Continued from part 1.

Neon Garden – Part 2

Blonde’s assessment wasn’t too far off the mark, Yashima had to give him that.  He was the overly inquisitive sort, but not that anyone who hired him could tell.  Most mercs were content to go with the intel provided, and rarely tried to figure out the why of anything.  Yashima was not most mercs.  You could even attribute his continued longevity to this simple fact.  Asking questions just might save your life.  It wasn’t about questioning the mission, or pestering the individual who requisitioned the job for more information.  That was suicide, asking questions always made corps extra nervous and was risky.  After all, they were paying you to not ask questions to begin with.  No, what Yashima did was a bit more subtle.  He did his own independent research, and it didn’t involve using net queries, or hacking, or anything of the sort.  Call it, old-fashioned detective work fueled by a healthy dose of paranoia.

Yashima stood, still wearing his Mr. Incognito attire, in front of a simple placard staked into the soil that encompassed the outer rim of the same park the meeting took place in.  Earlier he went down street side to a rundown yakisoba sandwich vendor.  Then after stuffing his face on what you could describe as food, he embarked on a casual walking tour of the many obscure book vendors and street shops that lined a nearby derelict scraper.  The gutted remains of some office-complex converted by shady third-party landlords and leasing corps into a shopping district.  Automated turrets lined the various points of entry, giving at least the illusion of security.  He ambled about for a few hours, reading books on flowers, specifically on bio-engineered flowers.  He didn’t take anything, just scanned the pages with his artificial eye, storing the information into a slot-drive mounted behind his ear.  Paper volumes were not as rare as you might believe, fairly new books were still printed by underground second and third-party publishers.  The predominate reason being, well, you can’t hack paper.  He paid any vendors who’s books he scanned in cash, and shuffled off to the next stop in the neon trail.

Killing time, as it were, till the operation.  Plus it never hurt to try and learn something new.  After running out of nearby vendors he returned to the place of the meeting because he wanted to see what these flowers growing here were all about.  The placard read:

 The Dr. L.P. Pierce Memorial Flower Garden
Dedicated to the man who’s vision, leadership, determination and spirit helped to pioneer Titan-Pyre’s identity as a conglomerate with a global consciousness.
These rare Gibraltar Campion Silene tomentosa flowers, thought extinct twice over after the siege of Europa claimed the Royal Flower Gardens of London, were brought back from the brink thanks to ground breaking genetic repair technology discovered by Dr. Pierce.  They are a symbol of his legacy, and of Titan-Pyre’s commitment to finding a balance between humans and the natural world.

Yashima couldn’t help but laugh to himself, a dry bitter laugh, at that last line.  A plaque spiked into a patch of dead soil surrounded by smog and refuse, in a city full of garbage and industrial waste, on a planet with a collapsing environment, and they talk of making a better natural world by bringing back a random species of flower from the brink of extinction, he thought.  It was not an uncommon sentiment, after all.  There were always more immediate concerns, and those who were apt to try and push the system in one direction or the other often found themselves swallowed up by it.  When you’re in a situation where on mistake can mean death or worse, things like this get filed off somewhere internally in the folder marked unimportant.  Survival trumps all.

“It does seem rather silly doesn’t it?”  A voice to the right.  An older woman.

“Yes.”  He was never particularly skilled at speaking to strangers or making small talk, in his line of work all conversations were like a powder keg. The only difference between them was the length of the fuse.  As a result most mercs avoided talking to anyone they do not have business with as a simple matter of course.  How they all go about it ranges from person to person, but in his case it was to give brief close-ended answers till the person gets tired of it.  By doing so he doesn’t come off as hostile or confrontational, but antisocial.  This is a common enough trait so it’s less likely to draw any unwanted attention.  Above all else, standing out is one thing to avoid at all costs.  Besides, that was the most accurate response he could muster, why flood it with exposition?

“I can tell by the way you looked around at the lovely scenery of this city that you probably were having the same thought I’ve had many a time, in the face of all this you really thought flowers were the answer you stubborn old fool?”  She continued, unabated.

This one is persistent, thought Yashima.  He refused to look, only getting the woman’s general shape and features out of his peripheral vision, the false eye creating a facsimile in seconds and ran a scan for him.  He was a man who it was notoriously difficult to get under the skin of.  Very few things affected him, and his general dispassion and natural tendency to shirk socialization kept him shielded him from those that did.  Of all the things he hated the most, people who couldn’t take a hint ranked very highly on that list.  “Whatever you say,” he said, trying as best he could in his near monotone to lace those three words as much passive-aggressive malice as he could muster.

“Maybe I was wrong,” she said, then closed her eyes and tucked in her chin as if to mimic concentrating.  “could it be I misread you?”

“Probably.”  He said, hoping this would be the end of it.  After a moment or two the woman soldiered on, undeterred by him and his lack of responses.   He was beginning to lose his patience.

“You struck me as the curious sort.  I could tell by the way you looked around, how when you came by earlier you kept glancing at these flowers, that plaque, and the state of this once beautiful park.”  She smiled a warm smile.  A smile that most people would think they could trust.  She was not, however, dealing with most people.

