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Authors: Eliot Peper

Cumulus (21 page)

BOOK: Cumulus
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Henok’s expression turned stern again. “I promise I will call you if anything important happens, okay?”

She wanted to argue with him, but she knew he was right. She didn’t have the energy for a debate anyway.

“Fine,” she said. “But if I miss something, I’m gonna know who to blame.”

He grinned. “Deal.”

They walked through the warehouse toward the door. Some sections were busy and some were totally empty. A large part of Frederick’s organization was deployed at the protest, and headquarters felt oddly empty. A cook banked up coals in the massive barbecue. Penelope’s hacker squadron was hard at work. But the fighting pit was vacant, and the logistics team was absent too.

When they reached the door, Henok put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed.

“You’ve been through a lot in the last few days,” he said. “Don’t forget how much of a difference your efforts have made. What you’ve done required far more bravery and creativity than I’ve ever been able to muster. I’m honored to have partnered with you to tell this story. I just wish it didn’t have to be a tragedy.”

She shrugged. “All I did was take the pictures in the first place,” she said. “I couldn’t have done any of the rest of it alone.”

“And we couldn’t have done it without you.”

The dogs mobbed her as she crossed the asphalt, a storm of pink tongues and wet noses. Maybe it was time she liquidated the Trust Fund. She had spent years contributing to it and daydreaming of the exotic locales she would one day be able to document. But the last few days had proved that she didn’t need to travel in order to seek adventure. There was more adventure than she could stomach right here in Oakland. She scratched the fur on one of the dog’s heads. Adventure had just been a proxy anyway. What she had really been after was purpose.

Maybe she could turn her lens inward. She could use the savings to finance herself to follow local stories until she was able to earn commissions for them. She and Henok could chase down investigative leads and blow open more conspiracies. Though, to be fair, they hadn’t even gotten to the bottom of
this
conspiracy yet. Now that their findings were public, it was only a matter of time before someone apprehended the man. Once they did, there would be so many more questions to be answered. The more she thought about it, the more she realized she really did need to rest.

A Fleet was waiting when she reached the sidewalk. One of the guards held the door open. They were the only two enforcers she’d seen at the Compound since her first visit. The others must be out at the protest.

She sank into the backseat of the Fleet, and the door clicked shut behind her. It was so comfortable. She ordered it to her home address, and the vehicle pulled smoothly away from the curb. Every time she blinked, she had to force her eyes open again. It would take less than ten minutes to get home. Maybe she could just let them close. She’d wake up at her front door.

On the next blink, she didn’t fight it. She drifted into the satiny embrace of sleep.

 

 

 

35

 

 

 

THE CHOPPER MADE A SMOOTH CURVE
around the massive tower of black smoke rising from the bonfire that still blazed in the middle of the intersection. Once clear, its nose dipped, and it came in at a sharp angle. This had the dual benefit of accelerating them for a fast pass and maximizing visibility through the front view screens.

“Accounts differ,” said Karl. He had taken manual control of the chopper once they had reached the tactical zone. “But my analysts have already reviewed the footage. The size of the protest is beginning to surge again, and they’ve been right at the line all night, pushing up against our officers. A bunch of teenagers started throwing bricks at the riot cops holding the line. Not that big of a deal. They just used their shields to deflect them. But then another kid came forward with what looked like a gun. When he raised it, a sniper setup on top of the highway took him out. Then the gangbangers opened up, and it’s going downhill from there.”

A strange mix of terror and sorrow welled up inside Huian. This was her home. Despite all their efforts at de-escalation, it was devolving into violence. “The kid,” she said. “Did he actually shoot anyone?”

Karl grimaced but his eyes remained on the flight path. “We don’t have
100
percent confirmation yet, but my analysts think it was a water pistol painted to look real.”

“Jesus Christ.” To her own ears, Huian’s voice sounded like it was coming from kilometers away. “Jesus fucking Christ.”

Karl’s jaw clenched. “I’ve ordered my men to stand down but… Well, fuck. You can see it for yourself. That’s why we’re here against my better judgment.” Huian had insisted they do a fly-by. Cumulus’s drones, cameras, and sensors had extraordinary coverage, but sometimes there was no substitute for being there in person.

The chopper was swooping low over the protest to the intersection of
40
th
Street and Highway
24
. Muzzles flashed from all directions, and they could hear the pop-pop-pop of automatic weapons fire over the sound of the rotor. The riot officers barricaded under the freeway had thrown tear-gas canisters into the crowd. The white gas billowed and swirled, tracers zipping through cloud. But someone had been distributing gas masks, and most people in the crowd were already wearing them. Frederick’s dreadlocked enforcers had fortified many of the buildings on the Fringe side of Highway
24
, and were laying down cover fire on the snipers holed up behind the guardrails. Where Security had painted their line,
40
th
Street was complete chaos. Corpses bled out on the asphalt. Media drones buzzed everywhere, delivering live feeds to the mesmerized internet masses. Chandra must have been having a heart attack.

Karl brought them around for another pass. A Molotov cocktail spiraled through the air and exploded against the shield of a riot officer. Something small and dark flashed over the chaotic maelstrom of the line and under the overpass. Another followed. Huian tried to see where it was coming from and saw a boy with a rusty red wagon filled with what looked like rocks. He was firing them one after another out of an oversized slingshot. Blinding light flashed from beneath the overpass, and fire gouted out either side and up through the BART tracks that separated the two sections of highway. Bodies tumbled everywhere. The shock wave made the chopper shudder and jump, and Huian bit her tongue hard. Secondary explosions roared, and the entire overpass trembled and then collapsed in a massive cloud of dust and rubble, sucking in screaming snipers from above and crushing the ranks of riot police beneath. The crowd surged forward into the confusion, clambering over the debris pile and into the Green Zone. Enforcers led the vanguard, and the Security officers and vehicles who had been stationed farther up
40
th
Street opened fire.

