The coffee on Ganymede sucked. Sure, it was hard to find a decent bistro on the entire planet--it was impossible to grow the stuff anywhere near Jupiter--but import regulations had to stop somewhere. Didn't the bureaucratic assholes on Earth, who probably depended on coffee more than most in the solar system, have any sense of tact when it came to interplanetary trade? The husky sitting in the corner booth of La Prima Tazza had his doubts. He took another sip, gingerly, pinky out like the well-raised man he had become, and grimaced at the bitter diluted flavor. It wasn't worth staining his teeth over, and he pushed it away.
Most of the other patrons in this particularly fresh-looking bistro in the center of Desiderio were busy with their own lives, sipping their crude drink and generally enjoying the year-round tropical climate of Ganymede, the last of Jupiter's moons to be colonized. An experiment in artificial atmospheric duplication, the entire planet had been turned into the solar system's prime vacation spot; its economy was built solely upon tourism and the word-of-muzzle it produced. Vaughn Killeen watched them with mismatched eyes, wondering if they knew how much their happiness depended upon him. And he couldn't even get a decent cup of joe.
Being invisibly prominent had its advantages, and that's what the husky preferred.
Vaughn had chosen this far obscure corner, away from noise and prying eyes, deliberately. He wore clothing that was comfortable and casual while being trendy at the same time. His ensemble fit perfectly with the upscale clientele of Ganymede without standing out: baby-blue silk shirt under navy blazer, white pants, no shoes, no tie: loungewear to the elite. Tapping a claw along the rim of the saucer which held the coffee cup in front of him, the husky scanned the crowd with subdued impatience. It was certainly like McKay to be fashionably late, but this was pushing it, even for him.
His phone rang. Vaughn tapped the side of his head just forward of his left ear, where the implant was located, and answered, "This is Killeen."
A perfectly clear, smooth voice invaded the husky's head. "Hello, Vaughn."
"You're late," Vaughn replied in soft tones. The microphone in his larynx would have picked it up even if he'd whispered it, so there was no need for loud conversation. "I dislike tardiness. I have a full afternoon planned, and I'd rather not spend it drinking bad coffee in a tourist trap."
The smile was palpable even through the airwaves. "Don't you go spreading trash about my home planet, now. I may not like it either, but I was born here. Call it nostalgic weakness."
McKay was toying with him, and Vaughn did not like it. In a matter of seconds their conversation had put his mood into a deeper funk than it already had been. He truly did not have time to waste on cordialities with the mercenary.
"Could you please cut the crap and tell me where you are? My patience is running dangerously thin."
"I see where you're going, man. You threatening me to pull out of our deal? Because I happen to know a certain wolfdog who is at the end of his rope trying to solve a problem, and a certain ringtail who is the only person who can solve said problem. We're both gentlemen, and we both want to make money, so just hold your horses." Now it was McKay's turn to sound impatient, even a little hurt. The husky didn't wholly believe that.
Vaughn elected to back off and let the solution to his corporate troubles come at his own pace. Sighing, he said, "Where are you?"
As he did so, the husky had already expected to see McKay in the doorway, yet it startled him a bit nonetheless. Standing just inside the bistro, paws in the pockets of a gigantic black trench coat was the most incongruous ringtail he had ever seen, in body and attitude. A complete contradiction to the rest of his species, McKay stood a good 184 centimeters in height, with a very sculpted look about him even under the heavy clothing he was wearing. Tank top, camouflage cargo pants, heavy combat boots and a black trenchcoat to top it all off, the man who went by only a surname was not the unassuming nerdy person the husky had been expecting. The ringtail walked with confidence, paying no attention to those around him, in a straight line to Vaughn's table. He took a chair, twisted it around the wrong way, and sat with his head in his paws. Smiling. Coldly.
Vaughn regained himself quickly enough. He attempted a pawshake but was waved away.
"Spare me the pleasantries, Killeen. I don't need diplomacy to complete a task." The words blended in stereo from the ringtail and from inside his head and Vaughn shut his phone off with a gentle tap to the ear. McKay did the same with a small twist of his neck. His phone must have been integrated, which didn't surprise Vaughn in the least, given the ringtail's résumé and background. The mercenary's comment should have offended the husky, but in fact it pleased him to see such a straightforward person held the key to his business's success.
