This is a short story set in the same relative time and place as my cyberpunk story.  It’s a brief side story intended to flesh out, a little more, the nature of corporate warfare in the nearish future.  I hope you enjoy it, I will post this as a three parts over the next week.  The next update will be on Wednesday and the subsequent final update will be on Sunday.

Neon Garden – Part 1

Down on the streets, where columns of light beamed down in between parts of the skyline that had not yet grown to cover them, in between the interlocking sky bridges and office-complex junctions, there was a park. Well, what used to be a park, now it was a concrete makeshift playground for employees of Titan-Pyre Industries. Though, as with most corps that are on the decline after the biotech industry bubble burst, it was slowly being taken over by the other elements of the sprawl. The full time security staff was, at this point, in a sorry state and their attitudes towards their duties were questionable at best. The drones and cameras were infinitely more alert, though clearly not the current models. One particularly sad looking drone sputtered about on it’s flight path, occasionally twirling about as it’s failing gyros tried to compensate for their growing deficiencies.

As a result most anyone could walk in and use the place to hang out, get high, or use P.A.N. Devices to cover the net’s interface of the place in ugly poorly drawn graffiti. Beat box headed drifters ambled about aimlessly at all hours. The children were more concerned with games, dotting the neon landscape of the age-restricted P.A.N. cloud with the typical refuse of youth. Poorly drawn exceptions of skimmers, troops at war, games scrawled on to the ground with bizarre shifting rules. The occasional junkie or punk hacking the cloud to leave crude messages was actually somewhat of a rare occurrence, and with the ignorance of youth, was usually met with indifference or clever ‘modifications’ from the children who frequented this place.

A unique feature of this otherwise unremarkable place was it’s flower gardens, planted by some well-intentioned fool before the skyline blocked out the sun. Now what remains is a ring of dirt encompassing the entire plaza with a single patch of flowers, maybe three feet by four feet in area, still left alive. The sky bridges cover the sunlight so thoroughly that this one spot was the only part that still received direct sunlight. There was a small girl who attended these flowers from the looks of it, coming by to water them and pick up the weeds. A single defiant piece of the natural world that somehow managed to avoid being choked out by the voracious maw of urban design run amok. Flowers aren’t exactly a unique feature, in most corp parks they exist, but what set these apart was that they weren’t synthetic or fake. These plants were one-hundred percent natural.

Yashima was a proto-Russian Japanese extradite working for Cerberus, a private mercenary outfit which was fully licensed to operate with impunity in Liberty City’s south side. In what most people called the sprawl’s ‘green zone.’ Supposedly this area was safe from the violence and anarchy that surrounded it in the collapse, a series of former residential areas that were basically owned by gangs and random unlicensed foreign crime outfits. The only difference between the violence that frequented that place and this one in Yashima’s mind was a paycheck. Corps buying influence and arms with money rather than organized crime’s method of simply doing it themselves. There was no difference, he thought, just one group was less cowardly and more honest about it’s intentions. His eyes were slanted slightly, in a perpetual squint. A side effect not of his heritage but his general discomfort with exposure to light without the assistance of his PAN enabled goggles. The awkwardness of his movements made it rather obvious, to the trained eye, that he was more used to wearing his gear than street clothes. A thick brown bomber’s jacket, cleanly pressed with a pair of equally pristine brown slacks, no visible tech. He hid his hair under a simple black baseball cap.

Crossing the park the long way, hugging the side rail that dropped off to the lower sections, he ambled up to a gazebo on the far side that was surrounded on three sides by the dead flowerbed. It’s white, or what was white paint, now flaking and falling off, giving it a zebra pattern. Two men were waiting for him inside. A blonde with a buzz-cut, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts, complete with sunglasses and sandals. Might as well put some zinc on your nose and get one of those old-style cameras that you could hang from your neck, Yashima thought. The other man was utterly unremarkable, and this was by even Yashima’s already incredibly low standards for what constitutes as remarkable. He looked more like an accountant than a merc, dressed in a clean black business suit with an unremarkable blue tie and unremarkable black shoes. Not a high-dollar suit but not cheap either. A practical man, you’d think, if it were just a matter of appearances. With neat slicked-back hair and cold blue eyes. Glacial. The eyes of a killer. It was those eyes that gave it away. He slipped down onto the bench seating that encompassed the inner circumference of the gazebo. If you connected the dots, thought Yashima, you’d probably get a perfect triangle.

There was a vista to the south side, resting on a precipice that descended into the cross-structures below opening to a grand plaza surrounded on all sides by digital billboards generating a muticolored glow that contrasted with a small flower garden and artificial tree planted in the center of the gazebo. When looking across at each other, they would see the tree in between the others, like a dividing line. Blonde was the first to speak, “I thought you’d dress less conspicuous.”

“This is inconspicuous, no one dresses casual this close to the outer sprawl,” Yashima said. “If you weren’t a tourist you’d know that.”

“Oh you mean this outfit? Too bad, I thought it was rather stylish myself. After all, no one would think someone who purposefully makes himself stand out is a threat right? I’d have to be stupid or just… crazy.” Blonde replied, adding a strange inflection on the last word.

