, did you? I dropped so many hints. All the time we’ve been together, I thought… I really thought you knew. Marcus was close now. Oz furrowed his brows, not understanding.

Suddenly Marcus leaned forward, planted a kiss on Oz’s lips. He got yanked back hard. With a snort, the man handling him, dragged him out of the apartment. Oz glared after them in shock.

“That’s that. Where’s your stuff?” The man in command asked. Oz swallowed and looked at the man’s hard face, he noticed a long scar on his cheek.

Are you military? The man sighed and went looking for the bags. He found them right away in the bedroom.

“You got your papers, doc?” He shouldered one, and held the second out for Oz to take. He looked him up and down as he failed to take it. He shrugged and started downstairs. “Send in a cleaning crew.” He said.

Yes, sir! A male voice answered from nowhere.

Oz stood in his doorway wondering what to do next. Looking back at his apartment, with the busted door, he wouldn’t be able to sleep in it. Besides, a cleaning crew was on its way, whatever that meant. He followed the men downstairs. Behind him he heard steps. Several somebodies moved.

Outside a black SUV waited with its tinted windows. The wet concrete reflected the adds on the other side of the street. It drizzled. Oz hugged himself, his tee was damp and cold. As he approached, another car pulled slowly up. The man, who had his bags, pointed to it. “That’s yours. We take this one, with Mr Sampson.”

Marcus? Oz asked. The man nodded. What is going to happen to him? The man just smiled mildly. He’s my best friend.

“You should choose your friends more wisely. Try to pick those, who aren’t trying to kill you.” The man winked at him, got into the car, and they sped off, into the night.

The car meant for him halted, and the door opened. Inside, a young woman smiled at him brightly. Dr. Wellington! So nice to meet you in person. Please get in.

Oz looked around, the street was deserted, his apartment building had some lit windows. Th sky above him wept gently. No one was looking out for him. He searched for his windows, and found them smashed.

Nothing there for you anymore… The woman sighed. Get in. It’s cold.

But! Those weren’t broken before. Oz got in obediently, and buckled up. He shivered violently. The woman started the engine and merged into the occasional traffic.

That’s because you died in there. The road she took led to downtown. I-what?

Everyone looks back one final time. It’s normal. She extended her right holding a flask. Here, have some. Whisky.

Died? Oz reached out, smelled and took a gulp. The liquid tasted like extinguished fire and smoke. It burned down his throat, and he couldn’t suppress a cough. It still hurt- I…died?

-Yeah, you really scared me back there. This friend of yours, did he ever… You know? The woman tried. She glanced at him and made a sympathetic noise.

Oz wondered. Why wasn’t Izanami activating? He swallowed audibly. The whisky warmed his guts and he felt a bit better. A question dawned on him. How did these military guys know, he was in trouble? Was he bugged? Was his apartment bugged? How did they listen in? How … did you exactly know?

That’s a good question. She nodded. I’m not allowed to tell you. She said and pointed to the space between her eyes. Maybe you’ll figure out, by yourself. She winked at him too.

The winking was what made Oz lose it. He was sick of being winked at. What THE ACTUAL FUCK! HOW? WHY? IZANAMI WAKE UP!

No use, she got remotely disabled. Bound and gagged. So she wouldn’t call the police. They would have arrived too late, anyway. Luckily a bunch of smart and able guys were in your vicinity. All five, really cute too.

Five?! Oz remembered hearing steps, and a disembodied voice. I only saw… He trailed off, thinking.

Maybe they used the same trick Izanami used. But instead of inserting, the masked themselves, or deleted themselves from his visual data… Before entering visual cortex… Fucking interceptors…

Oh, Dr Wellington. They told me you’re smart. Say, what are you doing tomorrow? Got time for coffee with me?

foxtrot uniform charlie kilo

F***. I’ll miss you. Oz mumbled around his mouthful of Al-Capone Pizza. He wiped the grease from his mouth with his sleeve. He toasted to the city with the rest of the slice in his hand. …Maybe.

He has been on the roof all evening, to watch his last sunset. He let Izanami record all his visual input. Every bit of visual and sensorial memory was important. He was going to be home-sick, he supposed. Everyone was, at least, that was, what they had told him.

Why so serious? Isn’t this what you wanted? Izanami whispered into his ear from his new Uplink implant. He still had to get used to the vision tracking commands, so he wouldn’t zoom in on a passing bottle fly, or falling pigeon poop. If he wanted, he could count the hairs on a mosquito leg, but who would want that?

The orange evening sky withered to an inky brown. In the upper right corner of his field of vision the spectral analysis went berserk. The readout faded, as he failed to focus upon them.

A heavy drone buzzed overhead. It looked like an oversized, robotic amazon-yellow bumblebee. The zoom kicked in. It had 2501 written on its dented body. It was one of those new hub-controlled drones. It hovered briefly over the rooftop of his apartment building, beeped twice, then flew off. Oz sneered. Delivery bumble bee. Data from his new prosthetic eyes pushed into his consciousness. Wind speed. Drone velocity. Hull type. IP-Address.