His patience was at it’s limit, this conversation as far as he was concerned was either a setup or a feeler and he was not apt for playing the guessing game.  This was supposed to be a simple operation, and he was used to things following a predictable format.  However, within thirty seconds of meeting his squad the whole mission, it’s nature, and what research he had done beforehand have all been thrown out the window.  The solid black and white facts were smearing, becoming muddy and distorted.  As much as he despised it, he came to a slow realization.  If nothing he thought he knew made sense he’d just have to trust his instinct, and it was telling him this innocent and helpful old lady act was bogus.   “I’m not here to make friends or to chat with strangers.  You don’t need to know me and I don’t need to know you.  Go away.”  He said so reflexively, so robotic, so devoid of emotion that the woman was clearly taken aback.

She recovered fairly quickly. “The moment you start thinking like that is the moment you become a walking corpse.  So what are you?”  She gave a wry smile.  “Undead?”

That was it. Yashima stopped looking away and turned to lock eyes with the woman, she was just a harmless seeming old lady, gray hair tied back in a bun with thin wire-frame glasses balanced on her nose, wearing a thick jacket and gloves in spite of the lukewarm weather.  A useful outfit for hiding all sorts of things and so stereotypical, He thought.  The look he gave her wasn’t a hateful look, it somehow went beyond that.  It was a very clear and very calculated threat.  It was a look that told a story of murder, like staring into the void of the grim reaper’s hood.

The woman didn’t scream, but let out a light gasp out of terror, probably all she could manage.  She was able to see the light shine in his eye and noticed that his right was modded, rapidly dilating, indicating targeting. That much she knew, as to how Yashima had a few ideas on the particulars of that.  Maybe she was just some innocent old woman but that didn’t matter and would not have affected the flow of the conversation either way.  She stumbled back a few steps nearly tripping over herself before turning and running away.  He never had any intention of shooting, but the scan he ran gave him some interesting data, more than any pointless conversation would have.

The Suit said this was all about flowers, and that made him curious admittedly.  ‘A songbird.’  A victim of his or perhaps just a dope that he managed to cajole some information out of.  ‘Not rare like these.’  Implying that there was some sort of special property of these fancy semi-extinct flowers.  Fourth party information was always so unreliable, he had a good idea what the night’s operation was about, and it had nothing to do with flowers.  That information was fact backed up by evidence and plenty of research that he had systematically collected over the course of the past month.  All he was doing by pursuing this ridiculous flower angle as far as he was concerned, was making sure he didn’t miss something in his initial investigation.

The facts so far were sort of mundane, and even then, took a lot of effort to compile.  Titan-Pyre industries was an old biotech firm that was actually a subsidiary of Cerberus, to whom he was contract bound.  They are actually the company that produced a lot of the more compatible and install-safe modifications, like his right eye, arm, and chest mods.  Fiber-laced nanomesh and other materials were breakthroughs in the field.  The firm; however, failed to ever be profitable, due mostly to the high cost associated with implementing the technology.  Features like increased safety and less malfunctions, like muscle seizing which could crush bones and organs, were not selling points to the potential purchasers primarily due to a general lack of concern for the longevity of the people these mods were installed in.  It was far more cost-effective to simply build them to last a few missions, rather than expect the person they are bound to, to survive.  In most cases, this was logically sound, few vets existed, and they were viewed as valuable assets.  Yashima could probably be considered one of them, but that distinction was often nebulous and hard to determine.

No one told you that you were valuable or deemed as such, because they didn’t want anyone to have any bargaining power when it came to contracts, terminations, or piece-of-mind.  The only way you could even begin to think you might be considered such would be in the case of a catastrophic mission failure or other disaster they might try to save your life or bail you out.

Then The Trinity Group passed a bid on Titan-Pyre, wanting to try and make it profitable.  The board and anyone associated with the bio-research team did their best to block the decision, wanting the company to absorbed by Cerberus and it’s tech used internally for it’s security, soldiers, and merc forces.  There was a bit of a bloodbath, and in the end the shareholders managed to sway enough people inside the company to go ahead and allow the merger to happen.  There were also a few conditions which The Trinity Group became aware of after the deal was brokered.  One of the conditions was that all company properties were to be stripped of all non-essential equipment, and another was duplication on some personal research notes, of which the old biotech team insisted on using some sort of unknown leverage to not get killed and to get the proposal approved.  Probably some really juicy blackmail.

The duplication wasn’t an issue surprisingly, but Trinity balked at the stripping of the property.  Apparently office plants and wall paintings were somehow dreadfully important and something by which without the aesthetics of they couldn’t possibly live without.  This led to a major battle over the deal which had, in Trinity’s words, become ‘needlessly duplicitous’ according to one internal memo.  The violence escalated from mere talking to full-out war between the two organizations.  Trinity scouting them made perfect sense in this context, especially since Cerberus didn’t bother to tell anyone involved in the mission tonight that they were deploying into a hot zone.   The more people they can turn without fighting the better, making the contract termination paper doubtful, but not impossible.  Assassination is common but sending terminated contractors out into death traps and suicide missions was just as routine, either way you rarely see it coming, and in this case it could go any direction.  Leaving out important intel is certainly suspicious but not uncommon.

