E.S. Yu © 2018
All Rights Reserved
The call came, as it always did, out of the blue, making Vax choke and nearly spill his latte down his jacket. He reluctantly set his cup on the café table with a stifled sigh and, after another minute of buzzing, finally tapped the node in his ear. There was only one person who ever called him, and the call always meant bad news.
“You’ve reached Corporate Murder Services. How can I help you?” he answered.
“Very funny,” a smooth voice said. “I have a new assignment for you. Get to my office.”
“Now?” Vax massaged the bridge of his nose. For once, he’d managed to snag an unoccupied window table, and now he wouldn’t get to enjoy the sunshine or the view. “I’ll need thirty minutes to get there, give or take traffic.”
“Fine. See you soon.”
The call ended. Vax swallowed, his appetite suddenly gone. He downed the rest of his latte, got up from his seat, and texted for an AutoRide. Not for the first time, he thought about suggesting a text message next time, or even a video call, as being much more convenient than an in-person meeting; also not for the first time, he reminded himself glumly that that was never going to happen.
The world had to have been determined to hate him today; he got in the driverless car as it drove up, and just after it pulled away from the curb, the screen inside began broadcasting a news story about Cyrex’s CEO.
“Over the weekend, Cyrex Corp CEO, Atali Norman, pledged five million dollars to support STEM programs in schools across the country…”
Vax immediately changed the channel to one that aired several bioaugment commercials—including the one for Cyrex’s latest weight loss bioaug model that seemed to be everywhere lately—before reporting grim updates on the war overseas. He sighed, gazing morosely out the window at the passing traffic and the colorful screens on the street. Just the way he wanted to start his morning.
Cyrex’s headquarters formed the tallest building in Orphis City, visible from miles away. All glass, as though inviting the world to come and look inside; it had no secrets to hide. It made Vax think of an obnoxiously shiny diamond in the center of Orphis’s gleaming crown of wealthy, high-tech development, which was very photogenic and good for luring tourists to America’s fastest-growing biotech hub, if not exactly an accurate representation of the city as a whole. Vax got out of the car as it pulled up and walked through the glass doors at the entrance.
The sleek, modern lobby bustled with people. Vax waved the microchip in his finger through security and stepped into the elevator. He kept his gaze averted as people in suits and lab coats got on and off with each stop, fixing his eyes on the glimpses of his own reflection in the glass, flickering in and out of existence, like a ghost.
At the top floor, he exited the elevator. He tapped the touch screen panel by the glass door that read Atali Norman, CEO, and the panel flashed green as the door unlocked with a click. Bracing himself, he pulled the door open and walked into the spacious office. Atali himself was standing by the floor-to-ceiling windows that provided a view of the entire city, talking to someone through his node as Vax entered.
“Honey, I know you’re nervous about starting at a new school, but I guarantee that your classmates will be nice kids who want to become friends with you. Trust me, you have nothing to worry about. Getting into Exelor Academy was the hard part; everything else should be a piece of cake. And if anyone’s mean to you? Just tell me, and I’ll take it up with the school. I’m serious!” He turned around and caught sight of Vax. “Sorry, Cathy, I have to go. Call me back later if you’re still anxious, okay? All right. Love you. See you later.”
He ended the call with a press to his ear and turned to face Vax fully. Holographic text flashed in front of his eyes, projected from the transparent augment by his temple. The morning sunlight turned his blond hair into pallid silver, matching his pale skin, as he smiled.
“Hello, Vax. You’re looking well.”
Vax wasn’t in the mood for small talk. “Who’s the target?”
Atali sighed in mock disappointment. “Always business with you.” He produced a microdrive from his pocket, which he inserted into the desk before tapping the touch screen desk surface. The windows behind him darkened and displayed a picture of a young, East Asian man with black hair and light-copper skin.
“Do you know who this is?” Atali asked.
Vax studied the picture more closely. The guy was quite good-looking—as much as Vax wished he could block that thought from his mind—but he didn’t recognize him. “No, sir.”
“That’s Zai Lumero, age twenty-five. He’s a journalist who writes for the Daily Voice, one of those independent news sites that aims to report on ‘true issues’ affecting people’s lives.” Atali spoke with the bored disdain of someone talking about an infestation of rats in a neighboring building. “He lives right in the city.”
So Vax wouldn’t be traveling this time. That was a bit disappointing, but he’d live. Journalist…what, had Lumero written something online that offended Atali? It seemed like overkill to Vax. Not that his opinion counted for anything, though.
“He’s also the son of Lin Zhao Lumero, the current head of Meridian, Inc. Though he’s been estranged from his family for a few years, due to his decision to become a justice crusader.”
“Wait, the son of Meridian’s CEO?” Vax echoed. Meridian might have been Cyrex’s biggest competitor, but he didn’t think Atali was reckless enough to order a hit against its CEO’s son.
“Yes.” Atali’s lips thinned into a displeased line. “Unfortunate that he has such a prominent connection, but it can’t be helped.”
Oh. So this wasn’t directly related to inter-corporation politics. Still… “How estranged are we talking about? This sounds like it could bring down a lot of heat.”
“Do your job correctly, and that won’t be an issue,” Atali said, his voice turning icy.
Vax flinched at his tone and dropped his gaze. “Yes, sir.”
“Ambush him in his apartment. Make it look like a home invasion gone wrong.”
That was a first…and this assignment was sounding worse by the minute. “That doesn’t sound like a good idea.”
“Did I ask for your input?”
“No, sir,” Vax muttered, “but you got it anyway.”
Atali gave him a cool look. That was as much as Vax dared to push him.
“After you take care of him, take his computer, pod, anything he might’ve stored his information on, and destroy them somewhere far from his apartment, so no one can retrieve the information.”
