On Guard

Posted: November 12, 2011 in Single-run ("One off") Stories
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He studied the man in the mirror and found him wanting.

Pathetic. Clueless. Lost.

A situation made all the more poignant by the fact the man in the mirror was himself.

Oscar “Ozzie” Banner pursed his lips, squared his shoulders and then adjusted his dark tie. He tucked in the loose portion of his light blue polyester shirt into the front of his pants. Then straightened his navy blue coat and rubbed out a slight smudge on his badge.

Another day of serving and protecting the hundreds and sometimes thousands of people who passed through his jurisdiction.

Another pointless, soul-crushing day that might very well be his last.

Especially if the executive director of the museum laid off any more “old timers” like himself in favor of those damned transhumans.

* * *

“It’s not fair; it just isn’t,” Ozzie muttered at lunch in the underground food court of the New Judah Museum of Anthropological and Contemporary Art—whatever else he might hate about the place, at least he had a choice of four different cuisines on those days he decided not to bring his own.

“Fair? It isn’t even legal,” responded Angie LaCrosse, who was the next-oldest security guard after Ozzie and similarly stuck in a low-ranking role while most of the guards who’d been serving half as long or less had progressed to mid-level or supervisory roles. “It’s discrimination. They aren’t supposed to hire on the basis of genetics, but look—nearly half of the guards here are transhumans, and transhumans are maybe one out of ten folks of the population, right?”

Speaking through a mouth full of spicy felafel—the doctor had told him to lay off the meat and eggs a couple years ago and he mostly listened—Ozzie corrected her. “A little over half of the guards are transhuman now. But what the hell can we do? Management will just say they’re hiring based on qualifications. They’ve been thinning the ranks of us norms by firing us over bullcrap, and they hardly ever write up any of the damn mutant shits unless they’re being insubordinate or something.”

“Should have moved to bank security or even mall security before the economy tanked,” came Angie’s rueful reply. “Or for that matter, when we first saw they were favoring transhumans and before all the other people who got laid off from museums and jewelry stores starting snatching up those other security gigs.”

“What’s the point?” Ozzie said. “You think the banks or malls are gonna be any safer for job security?”

“Yeah,” Angie said. “I do. We have precious art here at MACA that can be sold on the global market for millions in some cases, even without the really old, famous pieces of European art like the Institute of Art has. Banks deal with money and can always make better vaults or automated systems the keep the amount of cash that’s in the open low, and it’s cheaper than loading up on trans guards. Our shit has to be in the open and accessible to the public. Jewelry stores have a similar problem as us—they need to display their stuff. Malls aren’t attractive enough for a transhuman to commit a crime—not enough payoff, too many people all around, yada-yada.”

“Well, too late even if you’re right. We’re getting old and since they were willing to take pay cuts in so many cases to get work, the best norm security folks are already in the banks and malls—or the warehouses for that matter. No chance for old-timers like you and me. We’ll be lucky if we can get jobs cleaning up the city parks.”

“We just gotta work harder to make sure we don’t get cut,” Angie noted. “They have to keep enough norms around to keep the equal opportunity employment folks off their necks. I know we’re going nowhere salary-wise here, but we are still here. I know the trans folks kinda talk shit about us and aren’t all that friendly to us norms, but at least we have jobs. We just need to not lose ’em.”

“Maybe we’ll be able to catch a shift together and foil some dangerous transhuman together like Kev did a few months ago,” Ozzie said, ending his words with a sigh. “Certainly did wonders for him at review time.”

“Yeah, keep living in Fantasy Land, Ozzie,” she snorted.

* * *

Their conversation in the food court some seven weeks earlier was still fresh enough in his mind that Ozzie felt positively prescient now.

Normal protocol was to see if an intruder could be contained within eight minutes from the point they were identified by visual or electronic means. If not, someone called the police, whose response time was between three and five minutes. The idea was that, ideally, the museum’s security detail could apprehend the intruder with little or no damage to the museum’s exhibits.

