The day's shitty air quality kept most people inside, so the line at the dome's pubic entrance wasn't long. Simon curved over to the VIP lane anyway. He waved his hand at the chip reader and a side door hissed open, granting him instant access to the green space beyond.
Stepping inside, he squinted at the assault of gaudy color from row after row of hothouse flowers, many species of which only existed now in carefully maintained preserves like this one. Simon slid the mask that covered his nose and mouth down to dangle below his chin and breathed in the perfumed air.
Signs dotting the manicured paths led him to the arboretum section. Jones was already waiting for him there, lounged on a bench under an impressive oak tree. She straightened insouciantly as he approached, pulling her limbs in fractionally to make room for him.
"Interesting venue," he said as he settled next to her. She'd probably been able to pick up on his irritation at being dragged all the way out to the green dome for a meeting even when he was halfway across town, but it didn't hurt to drive the point home. The fact that he dropped everything to meet her anyway spoke for his trust in her judgment.
"I take it you called me out here because the sweep for bugs in my office yesterday missed a few?"
"I haven't heard anything." The whisper of leaves in the dome's artificial breeze rivaled her low-pitched voice. He suspected that she spoke softly to counteract the relentless din in her head.
"Heard or heard?"
She shrugged. "Either. You needed some air."
He choked down the impulse to ask her who she was to tell him what he needed.
Jones often had the grace to pretend Simon's unvoiced thoughts also went unnoticed. Apparently, she was feeling less than gracious today. "If you could figure out what you needed yourself, I wouldn't have to tell you." She ran her cold gray eyes over him. "When was the last time you left your office? Slept for more than a few hours? Ate something that didn't come in a foil packet?"
"You have to ask?"
Of course she didn't. She shrugged again. "Just bringing it to your attention."
He didn't need Jones' talent to hear what she'd left unsaid. His body was a weakness he had to acknowledge. If he kept ignoring it, he'd get sloppy, risk fucking things up worse than they already were.
"Noted," he said sourly. Helmholtz never needed to take the time to sleep six straight hours or hit the gym or eat a balanced meal. How could Simon afford to?
And even if he didn't feel like he was ceding ground to the old bastard every time he so much as took a shit, with the latest intel from Milo running like an ominous soundtrack in the back of his mind, it took a stubborn act of will to stay asleep for even a few hours or choke down a protein bar.
"I assume you didn't call me out here just to stop and smell the fucking roses."
"No," she said, obviously unmoved by his impatience. She tilted her head back and took a deep breath. "But maybe we should."
That was uncharacteristically maudlin of her. If he'd wanted a life coach or a fucking nanny, he would have hired one. "Of course," he drawled sarcastically. "My problem isn't the V-Series clusterfuck, it's that I've forgotten what a miracle it is to be alive."
She gave him a flat look before turning away to stare at the stand of pines across the path. "Maybe it is."
He studied her profile. She almost sounded like one of those Jesus freak moonies. "What the hell is the matter with you?"
"I scheduled a call with Helmholtz tomorrow morning," she said, keeping her face turned away from him. "I'm going to offer him my services in the network."
Acid churned in his stomach. The bitch was going over to Helmholtz now? He'd pulled her up out of the ashes of his father's career. Cultivated an alliance grounded in mutual interest. Fearlessly embraced her talent when everyone else fled from it. She knew him, and he'd never begrudged her the access.
The old bastard was going to love hearing about everything inside Simon's head.
He jammed his hands into his pockets to keep them from shaking with the urge to hit her. The dome wasn't crowded, but it was still a public place.
Jones hissed, rubbing at her forehead. "Cut the fury and think it through, Hering. I do know you."
Knew him well enough to arrange a meet in one of the places Central Security still sunk resources into patrolling, he noted as a uniformed officer strolled by. But she'd have to leave the safety of the dome sometime. And then he'd have a chance to plug this leak before it became a problem.
She nodded, pressing her hands against her temples. "So why give you the opportunity?"
Simon might not have known Jones quite as well as she knew him, but he was confident the woman wouldn't put herself at risk for purely sentimental reasons. She'd been in his head long enough to realize if she wanted to fuck him over, she'd better make sure he had no opportunity for revenge.
"That's right," she said, wincing. "If I was betraying you, you'd only know about it after Helmholtz changed the locks and froze your accounts."
