Published on 08/29/2022
Vincent walked down the streets of downtown Manhattan and craned his neck upwards at the skyscraper that Unity Headquarters resided in. Originally, the world trade center had been the tallest building in the city, but after constant pressure by the mega-corp, a new building was erected that stood even taller. The building had no sharp corners and was ovular in shape. At the top was an antennae dish so large, it looked like it should have been scanning the stars for alien life. Instead, it was receiving and transmitting billions of signals per second to and from millions of devices, including everyone’s neural implants within a 10-mile radius. The building was one of the world’s pinnacles of architecture and technology, and Vincent was stepping through its front doors.
Vincent’s target, Kyle Livingston, was an assistant supervisor of the branch involved in relations with Unity’s branch operating in China. Unlike the American government which was nothing but a puppet controlled by Unity’s will, the Chinese government had maintained a chokehold on all companies within its borders. There were many mega-corporations within the Asian powerhouse that were just as big or bigger than Unity, but they operated under the thumb of the Central People’s Government. Unity had made many compromises and sacrifices to operate in China, and they still held the majority of the market overseas when it came to all things related to Neural Reality. However, Unity’s Chinese rival, JoyTech, was slowly but surely gaining more and more users. This was amplified by the direct support of the Central People’s Government. Saying that Unity was fighting an uphill battle in the Chinese Market was an understatement.
The anonymous contact that had requested Mr. Livingston’s silencing had given a fake ID and backstory for Vincent to act as. From this point until the end of the mission, he would be Tim Bailey, a representative of Unity China who was in New York for vacation but also wanted to get a little work down while in town. Many hoops had been jumped through to insert this fake person into Unity’s employee list, and it was obvious this contact was someone inside the Chinese Central Government. Only a national backed agent could have access to that money. Vincent had spent the entire night memorizing every last bit of data that had been created about this nonexistent Tim Bailey. Fake phone number, social security number, even facial features had been inserted into Tim Bailey’s profile. This last part was a little bit of a hassle as the profile stated that Mr. Bailey had jet black hair, which clashed with Vincent’s golden blond hair. So, a few days prior, he had all the hair follicles on his head and face adjusted to produce black hair. He could have just dyed his hair, but he figured it would be wise to change his look a bit more permanently to avoid the woman that had been searching for him. He had also replaced his sleek black prosthetic arm with a natural looking one. It was still very jarring seeing what looked like a normal arm where his obvious robotic one had been for years.
He walked through two huge double doors and stood in the lobby of the giant building. People flowed in and out, caught up in whatever neural activities they had running. There was a security checkpoint, and he watched as the employees walked through a scanner specifically designed to verify their identity through their Neural Implant. Vince could have tried to walk through with trust that his fake identity had been configured correctly, but he decided he would try his hand at a less risky method.
“Call Kyle Livingston” he thought to himself. A ringing sound rang through his ears as the call reached out, then a connection was made.
“Hello?” a voice responded, obviously unsure of who Vincent was.
“Hey Kyle, this is Tim, Tim Bailey.” Vincent announced himself confidently then waited.
“Oh hey, yeah, Tim…” was the response. In his experience, Vincent had learned that there were two types of people: Those that would immediately ask for more identification from an unknown person, and those that would act like they knew the person but would slowly try to ease more details out of them. Kyle was the second type of person. The less information he had to give to Kyle, the better this would go. “Yeah, uh, how’s it going Tim?”
“I’m tired, 15 hours of flying time out of Beijing, and then when that jet lag hits? It’ll get to you,” Vincent said in a tired voice, even going so far as to give a fake yawn.
“Oh yeah tell me about it, I’ve done it too many times,” Kyle responded with a forced laugh. Despite the unease in his voice, it was clear that he was at least deducing who Vincent was supposed to be.
“I believe it. Listen, I’m in the lobby of Unity HQ, I was going to come up to greet you, talk a little business, but then I thought ‘Who am I kidding, I’m supposed to be on vacation’! So, I had the thought, it’s around lunch time, I figured I’d treat you to a meal, you could tell me some things to do in the city, maybe give a little run down of business, the works. What do you say?” Vincent asked steadily, despite his rapidly increasing heart rate. There was a short pause.
“Uh, yeah, that sounds great, but I’m actually a little busy at the moment,” Kyle hesitantly responded. He probably wasn’t, but it was obvious that he still did not know who Vincent was.
“Ah man, didn’t they tell you I was going to be coming in around noon?” Vincent asked, racking his brain on ways to get this man out of his office.
“No, actually, no one informed me of your arrival. You said your name was Tim Bailey, right?” There was a pause, then, “Yeah, you’re not on my schedule for today…” His voice trailed off. Vincent decided to play his trump card before he would be forced to brave the security check point.
