Vantage

The wind bites at my face as Schuster cranks the blast doors open. The city outside is a dismal gray ghost of itself beneath heavy clouds, their swollen bellies dark with potential as they loom over the streets and buildings.

“It’s turned cold,” Schuster remarks, moving to stand beside me.

“It won’t last.”

“Nothing does. Seems like the weather changes faster every year.”

I shrug.

Schuster steps in front of me and takes my hands. I my surprise, I don’t even flinch at her touch. A pained smile creeps up half her face. “You don’t have to go, Talbot. We have the files. Javier and Salinas are already working on reproducing the hardware. You could just stay here until the storm blows over and we see what changes.”

Her eyes are as blue as the unseen sky above the clouds. Her fingers entwined with mine are pliable, relaxed, gentle to the point that I actually enjoy her touch. I close my eyes and breathe deeply, trying to feel the moment as others must, knowing that outside of my own head there is a beauty to this moment, and an opportunity. 

“Stay with us, Talbot. With me. You don’t have to share my bed if that’s too much, but you could share my life.”

“And what would be my purpose?” 

“You could still help people. Still protect Tamar. Then you could share your stories with me.”

“I need to do this,” I say. The words sound heroic in my head, but spoken aloud they crack in my constricted throat and sound hollow.

“Why?”

Good question. Because I made a promise to a woman with the body of a robotic child? Or maybe because I want revenge for YuriCo not acting more quickly to stop the plague, even though there is no evidence for that in the files that Iris give me. 

“I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“Just open the trunk when you get there and the flock will take off automatically. They ought to keep any signal from getting out, but that also means I won’t be able to watch.”

I pull my hands away and offer her a thin smile. “Thanks.”

Schuster opens her mouth to speak, but I shoulder past and hurry towards the car waiting in the parking lot. It’s a battered green utility cruiser with a manual drive: A leftover from the previous century kept running with epoxy and determination. The perfect vehicle for an expedition that we don’t want to be tracked. Hundreds of similar machines are scattered across the mire, their few metal parts rusting away as solar radiation slowly converts their plastic bodies to brittle husks. 

“Don’t come back dead!” Schuster calls after me. 

Leaving the city is never difficult. The public security restrillect rarely even prevents suspected criminals from leaving, on the theory that going out into the mire unprepared is as good as a death sentence. Returning could be difficult if my identity has been flagged after the Yurico incident, but I’ve got to survive the day before I worry about that.

Iris told me that the YuriCo corporate retreat is located on an estate in the mountains north of the city. She claimed that she could see it from the storm wall. At the time I took that as a metaphorical statement, especially since I didn’t think she would actually be able to see anything through all the rain, but it may have actually been true. Javier dug into the YuriCo records and learned that the CEO of YuriCo, one Avani Grey, controls a large estate on the shore of the reservoir, about a two hour drive outside the city. More salient to my plan: The entire board and C-level management team are currently at the retreat for an emergency strategic meeting.

Something tells me that I know the topic of that meeting.

The road to the estate is maintained better than most streets outside of the city. A wide swath has been cleared on either side of the highway, the verge maintained by a small fleet of automated mowing bots which crawl across the grass like tremendous cockroaches, their solar cells lifted like wings as they turn to catch the sun. Beyond, the wreckage of abandoned homes and strip malls peek from behind a wall of trailing CarbZu. Thirty years ago this region was a struggling suburb of a city that was absorbing all of the intellectual capitol of the surrounding counties. When the plague hit and the realignment began, these lands were abandoned, like so many others across the country. The few survivors either applied for residence in the city or fled to the Federal protectorates, leaving their homes to moulder beneath the spreading vines.

The road switchbacks up the hillside, climbing the mountain about a mile from the dam. Boulders protrude from the side of the mountain like broken teeth, their jagged edges smoothed by blankets of moss and vines. Battered and bent guard rails curve alongside the road at the worst of the curves, but it is clear that the maintainers of this road are not interested in preserving public safety. Reaching the top of the switchbacks, I crest the ridge and see the lake spreading out beneath me, filling the valley. The road winds down the north side of the mountain in curves, no need for switchbacks on this shorter and more gentle slope, then straightens into a black ribbon stretching out into the distance of the lake valley. There, less than a mile straight overland, the estate rests between the road and the glistening waters of the lake, a collection of pre-realignment homes and outbuildings scattered across several acres of manicured landscape. A dozen sleek performance cars are parked along a curved driveway near a low slung garage, behind which half as many utility vehicles. Paved paths meander through gardens, eventually leading to the columned porch and arched entryway of the manor house, which is itself a three story rectangular edifice of glass, columns, and pointed grey stone. Balconies sprout like oysters from windows on the short side of the house, while a broad second floor balcony spreads from the rear of the house, dotted with umbrellas and lunge chairs which look out over the back lawn to the boathouse and dock out in the lake. 

A dozen people on the board.

Could be as many as thirty security guards if all of those utility vehicles were fully loaded when they arrived, not counting anyone who is stationed here. 

And I need to kill a dozen of them. Seven men. Five women. All conspiring to keep Iris’s tech from being released to humanity. A cabal of would-be immortals looking down on the humans dying in the streets and wondering only how long the bodies will sit and rot before a cleaning crew shovels the corpses away. 

It won’t be easy, but the flock of drones Schuster sent with me should help. 

I open the car trunk and step aside as dozens of small drones flit up into the sky, orient themselves, then begin drifting down the hill towards the estate. A second later my handy chirps, informing me that it has lost signal. 

That should keep them from calling for help or warning one another that I’m coming. Might even stop the Vakha clones from disseminating their memories to one another.

I pull a pair of binoculars from my jacket pocket and scan the perimeter of the manicured lawn. A waist high brick wall surrounds the property, topped with a spiked metal fence, which appears to be strung with electric shock wires along the outside. The wall appears to proceed all the way around the property, from the lake shore at the northern edge, where an ornamental lighthouse watches over the shore from a short jetty, to the southern edge, where the wall terminates abruptly ten feet out into the water. The only means of access that I can spot is the lake, if I’m willing to brave the frigid water, or the wrought steel gate that separates the estate from the highway.

It’ll have to be the gate.

I check my handy. The signal is completely dead. I’m still able to load the bogus security consulting message that Javier and Schuster cooked up for me, which should be enough to get me a face to face with the head of security, assuming that the drones are doing their job and nobody can check in with corporate headquarters to verify the message.

Get through the gate. Then I can worry about how to kill the YuriCo board.

There’s a bottle in my pocket, another gift of Schuster and her pet mad scientists. I unscrew the cap, hesitate for an instant, then pour the white liquid down my throat. It tastes like artificial strawberries, feels like chalk on my tongue, and has the viscosity of sour milk. The blend of neuroactive chemicals and unlicensed medical nanites will keep me focused and quicken my response time, with the mild side effects of a serious serotonin crash in a few hours and a mild chance of being converted into a killer robot. 

As I wait for the drugs to kick in, I pull a heavy case from the back seat of the car and, kneeling on the cracked pavement, extract a few of the toys that Schuster has sent for me. All are unlicensed and as close to illegal as can exist here in the hazy region between the city’s border and federal territory, and all of them possess the same deadly beauty as a cobra with its hood extended. The blades find snug homes in my sleeves and boots, ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. The guns, including the sleek nanite delivery pistol that Schuster showed me last week, are tucked away in pockets and the back of my belt. 

I can feel the rush coming on now: My consciousness separating into distinct fragments which gleefully tell my daemon to go hide in the basement while the rest of my mind is occupied with the essential business of slaughter.

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