Despite what other people might think, I do know when to leave well enough alone. It may have taken Bruce’s venomous unleashing-upon-me in the market followed by his willingness to lose his job before he’d accept creds from me, but once it’s clear he wants nothing to do with me, it’s clear. I stick to my department and my customers and my little scam jobs and leave Bruce and his viewscreens and his holier-than-thou attitude alone. Who needs him? We still work together at Swinton’s, but for the most part we have nothing to do with each other.
That doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten about him, exactly. He lurks in the back of my mind, a puzzle I failed to solve, a challenge I failed to meet. So whether I intend to or not, I keep track of his comings and goings. I know his routines. And when I drag myself into Swinton’s for a way-too-early morning shift after a long, albeit thoroughly enjoyable, night of carousing at the club with Cringe followed by a couple hours of sleep, I notice the lack of Bruce’s formidable form prowling his department. Sharise stomps the aisles between the viewscreens, dark curls bouncing with every step. But no Bruce.
Sharise’s gaze falls on me, sharp as the ammonia-scented glass cleaner I’m lugging on my morning rounds. Her curls bounce in my direction, and I know it’s too late to escape.
But maybe that’s OK. I make a show of cleaning prints off the glass display cases housing the implants as Sharise storms onto my turf.
I look up like I just now noticed her and flash a generous smile. “Hey, Sharise.”
Sharise’s curls shudder as she halts in front of me. She does not smile, generously or otherwise. “You’re late.”
“Yeah. I overslept.” I heave an exasperated sigh then make a show of peering past her toward the viewscreens. “Where’s Bruce?”
Sharise’s eyes narrow. The store’s stale, super-chilled air seems to drop another several degrees.
“Alderson fired him.”
I drop pretenses and lower the glass cleaner. The words echo around in my head for a few seconds before I can understand them. And even then I can’t understand them. “Fired him? Are we talking about the same Bruce? Big guy, never does anything wrong? Like, ever?”
Sharise’s eyes remain narrowed. She crosses her arms. “Well, apparently he did. Because Alderson fired him.” Her voice drops to a disgruntled mutter. “And now I’m stuck covering his shifts until we replace him.”
“They fired Bruce.” I shake my head. “For what?”
I shoot a sideways look at Seven, although I mostly keep my eyes on the bustle surrounding us.
The LM4 residence takes up the top five levels of North Tower. The middle of all floors but the bottom one is cut away, surrounded by windows and balconies on the tower’s interior and leaving the central courtyard open to a sky unblocked by towers or gardening terraces. At the moment, the vast expanse overhead is an eye-shattering blue I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before. This high up, the sun is so brilliantly unadulterated that my skin aches under its touch.
Seven doesn’t look at me, but I catch a brief quirk of his eyebrow in profile.
“For playing my dad in order to get us in here? Why should I feel bad?” Whether I should is not the same thing as whether I do, and I know Seven knows it as well as I do. But we all have things we pretend, so I shrug. “People like him are part of the problem, right? They notice things are wrong, but they look the other way for the sake of their own comfort.”
I take my eyes completely off Seven at that point, because as soon as the words are out I recognize them as being uncomfortably close to something he once said to me.
It’s not like I don’t have plenty of other things I should be watching instead of Seven, anyhow. We decided daytime was better for this job, because it’ll be easier to blend in when there were other people around to blend with. And we do look like we belong, Seven in those enjoyable gray slacks and dark blue button-down and me in similarly professional-looking slacks and blouse. With sensible flats, even. We look very much like we could be on staff at the res, so it’s not worry about blending in that has my nerves on edge.
I’ve never seen a kept LM4 in plain clothes, but they are evidently not required to wear their yellow jumpsuits on the residence floors. I’ve always known that while many of the more pliant of the kept work with APS or for the Oracles, many more–and all of those who wear the torq and wristbands less willingly–never leave the residence floors. They work their agricultural terraces on the tower’s outer rim and run the on-site bakery and winery. Probably they handle most of the housekeeping. Even as I’m thinking about it, I notice that the gardeners patiently pulling weeds and laying fresh mulch in the courtyard’s flower beds wear dingy blue dungarees smudged with dirt, but silver glints at their necks and wrists.
It unnerves me, how they look just like regular people. If they weren’t still sporting the neck and wrist restraints that keep them in check, I’d have no idea which of us are LM4s and which aren’t.
And it’s stupid that unsettles me, because I’ve been living and working alongside Daria and Val for months now. Why would the kept be any different? But when one catches my eye and smiles and nods like I belong there, like he’s happy to see me, it’s all I can do not to freak out.