"Introductions aside," the husky said in smooth, lilting diction, "I appreciate your bold honesty. Your reputation precedes you. I have the utmost confidence we'll be able to come to some agreement this afternoon." The husky was merely posing for now; both men knew an agreement had already been reached, and only a price and method of execution were to be decided upon. As the ringtail watched, Vaughn rummaged through his jacket pockets and brought out a disc just slightly larger than a coaster. The outer edge of the disc contained various ports and plugs, and a few buttons. The husky set it on the table and pressed a green button. In seconds a semi-opaque holographic display and keyboard were floating at eye-level between the two men. The keyboard Vaughn disabled in favor of manipulating the display with his fingertips; it was much easier with his familiarity of the system. McKay looked on with mildly-disguised interest and curiosity, his head on his clasped paws.
At last the husky had found the file he was looking for, and turned the computer to face the wall. No one was actually looking at them with more than a passing glance, but there was no such thing as privacy in a position like Vaughn's. Still, anyone who could read backwards would be able to see what they were seeing.
"We gonna get on with this, curly-tail?" This won a steely glare from the husky, who fought to suppress a growl at the blatant display of apparent subordination. Truth be told, he was in no position to bargain with the mercenary, but that was no reason for unwarranted rudeness.
"Surely. I trust you've been briefed on my dilemma, so I want you to give me a solution. Simple as that. I want this meeting to be short and to the point."
McKay flicked his ears quizzically, looking a little perturbed. "I didn't need to be 'briefed.' A couple of friends told me there was a good-paying job on Ganymede involving some energy baron, and I punched one of 'em for lying to me. Of course I found out they weren't lying once I got the e-message from your second-in-command. We set a place and time, and here I am. You've got quite an enterprise."
"Oh?" asked the husky, his eyebrows raised. "Have you done some personal research on me and my company?" He tapped the table with the flats of his fingerpads as he provoked the mercenary's answer.
McKay smiled, saying, "When you're a walking 'Net receiver, you can access a lot of information."
"Show me." The husky motioned toward the floating monitor, prompting a scoff from the ringtail, who shoved the device away.
"I don't need that thing," he began. "Killeen is responsible for sixty-seven percent of solar technology in this System. You've worked twenty-seven years to make your business very profitable, and I believe you would like to keep it that way." McKay was smiling slightly; it was the kind of knowing smile one would expect given the subject of discussion. Solar was the most widely-used form of energy in the System, since nonrenewable resources had been exhausted some thirty years prior and nothing else was as abundantly and inherently useful as sunlight. Even in shade and at night, Killeen's fledgling multiplication charging technology made energy storage easier, if still spotty when the sun didn't cooperate.
"You have done your research," muttered an impressed, and a little unnerved, Vaughn.
McKay tapped the side of his head, smiling. "Told you. Besides, I got one of those Alpha racers that works on Killeen cells. Fast fucker, keeps a charge no problem. But why do you need me?" The ringtail's impatience and obvious lack of tact was beginning to wear Vaughn down at a rapid rate. He had to keep reminding himself that the man sitting across from him, looking downright bored, was the one and only answer to his problems.
"Because," the husky spoke slowly and evenly, "there is an up-and-comer to this business who stands a very good chance of taking over the entire segment and sending Killeen into the gutter." McKay's attention was back, due in part to Vaughn's increasingly direct language. As long as he needed to get his point across, he might as well do it on the mercenary's level.
Vaughn waited for an answer, but the ringtail remained silent, picking at his claws but still looking at the husky. "Okay then," he said, and tapped a few spots on the holographic display. He got to the menu he wanted, scanned for curious onlookers before moving on, then tapped the file open. A picture of a smirking golden jackal with a Solar Federation flag in the background appeared alongside a text article. "XenoCon is run by this man, Phileas Dander. Apparently something of a corporate genius, he is very dangerous in his zeal to overtake the 'old dinosaurs of energy,' as he calls us. He is also just twenty-six years old."
"I know all about Xenocon," McKay nodded, his face drawing downward in contemplation. So he was paying attention, after all. "Nobody told me about a homicide here. But you don't want me to kill the kid, though, do you? I mean, I got no scruples about that. I've done worse. But you can get anybody to do that for a lot less money."