It made sense. The museum gave them plenty of training average security guards didn’t receive, and they knew the facility better than the police did. But at the same time, they couldn’t expect to handle every bit of trouble on their own.

So, there was a 10- to 12-minute window. Normally.

They were almost eight minutes into that window, and no one would be calling the police, as all the electronic systems had been compromised—the computers that controlled the cameras, motion detectors and even the museum’s telephone system—were all stubbornly refusing to heed Ozzie, Angie or Kevin—or the other two members of the night shift.

Our intruder is a Cyber at the very least, and a good one, Ozzie fretted as he and Angie moved through the semi-darkened halls of the museum, heading toward the intruder’s last-known position. On the bright side, we still have our radios to communicate with each other.

The intruder had been smart enough to direct the museum’s computer system to generate a ton of interference on cellphone bands, so the guards couldn’t call the police from their smart phones, but the museum still used the more old-style two-way radios for communications within the facility.

The intruder either didn’t know that, or didn’t know what frequencies to disrupt for those—or how to disrupt them.

As soon as the five members of the security detail on duty had realized that, someone had suggested going outside to get out of the interference zone and call the cops, but Kevin had nixed that idea. He was a junior supervisor and without a security head around, he was in charge.

His rationale was that there were only five of them on duty. Two people would need to be in place to intercept the intruder if he or she tried to head to either the front or back entrances, and being outside would be the poorest vantage point from which to watch out for such an escape.

That leaves three of us, Ozzie considered, and Kev insisted that me and Angie need to try to flush the intruder out and take him down—or her—while he coordinates us and stays in a central spot to watch in case the perp slips past us.

There was a little thrill in the notion of him and Angie being on their own and not having the police barge in, but it was a gamble. If it paid off, they’d all look good. Kevin would come out smelling the sweetest if this worked, because he was running the show. But, Ozzie realized, he and Angie would reap some huge rewards, too, for being the ones to actually capture a transhuman perp.

That would be something, Ozzie thought. Kev is transhuman, with Charm and Sensor powers. One of the guys watching for an escape attempt is a strong Reflector and weak Attractor. Me and Angie are just two norms who can prove we still have what it takes.

* * *

As Kevin had guessed—possibly aided by his Charm powers but certainly armed as well with a thorough knowledge of the value of their current exhibits—the perp’s target was the visiting collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts. The exhibit was exclusive to MACA, and Ozzie half-suspected that the director of the museum had brought along a transhuman with some Psi or Primal powers for the negotiations with the Egyptians—it wasn’t like them to let previously undisplayed treasures like this out of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

The guy was working fast to collect artifacts. He probably figured all the security people were flying blind right now but he didn’t want to waste time. So, Ozzie and Angie managed to sneak into a good position. If both of them took aim with their taser guns, at least one of them should nail him and take him down, Ozzie figured, and he made a couple quick hand motions to indicate that to Angie.

She nodded, but then a strange look crossed her face. For a split-second, she looked confused—perhaps even a little panicked. Then, suddenly, she was vaulting from behind their cover, drawing full attention to herself as she charged the transhuman thief.

Two things happened at once, only one of which surprised Ozzie.

The thief pulled out a gun with frightening speed, confirming Ozzie’s assumption that, thanks to Murphy’s Law, the guy would probably have something more than just Cyber powers. He was probably some kind of Speedster or Agile—maybe a little of both.

The second thing was that even as he realized he should provide Angie with covering fire from his 9mm pistol or take a shot with the taser, Ozzie did nothing at all. He knew he needed to—in fact, he wanted to—but as much as his higher brain functions screamed to act, something more basic and primal held him back.

There was the dull, harsh sound of the thief’s pistol popping off a single round that caught Angie perfectly just above her sternum at the base of the throat—just above the edge of the protection her vest would have provided from a shot by any other random gun-wielding jackass. The bullet came out from between her shoulder blades with a splash of crimson.