“Fuck,” said Karl, cutting the chopper at a steep angle and accelerating back toward San Francisco. “Ma’am, I must insist we return to base. I cannot guarantee your safety in the air, and the National Guard will doubtless arrive soon.”

Huian nodded mutely. That little boy couldn’t have been more than twelve years old. Reality was tearing apart at the seams.

“You said that the number of people marching began another increase this morning,” she said. “Why? What triggered it?”

Karl checked the latest reports from his analysts. “Looks like another blog post. Same anonymous author. It’s a follow-up to the article from yesterday. It’s exploding on social right now.”

Huian pulled up the URL on a side screen and began to read.

No. It couldn’t be.

Huian knew exactly what the story was describing. The Ghost Program.
Between us lies a sacred buffer, a line we should never cross. Just do your job and let me do mine.
Graham had been the one who murdered Sara Levine and set off this entire powder keg. Not only that, he’d been discovered and followed. Even worse, someone was reverse-engineering the architecture of the Ghost Program algorithms. One way or the other, it would inevitably lead them to Cumulus. Which meant that Graham was threatening Cumulus. Her most trusted adviser was undermining her magnum opus, sabotaging the future she had devoted her life to building.

She glanced up, trying to keep herself from hyperventilating. The chopper was skimming across the bay. Something was hanging from the lower deck of the bridge. Some kind of banner.

“Stop,” she said.

“Ma’am,” said Karl. “We need to get back to headquarters.”

Huian gave him the full force of her stare. “Stop this chopper right now and get us closer to whatever that thing is.” She pointed. “If you don’t, I will personally destroy every fucking pinball machine in your basement with a baseball bat.”

His nostrils flared, but he brought the chopper around and settled it into a hover. It stirred up the surface of the bay beneath it, throwing up a curtain of fine spray.

“That motherfucker,” said Huian. Her voice was so soft it was nearly inaudible over the rotors.

Karl looked up, incredulous. “Is that… Is that Graham Chandler?”

“That motherfucker,” she said again. The football-field-sized banner of Graham’s face rippled in the wind thrown off by the chopper. His cover was blown, and her company with it. She should never have hired him. She should never have given him so much autonomy. She should never have authorized the Ghost Program in the first place. He had gone so much further than she could ever have imagined.
Don’t send errand boys to manipulate me.
He must be behind that, too. That’s why Martín had come in this morning looking like he’d seen a ghost and offering up Tectonix on a silver platter.
I’m not the kind of person who’s willing to throw his own daughter to the dogs.
So take my company, ravage my life’s work.
What else had Graham been doing that Huian didn’t even know about?

“Bring us in over the bridge,” she said. The article mentioned that other photos were everywhere.

Karl increased their altitude and flew slowly into San Francisco with the surface of the Bay Bridge beneath them.

There he was, plastered over every single fucking billboard. Exiting Sara’s house. Entering the BART station. Patronizing a café.

“Stop.” Her voice was a harsh whisper.

This time, Karl didn’t question the order.

The billboard showed Graham closing the door of a small office building, a smug smile on his face. Huian knew that building. She had been there too many times with Vera for sessions that only ever made things worse. Shiny bald spots and potted plants. She hated that place. She hated Dr. Corvel.

What the fuck was Graham doing at his office?

 

 

 

36

 

 

 

THE WORLD BLURRED BACK INTO FOCUS.
Something had woken Lilly. She must be home. But the Fleet wasn’t parked. Instead, it was accelerating up an incline. The change in angle had shaken her awake.

It took her a moment to scramble back up the slope to consciousness. She had left Henok to get some rest. It had been more than thirty hours since she’d slept. She’d nodded off in the Fleet en route to her apartment. But she lived less than ten minutes from Frederick’s warehouse. So where exactly was she?

Outside the window, she saw wide lanes and thick cables rising up to a central pylon. Wind-ruffled water stretched out to either side. A bridge. The Bay Bridge. What the hell was she doing on the Bay Bridge heading toward San Francisco? You didn’t even have to get on the freeway to make your way from the warehouse to her apartment. Had she butt-dialed a new destination for the Fleet? Or slept for so long in the backseat of the vehicle that it reset to pick up a new passenger?

She pulled out her phone and swiped her finger across the screen. It didn’t respond. She tried again, but again there was no response. Depressing a button flush with the edge, she restarted it. Nothing. Shit. Had she forgotten to charge it last night?

She’d been up all night hitching rides on trucks to and from the warehouse to distribute and install the photos all over the city. Maybe her battery had run out of juice. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d checked how much charge remained. What was the protocol for a Fleet rider whose phone died? Surely, the system still knew her destination and charged her account automatically anyway. There was no way their engineers hadn’t accounted for that eventuality—it must happen every day. So then where the hell was this thing taking her?

Across the water, the skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco gleamed in the morning light. The Bay Bridge started in Oakland, landed on Treasure Island where the lanes dove into a tunnel, and then arced up again on the other side all the way to the San Francisco Embarcadero. Like all the Cumulus companies, Fleet was headquartered on their otherworldly Presidio campus. Maybe she was headed for some kind of maintenance lot.

BOOK: Cumulus
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