"You're right," admitted the husky. "I don't want you to kill anybody, if you can help it. I am in need of your...um, your special...physical traits." It was a given that McKay knew why he'd been called here in a general sense. He was a special kind of mercenary, one who didn't deal in typical mercenary business. He was a valuable asset to those who could afford him. Even now Vaughn did not yet know if he could authorize a credit transfer for the ringtail's specialized services.
"Go on," the ringtail waved his paw in encouragement. He was definitely interested in the conversation now. His eyes had taken on an intense youthful glow. It sent the husky's hackles rising in spite of himself. It seemed McKay got off on stuff like this.
"Very well then." Vaughn scrolled down the article as he spoke. "Dander is researching new ways to make the best use of light, but not just sunlight. We know nothing of this technology, and no information has gone public yet. I have inside men who have told me of plans to develop lunar- and ambient-cell technology."
"So instead of just depending on sunlight for energy, he can use moonlight and...well, pretty damn near any light source as a charge," McKay finished the thought for Vaughn, and nodded. "I haven't seen any trace of that info anywhere. You got some pretty heavy shit going on. This dude's already got solar tech going for him, so if he puts this stuff out everybody'll flock to him and leave you in the dust."
The husky shrugged, his ears back. "As you so eloquently put it, yes, it basically comes down to that. He already controls well over a third of the market, and he's gaining. I can't develop counter-technology fast enough; even if I knew how he was doing it I would be months behind. My insiders know precious little. Security is a fortress, from a worker's point of view."
"But that's where I come in."
"You don't want me to kill anyone, so lay it on me. What do you want?"
The husky leaned far over the counter, beckoning the ringtail to do the same. McKay obliged, albeit a bit mockingly and over-accentuated. He spoke in a confidential whisper, muzzle-to-ear. "I want you to crash the company."
McKay pulled back, looking carefully down at the table. He was almost biting his lower lip in concentration. He finally matched eyes with the husky's polychromatic stare, smiling that cold, efficient smile again. "How do you propose I do that?" he asked skeptically.
"You were responsible for the Greenpeace crash, weren't you?" McKay couldn't hide the shock on his face, and the husky continued. "And a few other hack jobs that have caught headlines?"
"Fuck," muttered the mercenary, sour exposure clouding his expression. "How did you get that information?"
"I have people in many, many corners. All I'm saying is, you've done it before," said Vaughn.
"I've spent quite a lot of time and money researching you and your methods. I'm actually surprised you're reacting this way."
"I don't think you're grasping the gravity of what you're asking. Those other two jobs I did were simple system subterfuge...back-door infections to intentionally infect data."
"Isn't that exactly what I'm asking of you now?"
"I download the news, and I see it on the holos. The public never gets to see most of what I tap into. I know almost everything there is to know about XenoCon, publicly, and their database is gigantic. Backed up. Can you do it or not?" There was real doubt in his words, partly because of the ringtail's reaction and partly because he wanted to ruffle McKay a bit to see if he became complacent or combative.
"Piece of cake, but an end like that requires some pretty powerful means. We're talking about a simple virus, if I'm hearing you right. Something nice and quiet that will go in undetected, look around and then tear the place apart. Fuck it up bad, and leave nothing left. You have that kind of firepower?" Now it was McKay's turn to look skeptical.
Vaughn held up one black-and white finger. "I've had a team developing just the right thing to take care of my competitor's files most thoroughly and with prejudice. You have to trust me on this one. It's safe for you, but not Dander's software. Do you think you can handle transporting it?"
"Oh, please!" scoffed the ringtail, on the verge of a derisive chuckle. "Does it need alteration?"
"No need, other than anonymization. Dander's system is a self-replicating firewall. Interconnected, the whole thing."
"You'd think data worth billions of credits would be better protected." The ringtail smiled; the black marks on each side of his muzzle drew into tight "V" shapes. "I underestimated you. Shrewd, intelligent, and efficient. I like that in a man."
"Or an employer," amended the husky, smiling slightly himself. "Talk to me."
"It's fairly easy, really." The mercenary shut down the computer, since he hadn't needed it for much anyway, and slid it out of the way over to the edge of the table. "All of Dander's systems--the main systems--are housed in his manufacturing facility on Earth. I've arranged transportation for myself, so don't bother. Our friend Phileas was so adamant about getting the best of everything for his budding young corporation that he failed to consult personally on most of the operations, leaving that to his assistant managers. He did a pretty good job, too, except for his system security. There are at least seven backups, all in separate buildings, with similar firewalls. Changing codes, replicating binary and all that, easy to infiltrate."