Trinity had recently completed two major skyways connecting their manufacturing facility, personnel HQ, and south side complex together.  These skyways also happen to cross over Cerberus properties and holdings which traditionally tend to operate at a more ground-level.  Given the current state of their politics, Cerberus decided to counter their show of prestige with a show of force.  Running several feints throughout the contested zone in the sprawl in order to bait Trinity’s attention away from their new roads the mission was for three squads to attack the structural weak points of thm, which also happen to be above most of Titan-Pyre’s office-complex’s, personnel housing, and research facilities.  Get rid of the cause of the dispute and the result of it all in one fell swoop.  Though, in Yashima’s experience that sort of thing rarely goes that smoothly, and tonight’s mission was ramping up to be extremely bloody and messy.

He looked up, his vision of the sky obscured by crossing bridges, platforms, and other assorted urban overgrowth.  Above all else though, the greatest obscuration was the giant ten-lane skyway that curved it’s way between the nearby towers.  Beams of light tried to penetrate all those layers, and before they could were snuffed out by the skyline’s debris.  The only one that made it this far came down on a small patch in the dirt, Yashima had seen it before.  It was the one patch in this whole park that had anything growing on it that wasn’t artificial, like the plants in the gazebo.  This was actually what he came to see, more than the words on the plaque or the dead soil.  These more than rare flowers.  He took a few steps before pausing before them.  Their five-pointed petals, the near perfect symmetry of them, slightly cleft in the middle, like a split seam, and their faint purple hue that reflected the light from above so perfectly, as much as he hated to admit it, was beautiful.

He could see, in their beauty too, the appeal of such things.  He was a man who understood beauty and nature as an aesthetic and nothing more.  The feeling he got looking at art or these flowers wasn’t quite admiration.  It was more like nostalgia, a throwback to his more primitive brain, when these things bore relevance; however, they were useless to someone accustomed to the modern world.  Beautiful and useless.  Something that man keeps around to admire and look at as though to separate or elevate himself above the mortal trappings of his animal nature, like makeup used to cover the wrinkles of aging or imperfections of the flesh, there was nothing natural about flowers growing in an urban wasteland.   Just a pretentious waste of space, not unlike corporate art, or a artistically designed skyscraper.  It was not there to inspire, but instead to cover up the ugliness man has created.  To make little patches of beauty to keep people from noticing the decay all around them.  These flowers are makeup, he thought, without them this would just be a ring of dirt in a graffiti laced park.  He hated them for being another layer of deception in a society that did everything in it’s power to hide it’s true nature.

He reached a hand out and crushed one flower, a tiny gesture, but as he applied pressure and rolled it back in and forth with his fingers, attempting to grind it into dust, a slight smile began to form on his face.  Almost as if he found amusement in the act itself and also in the sheer pettiness of it.  After a few seconds he was satisfied and opened his hand, palm facing down, and the petals, still in perfect shape fell to the ground, they disappeared.  He could have swore he felt them.  Yet they faded out, as if they were ethereal.  There was no sign he had even plucked one off from the stem.  He did it again, and again, and again.  Each time the same result.  The plant was real enough, it had a smell and mass, but at the same time, it wasn’t really there.  Like some sort of ghost manifesting itself for all to see, defying the basic laws of reality.

He wasn’t sure what the significance was, but had some idea what The Suit meant now.  It wasn’t so strange to think of the sentiment behind it.  It was a memorial park, after all.  Someone just engineered a way to never have to lay flowers on grave of the man it was dedicated to.  Why do that when you can create perfect and perpetual ones?  Someone had to have done this, and if the whole ring was supposed to be a memorial, then certainly seeing it in this state would be rather upsetting.

He left the park, the flowers, and that whole scene behind.  The information of botany and horticulture that he had collected earlier didn’t cover digital flowers, projections, or anything of the sort obviously.  This was something to do with net-interference or a sort of imposed delusion, a way of hacking your vision or at least bypassing it to project perfect seemingly real images.  So much potential, and extremely dangerous if you could rewrite it to be anything else.  Then again who’s to say someone hasn’t done so already? If he was a betting man this would be as close to a sure thing as he could get.  He knew why Trinity backed out of the deal, but to just stumble upon something like this seemed too good to be true.  The meeting was called there, The Suit said that they were special, and it all seemed awfully deliberate, like someone was leading him to draw a conclusion or to distract him from the facts.   This was a huge deal, encompassing many properties, sure this sort of tech was desirable but it couldn’t have been the only thing of value within Titan-Pyre.

It must be something to do with the reason for them backing out, he thought.  A theory was starting to form, but it was something he didn’t have much time to consider.  In these situations, as dangerous as it was, he would have to resort to the old standby.  Improvisation.

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