I booked you unto the 5:50 and the 8:20 flight. Izanami interrupted the flow of information. Also, Strix Genome United sent an urgent request. They need your specs. What should I answer?

Oz scrunched his face into a sceptic grimace. What for?

Dummy, a spaceship needs a life doctor. He swore, he could sense her rolling her virtual eyes. Your hibernation tank. Izanami sighed.

Alright, alright. Send what they need. Oz shrugged. Strix could become a real nuisance…

His contract with them was top secret. They had hired him right after his dishonorable dismissal from Newport Medical University. They took him in like a kicked dog… His experiments with hibernation had failed horribly. The Ethic Committee had made a point in banning him from being a doctor, for a lifetime.

He swallowed hard. He never imagined how it would hurt, to disappoint. The pain, the disgust in his fathers expression killed Oz. The young offspring of a rich family – all famous doctors – sucked at being brilliant, even sucked at being morally immaculate. He would never be able to work as a physician, not on Earth. He never seen his father so upset, not even after his mother died…

The saliva in his mouth turned to acid. It was cold. He wiggled his toes, but the flip-flops did nothing to warm his feet. It was still April, he had to remind himself.

But they offered the kicked dog a ridiculous amount of money… There had to be a catch, he just couldn’t find it. Yet. There had been nothing else to choose.

What if, Strix took everything back, when he vanished? It wasn’t that hard to get a death certificate without a body. What if, they tried to make him vanish after those five years? Wasn’t it probable, that they were behind his hearing, leaving him damaged goods? Possible. He had to be most careful. Izanami, observe all CCT footage around my flat.

Noooooo one hears youuuu scream in spaaaaaace. Izanami prompted with a spooky singsong. That’s because there is no air. He answered.

Behind his earlobe, his implant vibrated with an incoming call. It’s Marcus. Izanami chirped.

He shook his head and she let the call go through to voice mail. Oz hated to be summoned, even to his own „surprise” farewell-party. Whatever Marcus had in mind, it won’t happen. What a shame! Missed that one too. He breathed. It smelled of wet dirt. Rain was coming.

The crate under Oz creaked while he craned his neck after the drone trying to land a block away.

In the lower left corner of his visual field flashed a new message. He blinked twice to open it. Oh come on, you pussy! Pick up. Marcus.

Marcus was what came closest to a best friend. No can do, not even for you, Marcus. A gust of wind tore at his tee. He lit his last cigarette, and inhaled as deeply as he could. He stood and looked over downtown gleaming, not noticing his last night on Earth.

The streets were full with cars, police and ambulance sirens. The taillights and the streetlights seemed to merge to arteries of light, feeding the heart of the city. Oz filled his lungs with dark smoke and damp night air. One star winked at him, then vanished behind thick grey clouds. He was leaving the continent. He dragged in another lungful smoky doubt and shivered uncontrollably.

Time to tidy up, Izanami. The voice command activated a hidden task he programmed earlier, so Izanami would initiate a tiny program in her subroutines and neglect it right away. The blessings of reversed modeling logic worked on every AI, as well as on his personal one. The skin on his nape burned. The feeling of being watched was overwhelming. He flipped the cigarette butt over the edge of the building. He was leaving the planet.

The advance money from Strix sitting in his account went bye-bye. It arrived back, after a brief visit in Switzerland and Cayman Islands. The program moved and shuffled the little zeroes to the music of a quantum key encryption. Even when his account and all his data movements have been flagged, no one could link him to the bits and bites without the key. And the electrons of virtual money circled around him, and his alter ego. Mr Wong was going to be a wealthy, retired and a very happy man. Oz was leaving the inner solar system.

His feet carried him down the staircase, to his apartment. 42. It  was nearly empty, his bags were packed. Izanami hummed softly Babylon Feeling to him. My heart is broke, my will is gone. The lyrics pounced on him, like a lion on a gnu. He felt a heavy thump in his chest, somewhere deep down, where he kept his feverish nightmares.

Everything he possessed was stored away in cardboard boxes. The storage space was paid for five years in advance. It was a long time. Just forget about me… Oz hummed to himself.

On the kitchen counter was a half finished letter. He glanced at it. His nails dug into the flesh of his palms, his clenched fists wanted to crush something.

It was a suicide note to his father.

To leave his old life behind, he needed to die – metaphorically, of course. He had pointed this out to Izanami, as she tried to call the suicide hotline for him. It seemed theatrical, even pathetic. The Strix people were explicit about this part. No one was allowed to know where he went, and for how long. The best would be, he wrote suicide notes to everyone he loved, and just vanish from their lives. His profiling psychologist predicted this, to be his most credible reaction to failure. A knee-jerk reaction, attempting suicide, even if pretended.

Oz thought of the experimental gear he was going to get to work with. He thought of the money, the carefree life he was going to have. What am I getting myself into?

I don’t know, boss. Izanami sighed.

 

-part 2: Interceptor