"Piece of cake," repeated the husky, much more comfortable now that things seemed to be falling into place.
McKay continued, talking quickly like a teenager discussing the latest hot rods. "The Achilles heel of the system is that, while remote and protected from each other physically, they're all connected via satellite signals. XenoCon orbiting satellites download requests and shared information between backups, and new information is encoded and copied there. This is where I need to infect it, to avoid a PIN or serial residual trail."
"I trust you can become anonymous at will?" asked Vaughn.
McKay only grinned, only now he wasn't looking at the husky as much as through him. Vaughn called the mercenary's name three times, getting no response. There was a small beep from the husky's right and he looked over at his palmdisc, which was blinking red. It had never done that before, and red always meant trouble. The ringtail's eyes were on the little computer as well, the only part of him that seemed to have moved.
As Vaughn held the thick disc in his paws, it suddenly booted up. The little bluish eye in its center glowed to life and displayed a startup holoscreen. Within five seconds the computer was on, but the husky almost dropped it when the optimouse started moving on its own. He watched as the pointer opened up a word-processing program, formatted a new document, picked a font, and wrote, "YES I CAN. I JUST DID" in big fuchsia letters on the display.
"Satisfied?" asked McKay.
"You just hijacked my computer, you son of a bitch," the husky said incredulously.
"You could say that. I tapped into the closest 'Net satellite, searched until I found a codec signal matching your computer, downloaded a parasite into the data stream, and used it to hack your system. No damage done, but I proved my point," McKay finished, crossing his arms smugly.
Vaughn nodded. "So I see, and quite effectively. What else are you capable of? I mean, I heard you were a Cyfur, but that's all the information I've received."
"Well, we don't really use the term 'Cyfur' anymore; it's archaic, but what else are you gonna call us? My body is eighty-seven percent cybernetic and non-organic components. The only things that are actual living tissue are my brain, most of my head, and various organs. The bulk of my CPU is stored in the rear of my skull and my upper back. Everything else is just a bunch of wires, circuits and pneumatic joints. See?" With that, McKay offered his right forearm to the husky, pressed gently on the inside portion of it, and a small hinged plate lifted and immediately slid to the side, revealing the inner workings of the mercenary.
"Dear Lord," Vaughn muttered, holding back a strong urge to reach into the ringtail's arm and start poking around. "That's an amazing amalgamation of technology. And you're the only one?"
"The only one who's still alive," McKay replied. "A patchwork quilt of used robotic components, that's me. Paid to do the dirty laundry of upper-class society. Speaking of which, this is going to cost you a lot, Killeen." Reluctance tinged the ringtail's words, and that did not bode well.
"This is not as simple as you think," McKay spread his paws. "I can't just tap into a protected network like XenoCon's from any point in the Solar System. Like I said, I have to break in at the satellites where the data is relayed and lightly firewalled. When it's in transit like that, slipping in unnoticed is easier."
"What is so difficult about that?" queried the husky with forward, expectant ears.
McKay almost laughed, but he bit his lip to stop himself. "You're funny, really. Even if I go in anonymously, other kinds of fingerprints will be all over the place, not to mention the hundreds of cameras that'll catch me to and from the satellite. Everything has to be sanitized, or else you could go away for a very long time." Vaughn shuddered at the thought of the Pluto Intrasystemic Penitentiary and the prospect of being jailbait among the "real" criminals. The mortality rate was very high. It would be best to fight XenoCon in the business world, with papers and research, but the prospect of losing to just a kid had pushed him this far, almost to desperation. For the sake of his workforce and his future, he had no choice.
"What must be done?"
"All you have to do is give the virus to me. I can run it through a series of sanitation programs to remove its history and origin. But...you can't have anything to do with me after that. I take my own transport, I work alone, and I won't be coming back."
Vaughn paused. "Excuse me?"
The front door of the bistro flew open, causing both men to jump in their conversation. It was only a group of scantily-clad females, no doubt on Spring Break or some such nonsense. McKay continued before Vaughn had a chance to calm his heart.
