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Authors: Eliot Peper

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BOOK: Cumulus
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But that didn’t mean he was always necessary. An ace up your sleeve was most useful if you kept it in reserve until it was needed most. Profligate spending quickly resulted in diminishing returns.

“We’ll play the long game on this one,” she said.

He nodded, serene. “That’s not actually why I’m here.”

“Well? Out with it.”

“Remember Sara Levine? The bleeding heart lawyer?”

“GMO holdout?”

“No, that’s Darren Weiss,” said Graham. “He’s buried in a pile of Thai Green Revolution–era bureaucracy at the moment.” He waved the wall to life, and the glass transformed again. “Bring up Sara Levine.”

The view zoomed in on an old Victorian house well outside the Green Zone, somewhere in the Slums of West Oakland. “She’s the class action maven who broke up Pfizer. She was also instrumental in a number of successful consumer-rights lawsuits. She started out as a public defender.” Case history and background files bloomed. “Sees herself as some kind of Robin Hood, fighting for the common man, all that jazz.” The audio and video feeds kicked in from Sara’s phone. The screen was grainy black. The phone must be in a pocket or a dark room. Carnal grunts and moans came through over the sound system. Cognitive dissonance froze Huian’s thoughts for a moment.

“Jesus, Graham. Is she fucking right now?” She shook her head. “Is this how you get off? That’s not why I gave you root access, you know.”

“Mute,” said Graham and the audio died instantly. “All jokes aside, Ms. Levine is in the midst of assembling quite a case. On the surface, it’s an antitrust suit aimed at breaking up Cumulus. But she’s collecting evidence that goes beyond that, and calls into question the legality of our government contracts and many of the Green Zone initiatives.”

Huian waved the glass back into transparency. “Legal deals with these kinds of nuisance suits all the time,” she said. It was hard to take someone seriously immediately after hearing them copulate. “They always settle. I’d say that’s especially likely given that she’s a Slummer.”

Graham’s eyebrows twitched. “Her history indicates that she’s a Slummer by choice, not necessity. The majority of her cases are on spec or pro bono. I’m not sure that a cash payout would necessarily win her over.”

“Be that as it may,” said Huian, “Legal can drown her in a bureaucratic flood of biblical proportions. Unleash the army of associates. Let’s keep it on the back burner for now and explore contingencies if things get more serious.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Graham, rising to his feet with a small bow. “If there’s anything else, you know where to find me.”

“You know,” she said, “you are one of the few people on this planet for whom that expression doesn’t necessarily hold true.”

Graham shrugged in acquiescence. “A poor choice of words. Nevertheless, I’m always at your service.”

He slipped out of the room, and Huian spun in her chair, thinking. Firing Richard. Losing the Tectonix deal. Defending themselves against yet another lawsuit. A fresh email from their chief counsel warned her that the antitrust threat was even more dire than how Graham had described it. What an afternoon. Funny how many people aspired to leadership, given its pains and frustrations. Be careful what you wish for. Time to quit while she was behind, and hope that another day would bring better developments. Vera would help get her mind off of these obstacles. She had a knack for injecting a different point of view into a difficult situation, and Huian depended on her for perspective.

“Tom, I’m heading home.”

 

 

 

7

 

 

 

LILLY TOOK THE SOUTH ON-RAMP
and merged. The Fleet cars heading in the same direction automatically adjusted their speed and spacing to give the Land Rover a wide berth. She snorted. The algorithms governing their movements had little trust in fallible human drivers. Only the extremely vocal minority of muscle-car enthusiasts and their pet lobbyists had kept human-operated vehicles legal through their Right-to-Drive campaigns.

Lilly shivered despite the heat. She understood the argument better than most. The pain never disappeared. Time might dull its edge, but the erosion ended there. The police officer who had knocked on the door of the house in Encinitas had held his hat in his hands, a solemn expression on his baby face. The sunshine of a San Diego County Christmas had glittered off his badge.
Lilly Miyamoto?
She had nodded, not understanding.
I’m sorry, Miss Miyamoto, but there’s been an accident.
Her knuckles were white on the wheel of the Land Rover.
It was quick.
That’s what the doctor had said. Not painless. Just
quick
.