“Oh, you know what? Yeah, I wouldn’t be on your schedule. I was supposed to meet with Mr. O’Donnell, but I figured he was going to be super busy and wouldn’t have time to listen to my petty report, so I called you instead to see if you would hear it in his place. But that’s all good, you’re a busy man I’m sure, and protocol is protocol. I’ll come up there and find him myself, tell him my little details of what’s happening in Beijing, no problem...”
There was a short silence. There were many holes in the card Vincent had just played, and if Kyle had the sense to refer to his boss, Mr. O’Donnell, it would instantly become apparent that there would be no mention of a Tim Bailey coming to visit. However, Vincent also knew from his briefing that Kyle was gunning for Mr. O’Donnell’s position. If an opportunity arose where Kyle could get a leg up on his boss, he would be hard pressed not to take it. Vincent’s heart continued to race in this seemingly prolonged silence.
“You know what Tim, actually, I just realized it but I am pretty hungry. This office is getting kind of stuffy anyway. You said you were in the lobby, right?” Vincent let out a silent sigh of relief.
“Yup, right in front of the checkpoint,” Vincent replied cheerfully. “I’m wearing an “I love NY” shirt, shorts, flip flops. I’m basically screaming ‘I’m a tourist’ down here.”
Kyle laughed genuinely. “Sounds good, I’ll be down in just a minute or two.”
“Fantastic, see you soon.” Vincent closed the connection, then let out a huge sigh. He felt his beating heart slowly regain its normal rate, but the adrenaline was still flowing through his body. The first hurdle had been cleared and friendly contact had been established with the target. Now came the real business. After a few minutes, a man meeting the description of Kyle Livingston came into view. He was bit shorter than Vincent had expected, probably no taller than five and a half feet. He was fairly trim in stature, with brown hair and a small goatee. He looked to be about 28, but looks could always be very deceiving in this day and age. As he got closer, Vincent put on his best smile to match the approaching man’s.
“Kyle! Thanks for coming to meet me, really appreciate it,” Vincent said as he stretched out his right hand.
“Pleasure is all mine, Tim,” Kyle replied as he grasped Vincent’s hand and shook it warmly. Upon releasing it he looked at Vincent with a raised eyebrow.
“Oh yeah, served in the army, lost the hand, got a new one, the works,” Vincent replied nonchalantly, though mildly perturbed that the man had still been able to recognize that the appendage was a fake. This arm and hand was supposed to look and feel like a natural one, but maybe Kyle had squeezed hard enough to feel the mechanical inner workings of it. He had been given this prosthetic after his release from the Sector, but rarely used it. He preferred the sleeker, more obvious black one, but few people had prosthetics like that and Tim Bailey was not going to be one of those people.
“You were in the army?” Kyle asked as they began walking towards the exit.
“Yeah, I was. They gave me the option of a sleeker looking arm, but I turned it down. Don’t need memories of war and fighting, y’know?” Vincent continued, trying to change the subject from prying into his past.
“Yeah, my father was the same way, came out the force and barely spoke a word about it,” Kyle replied as they began to walk out the building back onto the streets.
“Oh, your dad served?”
“Yeah, he was in the… the… oh what was it… the neural division? The Neural Implant Section? Something like that. He never spoke much about it but would hint here and there that they were doing some crazy stuff with the neural implants.”
Vincent felt a cold sweat starting to form on his back but kept his face and voice calm. “The Neural Division? Never heard of it. What did they do? Drone control or something?”
“No no, it was something bigger than drones, but he was really secretive about it. He would just tell me things like how they were working on using the implant to its full combat potential, but would never go into detail.”
“Well that’s interesting. I can’t really think of any other uses for the implant besides controlling drones with them,” Vincent lied.
“Yeah me neither. Maybe he was using it for simulations or something? I don’t know, it never really interested me so I never pressed him about it, and he took those secrets with him to the grave” Kyle trailed off as Vincent breathed another silent sigh of relief. If Kyle had been more informed about the dangerous potential of the implant, this job would have become a new level of difficult. As they continued to walk down the sidewalk, Vincent wanted to ensure that Kyle’s knowledge of the implant stopped at basic consumer level.
“So, what specifically are you doing in Unity? I know you’re an assistant supervisor and all, but…” Vincent asked, letting his statement trail off to be picked up by Kyle.
“Oh yeah, so I’m the real cat herder of the office, I get all the files and documentation from our team, look over them, make requirements, and then I send those all up to O’Donnell who just stamps them off without even giving them a full read through,” Kyle explained, his tone dropping at the mention of his boss.
“Do you receive our documentation and such as well?”