"Okay, it's like this," the ringtail sighed, as if he'd gone through this speech a thousand times before. "XenoCon's system is an easy hack, right, but that doesn't mean it doesn't fight back. It's a retroactive viral adjuster. That means, as soon as I load your virus into it, it's going to backwash a bunch of its own viruses back into me, adjusting their codes slightly and multiplying their infection power. Not even my system can handle that much shit at one time. I'll get the job done, but for lack of a better term, I'm going to die doing it." McKay saw the faintly-hidden horror washing over the white mask of the husky's muzzle, then amended, "It's only temporary, though."
"I--" Vaughn started, but he just gave up. He'd lost the battle of wits and knowledge, and now he was in over his head, which he massaged with his thumbpads. First, McKay was going to die, but it wasn't permanent...he was relieved and trepidacious and confused all at once.
McKay continued. "My body will be fine, but my brain will be corrupted...unrecoverable. Basically, when my associates get my body back to ground zero, they'll do a system overhaul, uploading a previously copied version of my brain. Everything will be back the way it was, except..." the ringtail trailed off.
"Except?" prodded Vaughn.
"XenoCon will be nothing more than an empty, expensive shell being sued by its creditors and stockholders for security fraud. And, I will remember nothing."
"Why would I need to remember all of this pointless conversation when I could just wake up someday in the near future with a fat wad of untraceable credits? I'll ask about it, of course, but all I'll be told is that it was a delicate job, and I'll leave it alone. I've done it three times before. Secrecy and ignorance go together so well, don't you think?" McKay accented his question with a wink, and the husky broke a relieved smile, showing his clean, white teeth.
"So, speaking of a fat wad of credits, I think we should discuss your fee," said Vaughn, already feeling nervous from the blow to come.
McKay leaned back in the booth and said, "Twenty million should do it." His expression remained unchanged when the husky went into a coughing fit that had him doubled over the table and gasping for air. A load of lead had just been dropped into his stomach. He couldn't have heard correctly. Two young women in an adjacent booth looked his way with mild concern, and Vaughn lowered his voice.
"You--you did say twenty million, right? Two-zero?" The ringtail nodded, and the husky's chest
resonated with a mixed moan and growl. A headache of catastrophic proportions was beginning to brew just behind his eyes. He had thought an operation of this magnitude would command a high premium, but twenty million credits? That was a hefty chunk of his annual profit, and taking money from his own company would raise red flags all over the place. This would be noticeable. This would have to come from his personal account. And it would have to be laundered. It would almost bankrupt him.
"I can see you're having trouble coming to a decision," the ringtail piped up, "which is why I did a little independent financial projection. I figure, with XenoCon out of the way, and its shareholders and customers left with nowhere to invest, you will gain at least one-third of your current financial base. Given six months, and some tactical maneuvering, you could effectively double your net profits before the fiscal year is out." So, McKay wasn't as rough-and-tumble as his looks suggested. He knew the ringtail was intelligent, but he couldn't help his preconceptions. Too much prep-school brainwashing.
"So, by the end of this year I will have essentially made up my losses, plus some."
"Plus a lot."
Vaughn felt numb, outside his body as he spoke. "Okay then. It's a deal. The money will be transferred to your e-account--"
"Where I will summarily mask the transaction and back-infect the files, making the whole thing seem like a glitch," finished the ringtail, boredly.
"And I will take the loss as the price of big business, with no public complaint." Vaughn's heart and stomach were feeling much better now that he had solidified a plan for maintaining his energy monopoly. "So, then, I suppose you're going to need the virus?"
"That would be helpful," said the ringtail, who offered his arm. He opened up the plate again, and waited while the husky prepared his palmdisc to download to an external source. Vaughn excused himself while plugging in to McKay, who didn't seem to mind at all. The mercenary closed his eyes when the transfer began, murmuring, "Oooh, Killeen, this is a dandy you got here. Very nice..." Within a minute the virus and all the husky's data relating to XenoCon were safely stored. "Tell your virus techs to keep up the good work."
McKay stood then, offering his paw to the husky. "As soon as I see my balance rise sharply, I'll get started on my end. Give it a week, tops, and read the papers. And, of course, you never saw me, or met me. Comprende?"
"Who are you again?" Vaughn asked on purpose, and both men shook paws amiably. Underneath the ringtail's solid shake, he was trembling.
"Good man. Pleasure doing business with you. Hope to never see you again."