Fleet’s promise of eliminating traffic accidents as a leading cause of death made a lot of sense. Let the cloud do the navigating for us. Traffic patterns would be optimized, blind spots erased, and road rage made irrelevant.

But something about it offended Lilly deep down. It wasn’t so much a rational thesis as a gut feeling. The value of understanding the tools at hand. The importance of grokking first principles. The satisfaction of taking things apart and putting them back together. It was something she had learned from her parents. And the way they had lived was more important than the manner of their death.

Lilly knew every part of this Land Rover. She had spent many days lying on hot asphalt, staring up at its innards, hands covered in grease. That’s why Sara let her use the car when she needed it. There was no way Lilly could afford fuel, let alone a vehicle. But she could earn her way as an amateur mechanic. And driving for free was even better than catching a Fleet for a pittance. There was a reason old Land Rovers remained the off-road vehicle of choice across the world for so long. They were simple, functional, and elegant in their utility. An illiterate mechanic in Mali could fix a Land Rover. The AK-47 was a blockbuster hit for the same reason. Unfortunately, these days, AK-47s were easier to find than vintage Land Rovers.

Her phone pinged as the highway shot out over the arc of the Richmond Bridge. She glanced over at it and saw an automated notification from Lancer saying that Matt Tobin, today’s groom, had just settled the bill on her account. Weird, clients almost never paid prior to actually receiving the pictures. She swiped for more detail.

“Lilly was efficient and punctual. If only she had been a little less punctual about leaving early, we would be getting pictures of the dance. The wedding’s still going but apparently she’s already on her way home.”

Two and a half stars. No tip.

“Fuck me.” Lilly slammed a hand on the steering wheel. She been up since six, sweating her butt off to get perfect candids of the oh-so-happy couple’s big day. Her mind and body were exhausted from hours of shooting. She had stayed way over the agreed-upon time, and she wasn’t even being paid for three hours of driving.

“Fuck me. Fuck me. Fuck me.”
Slam. Slam. Slam.
This Greenie prick didn’t even wait to see the results before sinking her Lancer rating. Her heart sank as she thought about the number of new positive reviews she’d need to make up for the two and a half stars. And there was no viable alternative to Lancer. It made up essentially the entire market for independent contractors offering just about any service. It had taken her years to build up her reputation on the system, and this had just made a serious dent in her standing.

Now she would have to lower her rates to bring in new clients. Those rates barely covered her basic costs as it was. That’s why the only contributions she made to the Trust Fund were tip money. She’d been eating instant noodles for years in order to make sure every cent of tip went into the Trust Fund.

It was her ticket out of the endless hamster wheel of wedding photography and into international photojournalism. She wanted to leave a legacy that went beyond other people’s sappy memories. She wanted to follow in the footsteps of legends like Lynsey Addario, Steve McCurry, Jeff Widener, Edward Burtynsky, and Margaret Bourke-White. She wanted to document the drama, the pain, the strangeness, and the beauty hidden in far corners of forbidden kingdoms.

But that dream remained stubbornly out of reach. Years of saving still left her with far less than she needed to finance an overseas trip. Today, she wouldn’t even be able to add a paltry tip to the Trust Fund. Fucking Matt and his fucking miserliness. They were probably jetting off to their honeymoon in a private plane while she struggled to eke out a living slaving over shots of their happy faces in the darkroom that dominated her apartment. Marian had
told
her she could go. It was just so unfair. That sounded childish, but sometimes the world was childish.

The steel beams supporting the Richmond Bridge flashed by. Beyond, wind teased at the bay, and the sun was starting to dip toward the horizon. A massive oil tanker plied its ponderous way toward the Chevron refinery. The engine purred beneath her like a napping tiger.

Lilly tilted her head to either side, cracking her neck. Cynicism wasn’t going to bring her anything but bitterness. She was lucky she had the gig she did, and had any savings at all. She wasn’t selling drugs—or herself—just to get by. Many of her neighbors weren’t as lucky. She should be happy for her clients, not jealous of them. Shooting weddings wasn’t going to win her any photojournalism awards, but at least it was photography.