“Oh yeah, everything from Unity China filters through us first. O’Donnell is supposed to be the one that looks through it all first, but it usually ends up that he just takes the interesting financial reporting and the mundane trivial works gets handed off to me,” he replied, his brow slightly furrowed.
“I see, so your group is the gate keeper between east and west.”
From this, Vincent concluded that Kyle was more of a documentation and report manager than someone who would be in the know of advanced topics of the Neural Implant. He felt himself relaxing, then sensing that the conversation was faltering he quickly changed the subject. “So, do you know any good cafes, maybe one with some decent lunch items?”
Kyle’s face loosened up at the mention of lunch. “Oh yeah, just a block more and there’s a pretty good one call Sweet Apple Café. They have pretty good sandwiches, and my coworkers say the coffee is pretty good.”
“Sounds great, lead the way,” Vincent replied with a grand smile. A few minutes of walking and small talk later, they had arrived at the front of a tiny café. Looking in, Vincent could see that the store consisted of the main counter, two small tables, and a bar with stools aligned against the window facing outwards. Everything was automated, and upon walking in a small notification pinged in the corner of Vincent’s vision for his attention. He opened it and a digital menu filled his vision. He scrolled through the sandwiches and chose a BLT, then looked at the coffee menu. Whenever he visited a new café, he always tried whatever specialty coffee they served. The specialty here was simply called the “Sweet Apple”. He selected it and completed his order. All this had happened within his neural implant through thought, no speaking or movement necessary. His account was charged, and behind the counter robots began to prepare his meal. Vincent frowned slightly as he saw a cup of coffee simply being filled from a premade batch, but decided he wouldn’t dock any points off yet.
He looked over to Kyle who was still staring at nothing, which signaled that he was still placing his order. Vincent walked over to the end of the counter, picked up his sandwich and cup of coffee and sat down at one of the two tables. Kyle soon followed with his own sandwich and sat across from him.
“No coffee?” Vincent asked, noticing Kyle’s lack of beverage.
“Nah, could never get into it,” Kyle replied as he picked up his sandwich and took a bite.
“Ah, what a shame. Coffee is so versatile, so many different combinations, so delicious!” Vincent exclaimed. However, he quickly realized he would get carried away if he didn’t stop and took a sip from his cup to shut himself up. He regretted it immediately. The coffee itself was weak yet horribly bitter from sitting for too long in the pot, and there was an overwhelming amount of artificial apple flavoring added to it. Kyle seemed to notice Vincent’s grimace and laughed.
“So delicious, you said?” he mocked jokingly.
“Well. Usually.” Vincent placed the cup back down with a scowl but immediately loosened his face and laughed it off. As he began eating into his sandwich, Kyle put his own down and gazed intently at Vincent.
“So, how’s it looking in China?” he asked. “I can only glean so much from the documents, and O’Donnell takes all the direct calls.”
Vincent continued to chew his food as if nothing had occurred, but his mind started spinning into overdrive. This was where he had to play the part of Tim Bailey, the Unity China representative on vacation. He would have to choose his words carefully to ensure he didn’t get backed into any corners.
“The Central People’s Government just passed a new bill last week giving extra funding to JoyTech,” Vincent replied after swallowing his food. Kyle nodded but made no response, so he continued. “Right now, we have two grants from the government going for us, compared to JoyTech’s literal blank check.”
“Have sales increased at all?” Kyle asked, looking at Vincent with obvious interest.
“It’s been pretty minimal, which may as well be a failure when compared to JoyTech’s 10% market share increase.” Vincent was very quickly running out of financial facts, and needed to steer Kyle away from pressing him anymore about it. “What about over here? I remember something about JoyTech starting to sell implants in LA but didn’t pay a lot of attention to it.”
“Oh yeah, they definitely are trying, but they’re getting the same treatment that they’re giving us in China. Basically no funding, minimal sales since we don’t allow them to interface with our products, the whole 9 yards,” Kyle gloated, taking another bite from his sandwich. “They’ve got some pretty dirty stuff going on in the background too. Gives them the edge in China where the government overlooks it, but they can’t use it here.”
Vincent narrowed his eyes at the last statement, suspecting this was the info that the informant wasn’t too happy about Kyle knowing, but decided not to press for it. “Nice to hear we’re giving it back to them. Speaking of funding, when can we expect some from the main hub? I wanted to lay down some timelines during my time here.”
“I couldn’t tell you. That’s in Mr. O’Donnell’s field. I’m supposed to be allowed access to the financial records, but he won’t let anyone look at them so that he can take all credit for decisions made,” Kyle muttered, rolling his eyes. This was Vincent’s chance.