Because Atali was genuinely afraid of what Lumero had found, or because he thought it would divert attention from the murder? In any case, Vax wasn’t being paid to care. He picked up the microdrive with Lumero’s information from the desk and slipped it into his pocket.
“How soon do you need it done?”
“By the end of the week.”
Vax tried not to look too disappointed. For a journalist with presumably minimal security, it was doable, though he would’ve liked more time. “Okay,” he said.
“So,” Atali said, in a pleasant tone now, “how have you been? Do anything fun lately?”
“No, sir.” Vax stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets. He’d hoped the conversation would be strictly business; now he was stuck trying to figure out the least offensive thing to say that would allow him to exit.
“It’s been a while. We should catch up once you’ve taken care of Lumero.”
A wave of dread swept through Vax. He kept his eyes fixed on his shoes, trying to breathe through his nose, clenching his trembling hands in his pockets. No, I’m fine not catching up. Really.
He was aware of Atali slowly circling toward him, all of his senses instantly snapping alert as soon as Atali crossed an invisible threshold from close to too close. Without warning, Atali grabbed his chin and jerked it up and to the side, forcing him to meet his gaze. Vax winced at the sharp movement and the way Atali’s thumb dug into his jaw, hard enough to bruise, his skin crawling at the unwanted contact.
“You’re supposed to look at someone’s eyes when they’re talking to you.”
“Yes, sir,” he answered in a flat tone, struggling not to let his gaze slide away. He didn’t want to make things worse, even though Atali’s eyes were cold scalpels, flaying and dissecting him into pieces of pulpy flesh.
Atali held his jaw for a moment longer before releasing it. “Don’t screw this up,” he said, his voice cool and clipped with dismissal.
Vax exhaled, rubbing at where Atali had grabbed him. He could still feel the lingering pressure, like phantom fingerprints left behind on his jawbone.
“Yes, sir.” He left as quickly as he could.
Zai Lumero had an uneventful life. Usually, he left his apartment in the morning, spent several hours at a café typing on his tablet—working remotely on articles for the Voice, Vax assumed—and occasionally went back to his apartment for a few hours at a time to make private calls. He broke for dinner at one of various hole-in-the-wall restaurants before heading back home, and then he spent the rest of the night typing on his tablet—still working?—before he went to sleep around eleven-o’-clock.
Also, Lumero either liked solitude, was a complete workaholic, or was lonely. He lived by himself, ate his meals by himself, didn’t hit the bar or a club or anything at night, and never seemed to receive any visitors. It wasn’t what Vax expected, considering that Zai always chatted with the café baristas with a bright, friendly smile. Well, at least there would be less of a problem with potential witnesses. Even better was the fact that Lumero didn’t seem to have a home security system, as far as Vax could tell using the long-range scanner in his augment.
A day before his one-week deadline was up, Vax slipped into Lumero’s apartment building in the afternoon, after Lumero had left for lunch. He took care to keep his face turned away from the surveillance cameras. The lock on Lumero’s door was standard, and it didn’t take long to deactivate it with a lock decryptor and open the door. Since he had a few hours to kill before Lumero came home, based on his usual pattern, Vax took a quick look around.
Lumero’s apartment appeared fairly new, with wallscreens that shifted between relaxing panoramas of beaches, jungle, and underwater scenery, and while not huge, it was larger than where Vax lived. It had comfortable furniture, but otherwise it looked sparse. There wasn’t much in the way of decoration or obvious luxury, and there weren’t many pictures of Lumero or his friends or family members, making the apartment feel strangely depersonalized.
There was only one digital picture frame, and it sat on top of Lumero’s nightstand, probably of his family or friends. Vax avoided looking too closely.
You’re just here to do a job.
A simple, ordinary job. He’d run through it a dozen times already in his head. Wait until Lumero returned home, and then take him out. Simple. He’d escape via the roof, go back to Cyrex, make his report, collect his paycheck, and hopefully be left alone for a while.
He settled behind the sofa, making sure he would be outside of Lumero’s line of sight once he returned, and waited.
Outside the window, the sun slowly sank, bruising the sky red before it deepened to violet. Shadows bathed the apartment, though it wasn’t a problem for Vax with his night-vision-enabled ocular bioaugs. He had plenty of time to check and double-check that his silenced gun was loaded and ready, to let any remaining nerves blur into the smoggy haze of minutes blending into each other as his gloved fingers ran absently over the gun. Nerves. He used to wonder whether they meant he was a poor assassin, but eventually he decided they meant he really didn’t want to get caught—or see Atali’s reaction if he failed.
He snapped alert when he heard a soft beep and a click as the front door opened. Zai Lumero stepped inside, shoulders sagging a little as he dropped his messenger bag on the ground with a thump, went to the fridge, and grabbed a bottle of something, all without noticing Vax was there.
Everything was lined up. He pointed his gun directly at Lumero’s head, inhaled, and then pulled the trigger.
Lumero chose just that second to abruptly slump forward, dropping his head.
Lumero jumped as the bullet thudded into a wall. Vax readjusted and pulled the trigger again—
Lumero hit the ground, one hand to his ear, barking a command—
—and in the fraction of a second before Vax finished pulling the trigger, the lights came on and blinded him. His hand jerked. He didn’t hear Lumero cry out, which meant he’d missed.
Before he could blink the colorful spots away from his vision, Lumero tackled him to the ground, trying to wrestle the gun from his hand—
Lumero’s grip suddenly went slack.
“Ethan?” Lumero breathed, in a voice strangled with shock.
Vax wrenched his gun back, finger on the trigger, his hand moving to aim in the direction of Lumero’s voice before his brain had a chance to process. Ethan? Who the hell is…?
He caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye. Everything went white with blinding, agonizing pain, and—