The Suit casually remarked, “three different interpretations,” but seemed to be talking more so to himself than the others.

“I presume you called us here before the op for some sort of reason, because I really could care less about pre-mission socializing.” Yashima said coldly.

“Killer here and I probably have the same sentiment, so don’t worry. “ As he said this Blonde threw his hands up in a sarcastic gesture of surrender. “I wouldn’t waste either of your time without due cause. Here.” From inside his shirt Blonde produced two sheets of paper, handing one each to the others.

The Suit just glanced at the sheet before handing it back. Killer memory or modifications, hard to say. The hue of those eyes seems unnatural though. Thought Yashima. As he glanced down at the sheet, he already had a good idea what this was about. It was a mission detail sheet from a rival corporation to Cerberus, The Trinity Group, that referenced one thing, potential candidates who were being targeted internally by Cerberus for contract termination. Which was corpspeak for one of two things, assassination or abandonment. Contract terminations were very sketchy, because the terms that bound you by contract could be very implicit or deadly once that contract was voided. Even worse was that it could be voided at any time without warning but only in the instance of a contract violation. A fairly severe one generally. Some corps are a little less tolerant of their dogs pulling on their leash than others. There were three names, Yashima saw his in the list along with who he assumed to be the Suit’s and Blonde’s as well.

“So you see, now we have a problem.” Said Blonde.

“No mission is ever cut-and-dry. There’s always a hook.” Said the Suit.

“We should just proceed with the mission and ignore this. Odds are it’s bogus.” Said Yashima.

“But what if it’s not?” Said Blonde flatly.

“Prisoner’s dilemma.” The Suit mumbled to himself.

That was true, and Yashima knew it. Arms and security corporations were fiercely competitive and had many spies and assorted informants embedded in one another. The practice is so widespread that it has led to a stalemate among the major players in the industry. No one is willing to make strong moves either way, so it’s worn down to a war of attrition, where each corp tries to snatch high-profile or in-demand personal from each other in any way they can, even by offering safe harbor and protection from contract terminations provided you sign a new contract with another company. The practice has saved many a merc’s ass. The problem is that due to this practice really dangerous and sometimes unstable ones are able to get away with a lot of terrible things before they run out of bidders and places willing to take them in. Due to no central standards or regulations, no one company can know the reasons a contract is being terminated, just that it is. The only way to protect yourself as an individual was to try and maintain a good reputation, it wasn’t perfect but it was the safest bet. Consistency and sticking to the missions parameters were imperative.

Then again, this could create a situation like that the Suit and Blonde now found themselves in. A company could issue a warning of a contract termination to people they are scouting as well, legit or not, in an attempt to woo them over to their side and put them at a disadvantage at the contract negotiation table. There was no real way to know if they were lying to you or not, it wasn’t like you could go to your parent company and ask them directly. They wouldn’t tell you the truth, and the act of asking may, in turn, be a contract violation in some cases. The whole thing could come down to a decision making process as complex as a coin toss, but you wouldn’t want to be wrong. Yashima’s policy towards these things was that, unless you were aware of some flagrant act you committed to get yourself listed, it was far safer to assume the notice to be bogus.

“Well, lets consider then if there’s proper motive for them to terminate any of us. What’s the most flagrant violation either of you committed?” Yashima inquired, not really expecting an answer.

The Suit locked eyes with Yashima, that deep glacial blue, like the sky you’d see out in the middle of Antartica. He spoke in a monotone, dispassionately spitting out a confession like it was nothing more than spilling a cup of coffee or something equally mundane. “They hired us to help guard some repomen while they confiscated the servers for a company that had recently gone belly-up. The equipment was actually the property of a rival company technically, but was manufactured by the client company who wanted it back in order to prevent it from being reverse engineered but their rivals who had recently bought the rights to the company that had just gone under. A really convoluted situation. The mission was actually fairly routine stuff, but we had orders not to let anyone see us. When we were carting the stuff out of the building, we managed to easily bypass the security as the place was almost completely unoccupied. Then they saw us, I guess they had invited some V.I.P.s over to tour their recently acquired property. A surprise visit, I suppose. There were three women, two men, and a drone. You know one of those secretary automatons. They told me not to shoot, but I didn’t want them to have seen our faces and tell. You never know who is modded. I couldn’t very well just open fire, too noisy. The squad commander told me not to, but I chased them down the passageway we had just came from. The men tired to stop me, to buy the women time to get away. I slit their throats quickly. The cornered women cried and begged, but oh well, I had no choice. The drone didn’t even try to resist, it just shut itself down. No point in stabbing a robot anyway. It’s not like taking a life. There’s no fun in it. No blood, no excitement…” he trailed off at the end.