“How’s it going in there?” Daria’s voice murmurs through my cochlear implant. “The two of you do remember you have a job to do, right?”
I jerk, feeling guilty about my thoughts, and activate my mic implant before murmuring in reply, “Yes, Mother. We’re heading your way now.”
The bottom-most of the residence floors houses common areas–sitting rooms and dining areas, food prep and storage, things like that. On my lens monitor, the floor plan overlays my tracking map. I keep it just opaque to see Seven’s blip on the map and the clichéd red “x” I marked on the floor plan’s delivery entrance.
“Getting a little anxious about standing around here,” Daria says. The snap in her voice tells me she’s more than a little anxious. I wonder how much of it has to do with being crammed into an elevator with Kaiden, Alex, and Val, and which of the three are picking fights with the others. Maybe Jager and Nunes also being with them will keep things more balanced than usual.
“No deliveries scheduled for another hour, and the receiving guy is out to lunch. We’re golden, Daria.” I give my words my best casually-snappy spin and hope she finds them reassuring.
Seven shoots a glance at me.
I click off the mic and nod. “Yeah, I know. But it’s not like we can just sprint through the courtyard, right? That might draw a little more attention than we’re looking for.”
As we pass out of the courtyard, following the map into the blessedly-cool interior hall outside the receiving area, Kaiden’s voice grumbles through the comm line. “… hard enough just getting here. We’re the ones wanted by the APS. All she has to do is unlock a few doors so we can search for that device.”
I open my mic again. “Little more to it than that, little bro.”
“And you know, it’s not as if APS is looking all that hard for their favorite brother/sister duo anymore. They have their plate full with other things. Riots. Pretty rebellion figureheads taking over their airwaves. Things like that.” Alex’s voice chimes in, further reminding me that there’s a full crew of six more people waiting on me and Seven. I dare to pick up my pace a little. My flats clack on the tiled floor.
Seven and I find the receiving area empty. He nods me ahead of him while he watches our backs.
Deliveries are scheduled ahead of time. Anyone can walk onto the freight elevator at the bottom end, but they can’t get onto the floors unless someone unlocks the doors from the inside. It only takes a few seconds to loop the camera standing in for a real, live security person, and I don’t have to hack the double elevator doors. Teddy took care of that part for me.
I key in the code and glance at Seven before pressing enter. He nods without looking. When the elevator doors slide apart, I’m rewarded by the sight of six figures dressed similarly to Seven and I, all prepared to blend in. So long as no one catches sight of the three mug shots in our midst.
“You see?” As they step off the elevator, Alex gives Val a nudge and wink that reeks of provocation. “This is how we get things done.”
Val levels a flat look at Alex and steps away. “More sneaking around,” he grumbles. “I’d rather light the whole place on fire and be done with it.”
“Uh huh.” Alex crosses his arms and cocks his hip. “And that attitude, pretty boy, is how you wound up in prison.”
“Do we need to do this again, right now?” Kaiden follows the other two, scowling.
Daria steps out behind him. Jager and Nunes are on her heels, dark and stocky alongside tall and pale. Nunes holds her one shoulder in a perpetual hunch. I’m not sure if it still hurts or of it’s just a lingering instinct, favoring where she got shot.
“You are without a doubt the smuggest ass I have ever known.” Val’s voice remains low and level, but his nostrils flare. He’s still looking at Alex–Kaiden may as well have not spoken at all. “Do you really believe you know everything?”
“I knew Gid had a daddy with security codes. And I knew she would come through for us.” Alex flashes a grin and a wink at me. I affect my best Val flat-look and don’t reply.
Daria steps between Val and Alex. “We haven’t accomplished anything yet. That device could be anywhere on these floors.”
“Assuming it’s here at all. Or that we should be here, even if it is.” Val aims a pointed look at Kaiden. “This doesn’t seem just a little too simple?”
Kaiden pulls himself up taller. “If you’re suggesting Muire set us up–”
“If the shoe fits.”
“Enough.” Daria looks way calmer than I would, but a flush lurks beneath her amber complexion. “There was a time for this discussion, we had it, and it’s past. Muire doesn’t know we’re here right now. That will have to be good enough. We have too much ground to cover to waste time on more bickering.”
Kaiden’s face darkens, and he turns away. Val grunts and presses his lips together. Alex somehow manages to wipe the smirk from his face. I catch Jager and Nunes exchanging a look that has “with friends like this who needs enemies” written all over it. Can’t say I disagree with them.
The elevator doors slide shut behind Nunes.
Daria catches my eye and nods. “Everyone knows what they’re doing. Let’s go.”