True. He allowed his anger to flare for another moment, not above taking petty satisfaction in extending her discomfort. Then he reined the emotion in.
Her posture eased, but she kept rubbing her forehead as she glared at him. "You're a prick, Herring. This is probably my last night alive and I'm going to spend it with a migraine."
"I'm sure a bullet would take care of that," he said without much heat. He'd decided to hear her out, so she'd know it wasn't a serious threat. "You've got my attention, so talk."
"You need me in the network."
Now she was back to telling him what he needed? The woman had balls. "What I need are employees who stick to their fucking job descriptions."
She gave him a withering look. Her employee contract wasn't exactly a paragon of specificity. The flexibility allowed her to work when and where she'd be most useful.
But that didn't include the network.
"I need you here."
"So we can both tread water waiting for Victor Bravo to destroy everything?" She raised an eyebrow. "How long were you going to sit on the information from Milo Sipe?"
He felt the blood drain from his face even as his anger tried to reassert itself. She'd been poking around in his head—at a distance and uninvited—to learn about the latest message from Milo. She expected him to trust her to Helmholtz when she questioned his judgment and invaded his privacy?
"You've been broadcasting like a satellite," she said matter-of-factly. "Victor Bravo's upload worked, and somehow he's found his way into an avatar. He could be anywhere in the network. With the fundamentalists."
As if Simon didn't understand that. He'd been right about Milo having connections to the Jesus freaks. According to the gangster's spies, they were overjoyed that their "Child of God" was nearly ready to join the flock.
"I'm handling it," he gritted out. "He's mobile, which means his imprint is vulnerable. We find out where he's hosted and shut him down."
Jones shook her head. "The trail out here's gone cold. And Milo isn't stupid enough to hand him over to you without knowing the full story, especially not if it means crossing somebody who's figured out how to fix an avatar to a rogue imprint."
It was a neat trick. If they weren't such a pain in his ass, Simon would almost respect the freaks who'd pulled it off. "But you'll be able to find him, no problem, once you get a ticket in?"
"I'll be able to try."
"So your plan is to sacrifice all the valuable service you can do out here, let Helmholtz sink his claws into you, all on the off chance you may be able to run across Victor Bravo on the network?" He tutted. "Not your best mission plan, Jones."
Not unless what she really wanted was a cozy spot on one of Helmholtz' servers so she could kick back and see which side came out on top.
She snorted. "Don't kid yourself. I would've gone over to Helmhotz years ago if it was just about hedging my bets."
"So why didn't you?" he asked, bristling at the implication that his position had been so weak for so long. Simon's operation was limited, but Helmholtz' hubris knew no bounds.
She shrugged again. "I want things to change."
"And you think giving that fucking bastard a chance to dazzle you with all the status quo has to offer is going to make that happen?"
"It's better than sitting around here waiting for Helmholtz to find Bravo himself. Or for the fundamentalists to figure out how to use him."
Projections of both scenarios had soured Simon's stomach and kept him awake for days, but doubtlessly Jones already knew that too. He told her the same thing he'd been reminding himself since decrypting Milo's latest data. "We don't even know if Bravo's talent survived the upload. Yours might not either, for that matter. You want to go in there deaf?"
"Vaughn's talent transferred," she shot back. "Do you want to stake everything on the chance that Bravo's not a threat?" She turned away again, eyes narrowing. "And I'm more than just my talent."
She was. She'd proven it on job after job for him. It still didn't mean he was willing to lose her to the network.
"The V-Series infrastructure is intact," he hedged.
"Growing and training another test subject will take years. You really think we still have that kind of time?"
Not if Victor Bravo's abilities had made it through the upload. Simon shook his head. "You think Helmholtz is going to take you in with open arms and let you wander around wherever you want unsupervised? Talk to whoever you want? The bastard might not even approve your transfer into the network right away just for spite."
"He will if I give him something he wants. Start earning his trust."
He clenched his fists in his pockets. A gust of artificial breeze chilled his skin. "And just how do you propose to do that?"
Jones met his eyes. "By giving him you," she said.
AN: Sorry for the extreme delay in getting this chapter out. Thanks to all of you who've been sticking with the story and checking back for updates. You guys keep me motivated!