Then, just as suddenly as Angie had freaked, Ozzie had frozen and the thief had fired, Kevin appeared from the shadows and fired off one shot from his taser pistol. The perp went rigid, shook, and dropped to the ground.

At the same time, Ozzie felt the awful compulsion for inaction leave him, and rushed to Angie’s side.

* * *

The feeling of success and triumph had a bitter aftertaste for Kevin Lewis. Angie was in critical condition and on her way to the hospital. That shouldn’t have happened. Advancing his reputation so he could nail a more senior spot in MACA’s security department wasn’t supposed to have come at such a high cost.

Still, how could I have known the bastard would have such unnatural shooting skills? He knew they had vests and aimed his shot to avoid the body armor, Kevin considered. A headshot would have been easier, but maybe the intention had been to possibly avoid murdering a guard—or maybe he was just a show-off.

In any case, it meant Angie might die. All Kevin had wanted was to distract the perp and discredit Ozzie and possibly Angie, so he could save the day. Easy enough with the Primal powers he kept secret—his ability to affect fight-or-flight instincts. The plan had been simple: Send Angie into an unreasoning urge to attack the perp and make Ozzie look like a coward—or at least indecisive—by keeping him from intervening.

Controlling two people like that is hard enough; there was no way I could have made the perp cower too, though it would have made it easier and safer for me if I had. There’s nothing more I could have done, and by not being able to affect the perp that put me at risk, too, right? So it’s not like I wasn’t in harm’s way, too.

It was going to suck if Angie died or ended up with some spinal injury, but the small comfort that it couldn’t be traced to him gave Kevin some measure of mental and emotional balance.

Until Ozzie had caught his eyes.

And Kevin saw.

Saw the calculation and consideration in the older security guard’s eyes. Ozzie must have been trying to figure out why Angie would rush the perp, and why he couldn’t bring himself to back her up. He’d realized that it likely wouldn’t have been the thief, because the thief wouldn’t have known they were there.

And if he had, why would he incite rage in one of his opponents?

Ozzie knew.

Suspected, at least.

There’s a good chance no one would believe him even if he shares his theory, Kevin considered. On the other hand, someone might listen rather than think he was just trying to cover his own ass with some lame excuse about being mentally influenced by a transhuman co-worker.

Kevin groaned inwardly, not having expected Ozzie to figure things out and realize an outside influence was at work. He’d underestimated the man’s intelligence.

So while the police were questioning Ozzie, Kevin made his way over to MACA’s security director, who had arrived minutes earlier to assess the situation and deal with the police. Kevin told him that Ozzie’s freeze-up was a matter of serious concern and that maybe his weekend shifts should be cancelled and the man suspended from duty until the top brass at MACA could talk on Monday during normal business hours and sort out what to do—then bring Ozzie back early or mid-week to discuss his fate as an employee of the museum.

The director agreed—it wasn’t as if he wanted to lose his weekend dealing with any more shit—and Kevin could now sigh inwardly with relief instead of silently groaning.

Time. What I need is time. And now I have it.

* * *

Ozzie had benefited and suffered from the past day or so. Suffered because he was on suspension and in limbo, with no idea what was going to happen. On the other hand, he’d had time to sort things out, and no matter how hard he tried, nothing made sense except that Kev had been behind things somehow. He probably hadn’t orchestrated the theft, but he’d planned to be crowned the hero for thwarting it, and now Ozzie wondered if the man’s thwarting of that other transhuman months earlier had also been rigged to make him look better—after all, his partner that night had reportedly hesitated when things got hot and heavy.

At least in that case, the guard who was with Kev didn’t end up getting hurt or being made to look all bad, Ozzie fumed. But then again, all he’d needed to do then was use his powers to make the perp hesitate. He must want Angie or me or both of us off the staff. Get rid of the senior folks who might get in the way of his aspirations later.