Fleet cars dodged out of the way like a school of fish fleeing a shark. She pulled off the freeway one exit early and turned east, following the Oakland/Berkeley border away from home. She needed to refuel, shoot some passion rolls, and forget about the sad reality of her account balance.

Decrepit buildings sagged. Graffiti turned every spare surface into a riot of color and obscenity. Neon signs promised liquor at corner convenience stores. Scraggly trees faltered under the burden of drought. A homeless camp occupied a vacant lot the size of a city block. Poorly maintained asphalt jolted under the Land Rover. She fell into the rhythm of “situational awareness” that her Krav Maga instructors had drilled into her, keeping a constant mental tally of the other vehicles, pedestrians, and blind corners. Nothing made you more vulnerable than simple obliviousness, and vulnerability wasn’t a luxury afforded to Slummers.

This was probably a bad idea. Visiting the Green Zone without a guest pass invited trouble. Lilly pushed the thought out of her mind. She wasn’t going to do anything wrong. All she needed was the view. Then she’d get her sorry ass back to the Slums. Not even the most self-righteous Greenies could object to that.

 

 

 

8

 

 

 

HUIAN ESCHEWED THE ELEVATOR,
and took the stairs two at a time. By the time she stepped onto the roof, she was breathing hard. The Fleet chopper was already waiting on the helipad, rotors blowing dust into her face. The sleek, black machine looked like a mechanical jaguar waiting to pounce. Huian leaned into the blast of air and noise, and jogged forward. A door in the side opened as she approached. Grabbing a handle mounted on the frame, she stepped up and into the body of the helicopter.

The door clicked shut, and suddenly the roar of the blades whirling above her became a dull hum. Bulbous windows afforded views in almost all directions. Yet another benefit of Fleet’s driverless vehicles, there wasn’t anyone there to impede the view. Huian clicked the restraints into place and the blades changed pitch. She called up a live recording of a Robert Glasper show, and jazzy piano riffs filled the small cabin.

The chopper rose slowly off the roof. As it gained altitude, the dust around it cleared and Huian could see the Presidio in all its glory. The elms surrounding the building whipped in the downdraft. Employees walking the grounds looked up to watch the takeoff, shielding their eyes with their hands. The Golden Gate glowed in the afternoon light, and the Pacific Ocean was an infinite blue beyond it, unbroken except for a few assorted ships and the distant Farallon Islands.

Angling down, the helicopter accelerated to the east. Roofs, lawns, and city streets flitted by below them. A few seconds later, they crossed the campus’s border where a Security officer with an assault rifle hanging across his chest was double-checking a visitor’s credentials. The cramped, irregular, charming architecture of San Francisco covered the hills to the south and east, Victorian homes stacked one against the other, eventually yielding to the soaring skyscrapers of the financial district.

Most of San Francisco proper was Green Zone, of course. Tourists could snap photos of Pier
39
, and ride cable cars safe in the protective embrace of Cumulus Security. But Slums like the Tenderloin and Hunter’s Point persisted, metastasizing pits of anarchy.

Huian shook her head. Of course, not everyone could afford to live in the Green Zone—at least, not yet. Some had no choice but to rely on crumbling public institutions and infrastructure. But it never failed to amaze her how people could so determinedly stand in the way of their own success. With the touch of a button, anyone could access every book ever written, every course ever taught, every song ever recorded. With that wealth of information never more than a click away, who could excuse failure?

From this altitude she could see most of the Bay Area. In the south, San Jose was obscured in haze. In the north, Marin County was a grassy expanse of pastoral tranquility. The chopper bisected the two extremes, and flew straight for the East Bay. Oakland. Berkeley. Richmond. El Cerrito. San Leandro. Fremont. The eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay was a messy patchwork of Green Zones and Slums, polka dots of civic order against a background of asphalt and broken dreams. Beyond the horizon, the pattern of Green Zones and Slums extended to circle the entire planet.

BOOK: Cumulus
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