A normal person might have been disturbed, but this line of work took all types. Yashima was used to people doing things like that in the middle of missions. It wasn’t necessarily wrong in the case of the scenario he was describing. Being seen was a major risk, because anyone with eyewear or modifications could easily ID you and run a check, broadcast your identity, your company’s identity, and your location extremely quickly. Hesitate and a rail strike could rain down on your head, or a heavily armed security team could mobilize on you almost instantly creating a really dangerous situation. The problem with his story wasn’t the motive, it was the method. Even if they had IDed him it is a process that takes seconds. You don’t ask permission and you don’t hesitate. You open fire and aim for the brain-pan. You don’t chase them down with a knife and stab them to death. It wasn’t clean. It wasn’t precise, and it left a bloody mess. Not to mention all the cameras and security alarms he probably tripped doing it. The screams and noise. Louder and longer than any two second burst of gunfire would have been. There was no practical reason for doing what he did, it was just a pretext to kill. He’d have known they weren’t broadcasting or modded within seconds. When they begged for their lives, they were truly no threat to him. He had no reason to kill them. He did it the way he did because he derived pleasure from it. That’s the contract violation. Killing for pleasure.

Blonde spoke next, “whoa there killer, why would you spill the beans so easily? You’re acting like this is a confession booth or something.” He laughed. “You know, why don’t you tell us why you might be targeted first, ‘Mr. Incognito’?” He used air quotes in order to drive home the fact that, in his mind, Yashima was not, in fact, incognito. “This isn’t an interrogation, knowing the reason is meaningless.”

“True enough, though I asked expecting an answer more like that. Or no answer at all.” Yashima said unflinchingly.

“Why ask questions if you don’t expect answers? That’s just stupid. You’re being stupid.” Blonde said mockingly.

So that’s how he is, Yashima thought. The type that tries to get under your skin and establish himself as the dominant persona. The type not satisfied with taking orders or being told what to do. A real natural born ‘leader.’ This man would be perfect sitting in a board room gleefully firing people and requisitioning hits and mergers.

“Let me guess,” Yashima started, “you’re the type that doesn’t like being told what to do. You want to fancy yourself as an independent agent. An exception that is not bound by say, the same laws that govern those around you. I can already guess what your violation was.”

Blonde did not look amused, his face flashed a scowl before returning to it’s pseudo-state of bemused indifference. He threw his hands up and slumped back into his seat, another foux gesture of surrender. “Okay by all means Mr. Incognito, please tell me your assessment of things you couldn’t possibly know about me since this is our first time ever meeting.” He said sarcastically. “I’m dying to hear your expert theories on me.”

Yashima continued, “It’s not that hard to guess. You probably were on a mission with a commander you didn’t like. Maybe he pulled rank on you too many times when you wanted to do things your way. Maybe he threatened you. Maybe he barked commands. Or maybe something more mundane like he didn’t address you with the proper respect. So you waited, being that you seem to me, and I base this on cursory observation I admit, a coward. A snake, or maybe a spider. You waited till the right moment, perhaps he leaned to close out the side of the dropship that brought you to the mission site. Maybe it was a gunfight and a stray bullet found itself in his gut. Either way he was dead. That’s your contract violation. You killed the mission commander and probably thought you managed to cover it up.”

Blonde’s face was twisted in a sneer, he spoke in a low menacing voice. “How the hell do you know about that?”

Yashima stared back, his face showing no emotion. “I didn’t. Just guessed.”

Blonde’s attitude changed instantly back to it’s baseline. “Just kidding! I’ll give you an A for effort, but alas… you’re wrong. So what’s your violation anyway? Asking a million pointless questions or unloading with rapid fire speculation?” He cleared his throat. “Anyway, this pointless conversation about the why of it all aside. What are we going to do about this.”

“No ‘we’.” The Suit muttered.

“I agree,” said Yashima. “There’s no ‘we’. We’ve all been hired to do a simple demolitions job. If that notice isn’t an outright lie, that means that we’re all being reviewed to see if we’re capable of running a mission normally.”

“Oh, so you think this is some sort of mysterious test? You think if we get a passing grade we’ll get a gold star? Man I sure hope our teacher is pretty.” Blonde was laying the sarcasm on extra thick. “Man you guys are cold, very well. I suppose we’ll have little choice but to go along with the mission for now, but if I were either of you, I’d watch my back extra closely tonight.”

The Suit interrupted Blonde as he stood up to leave. “Wait.”

“Why, exactly?” Said Blonde, seeming bored.

“Do you even know what this is about? The mission that is?” The Suit said.

“Who knows, who cares? A territory dispute, making a point, weakening the opposition for a future merger or buyout, something along those lines I bet.” Blonde said dismissively.

“That’s stupid. Don’t be stupid.” Said the Suit, without a trace of irony in his voice. Talk about deadpan. “You should care if you think your life is at stake. It’s about flowers.”

Blonde burst out laughing. “Good one!” He took a few steps towards the exit, placing a hand on The Suit’s shoulder on the way out he said, “Best damn joke I’ve heard all day, and that includes Mr. Incognito’s comedy routine.” Then he was gone.

Yashima looked at the Suit, “Flowers, you say.”

The Suit smiled, it was a warm and at the same time, unsettling smile. “Yes, a little songbird gave up the information to me.”

“Yeah, I’d say that natural flowers are rare.” Yashima’s eyes locked on to the flower patch on the ring of dirt that still had sunlight cascading down on it.

“Not rare like these are.” Said the Suit.

“Oh,” Said Yashima, “I’ll keep that in mind.”

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