"And I, you," replied Vaughn. Shame, he thought. He would have been a nice fellow to get to know. The mercenary turned and paced out of the bistro, his long (and most likely actuated) tail keeping balance behind him. And just like that, Vaughn Killeen was alone again.
The husky touched his coffee cup and found it to be lukewarm at best. He didn't think he needed caffeine just at this moment anyway. And it would still taste like crap.
Top of Form
Wall Street, the bustling financial center of New York City (and for all intents and purposes the rest of the System itself) was a flurry of shouting, crying, laughing and electronic din. The main action still occurred on the floor, which included an interplanetary business section for stocks on different intrasystemic bodies, but outside instantaneous tickers gave up-to-the-second information for those walking by. If one didn't care to look up, the entirety of the district was a wireless bubble anyway, and all one had to do was link up their PDA to receive the world's news at the touch of a button or the speaking of a word.
Vaughn emerged into the harsh light with sunglasses on, simultaneously annoyed at the harshness of it but happy knowing his products were in full operation at that moment. He hoped the two thousand new clients his company had picked up in the last week were enjoying their new Solar service provider. He was doing his best to satisfy, after all, with a growing customer base and new technology in the workings.
As he crossed the intersection of Broadway and Morris next to the ancient bronze bull statue, a vibration on his wrist announced news of specific interest to him. Stepping into the shadow of a building, the husky tapped his watch and scrolled down through its floating display to an article entitled XenoCon Exec Indicted for Fraud. He stood on the sidewalk, reading about how Phileas Dander's priority of his own interests over those of his business had led to the destruction of all data under his control. Apparently, a simple virus had done the trick, even though the system had tried to retaliate to protect itself. It should have gathered a data trail identifying the perpetrator, but all codes had led to nothing. Dander was suspected of sabotaging his own company for insurance money, and now he was in jail. On Pluto. It was the jackal's own damn fault, the article said, an internal job. That was a special bonus.
Internally, Killeen Enterprises was doing just fine. The day after Dander's arrest, the husky had held a meeting in his boardroom, where he expressed concern for XenoCon's lost clients and customers, and outlined a plan to expedite research for non-solar forms of energy. "These people will be looking at us closely, and we want to show them we're on the forefront of the business. They need to be able to depend on us. Let's show them some invention," the husky had said, to a round of hearty applause. Then the inquiries came. Deals were being made as he stood there on the curb; he was due back in the office for just that purpose in just a few minutes.
Vaughn's personal finances were only enough to purchase a small vehicle, and even a dinner out wasn't currently an extravagance he could afford, but the husky had kept up appearances well, refusing public events and extra spending. No one had bothered to question him further.
The husky read through the article, and was suddenly struck with the first pangs of guilt since he had made the deal with McKay in the bistro on Ganymede. It wasn't guilt, per se, because Vaughn didn't view this as corporate cannabalism as much as a strategic move to maintain his interest in the market. But there was one last string nagging at the back of his mind; it had been there for the past few days, small but insistent. It would not let him rest. Why he hadn't taken care of it before eluded him, and now would be as good a time as any to find out.
Vaughn tapped near his left ear and was rewarded with a soft dial tone in his head. "Call McKay," he spoke, knowing the voice-recognition software would understand however he said the words. This was the ringtail's personal system number; McKay had told him to destroy it as soon as he had been informed of the virus' success, but the husky had held on to it as insurance. Soon it would be proved one way or another.
Twice his head reverberated, which was followed by a minute click and a familiar voice saying, "Who is this?" The formerly clever, eager tone was now slightly annoyed and impatient. Good so far.
"It's Vaughn, McKay. Don't you remember me?" The husky tried to sound innocent and convincing.
"Don't recognize you. How'd you get this number?"
Pressing on: "Are you sure? Curly-tail? We talked over coffee."
"Is this your idea of some kind of joke? 'Cuz you're really bad at it. Fuck off, faggot." And with a horrible hissing screech that made Vaughn howl out loud in the middle of the crowd, the connection was severed. He had been blocked. Aural firewall, no doubt.
Not that it mattered much. The husky gathered himself and began walking back in the direction of his main office just a few blocks away. His lunch hour was over, and his afternoon was filled with meetings with potential clients and stockholders. The contracts would no doubt bring his savings account back to its former balance in no time at all. Suddenly the ringing in his ear didn't bother him as much anymore.