Ozzie couldn’t imagine for the life of him what kind of problems he or Angie would have caused Kevin, who was already ahead of them on the career track, but people who cheat and steal weren’t any smarter than the average person—and sometimes stupider—so it was probably just ignorance and paranoia at work, he assumed.

Unfortunately, he noted mentally, Kevin’s misguided plans might cost Angie her life, and Ozzie his job.

But I’m going to let everyone know what I suspect. Even if I lose my job, I’ll make sure Kev is undermined if not fired himself.

Sighing, Ozzie came to a halt at the street corner, and pushed the crosswalk button, wishing he were at the diner already enjoying a fried pork chop—fuck “doctor’s orders.” He could do nothing until Monday at the earliest, and maybe Tuesday or Wednesday. He looked up at the half-cloudy skies and tried to find symbolic hope up there that the weather could turn either way with regard to his job—he wasn’t doomed yet.

And then he surged forward into the street.

For a split-second, Ozzie had the confused sensation that he had to run from some threat—with no apparent threat anywhere—and then there was just his life slamming into a wall that scattered all coherent thought to the four winds.

Later, he’d discover that it was actually a Hyundai slamming into him and his body tumbling end over end across the windshield, then the roof, then the trunk. Finally, the asphalt of the street and blackness in his head darker than the street itself.

* * *

“Man, you look like shit,” Kevin said, tying a “Get Well” balloon to one of the chairs in the hospital room. “But I hear that you’re doing pretty well, the broken hip and a few bruises aside. Angie’s doing good now. Probably need to take an early retirement package, though—maybe some light disability benefits. Some minor voice damage and some neurological thing in her right arm—a tingle or weakness or something. Sorry to hear about your suspension, by the way.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you are,” Ozzie grumbled. “I’ll be back to work soon, though. Don’t you worry.”

“I don’t know, man,” Kevin responded. “You might just want to take a severance package and take your chances out in the work-hunting world.”

“Why do you think that?” Ozzie said, smirking.

“Because if you don’t take that route, your guilt over freezing up at the museum may cause you to walk out in front of a speeding bus next time instead of a little car.”

Ozzie’s self-satisfied smile vanished. Kevin remained silent, looking hard at the man in the hospital bed.

To be honest, I don’t know if I could do that, Kevin considered, since it was hard enough to bring myself to put you in front of a relatively slow-moving car. Then again, it’s a shitty job market and if it comes down to you or my wife and kids…

“You made me cross…in front…” Ozzie muttered. “Oh, God.”

“Nothing personal, but you’re a stubborn old dude…”

“You,” Ozzie began, his voice gaining force. “You nig—”

“Hey!” Kevin cut him off, one finger pointed at him like the barrel of the gun that had taken down Angie. “Don’t make this a racial thing. Don’t. Once upon a time, in your dad’s time and your grand-dad’s, it was white privilege. Now it ain’t about skin color as much. It’s about something more real and meaningful: genes. My genes are better than your genes. You’re old and you’re not trans. That’s a combo that makes you obsolete.”

“You’re just gonna fuck me over?”

“Look, life is hard. Sorry that you get to be the coward in this story, but you do. Look on the bright side. Angie may look like she made a rash move, but she still gets credit for helping to take down the perp, so they’ll treat her right as they push her out. Plus, her injury was work-related, so worker’s comp’s got her hospital bills covered. She’ll come out right as rain in the end.”

“And because I look suicidal or stupid, I get to pay out of pocket, and I end up fired. Sweet, Kev. That’s real nice of you.”

Kevin looked away and frowned—almost seemed to wince. Then looked Ozzie in the eyes again and shrugged.

“Ozzie, it’s a rough world out there, and we gotta look out for ourselves and our families,” Kevin said as he walked toward the door and turned his back on the older man. “It’s evolution, and you’re on the losing side.”

At the door, Kevin paused and looked back at Ozzie one last time. “Survival of the fittest, man. Survival of the fittest.”

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