“Isn’t that breaking company policy?” he asked, nonchalantly taking a sip from his coffee.
“It is, but he gets away with it by telling the board that we were all involved in the decision making, so they don’t question him. On top of that, most of my coworkers have gotten so used to being rejected access that they just don’t care anymore.”
“But you do.”
“Of course I do, it’s supposed to be my job, Tim!” A bit of spittle flew from Kyle’s mouth in his anger, but Vincent ignored it. He had found the chink in Kyle’s mental armor that he was looking for.
“So Mr. O’Donnell is basically stopping you from doing what you’re supposed to do.”
“Ha, I wish that was all that was happening,” Kyle growled, looking away as his face showed his obvious frustration. “Anytime there’s a business meeting where there’s the inkling of a chance where he might be reprimanded for something, he drags me along to essentially act as a meat shield to place the blame on instead of himself. If a bad decision is made by him, it’s MY fault for not properly going over the documents with the team to come up with something better, even though I was never able to see the documents to begin with!”
“Can’t you file a complaint or something?” Vincent asked, taking a bite into his sandwich as he looked at his now red-faced companion. Behind Kyle was a window looking out onto the street, and as Vincent glanced at the passing cars, he caught glimpse of a man looking back at him. He had gray hair, a sagging face and scowled as he peered at Vincent. Vincent’s heart began to race as questions began to spring to his mind. Who was this man? Why was he glaring so intently at him?
“-and don’t even get me started on how HR treats him, Tim!” The angered voice of Kyle snapped Vincent back to reality, and he quickly turned back to Kyle.
“Yeah… Yeah that sounds terrible,” Vincent stuttered, trying to regain his composure. He peeked back at the window only to find that the old man he had once seen was now replaced with his own reflection. He grimaced, reached into his pocket and pulled out a capsule of pills. “Excuse me, Doctor said I needed to start taking these,” Vincent quietly explained as he popped two of the pills into his mouth and washed it down with a swig of his coffee. Kyle watched him with brow still furrowed, but he quickly relaxed them as he gave out a large sigh.
“Ah, no problem, thanks for the reminder actually,” Kyle said as he tried to calm himself down. He pulled out his own small bottle of pills and tipped one out.
“Vitamin?” Vincent asked, offering his cup of coffee since Kyle had nothing to wash it down with. Kyle took it with a nod and gulped his pill down, then handed it back to Vincent.
“No, it’s supposed to calm me down. I’ve been having issues with anger management lately, with O’Donnell and all. It definitely works, but I end up feeling too compliant when I use it, so I tend to ‘forget’ to take it.” Kyle looked back at Vincent’s cup of coffee as he placed it back on the table. “I know I don’t like coffee, but that tasted particularly horrible,” he laughed. Vincent chuckled in agreement.
“It is pretty bad…” Vincent’s voice trailed off as he continued to think. He basically had the entry point that he needed to take out Kyle, so there was no need to continue this conversation any longer. “Hey, give me a sec Kyle, I’ve got a call coming through,” he lied as he stood up from the table. He stepped out the café and continued to pretend to talk to someone through his neural implant, then after a short while walked back in and to the table.
“Listen, Kyle, real sorry to bail so quick, but my boss just called needing some files that I left on a drive at the hotel,” Vincent lied.
“Oh, yeah, no problem, completely understand,” Kyle said, getting up from the table. Vincent noted a look of disappointment on Kyle’s face before he could cover it up with a businessman smile.
“Y’know what, lemme get your full contact credentials so I can send you some of the files I have on hand for Mr. O’Donnell. I think it’s about time you get to be the first one to screen the documents for once. Plus, I owe you the funds for your lunch. I did say I’d pay,” Vincent said with a wink as he walked with a Kyle towards the door. Kyle’s face lit up at the mention of getting first-hand access to some documents.
“That sounds great!” Kyle exclaimed with a smile. After digitally exchanging their full credentials, they said their goodbyes and went separate ways. After a while, Vincent turned a corner onto back alley street and walked up to a car parked on the curb. The windows were tinted to where you couldn’t see in, and after waiting outside the vehicle for a few seconds he gave the window a few taps with his knuckle. The door unlocked and opened, and he got in. The interior was moderately spacious, a little more lavish than your standard public automated car. The car began to drive off back towards the medicine shop, and as he settled himself he turned to Alan who was already re-engaged in whatever neural activity he had been caught up in before Vincent had interrupted.
“I’ve got what I need, and I’m taking it you’ve got what you need?” Vincent asked tiredly. Alan gave a sleazy smirk before disconnecting from his feed.
“You got that right. The boys back at the lab already have his implant opened and ready for tonight,” he replied. Vincent looked at him warily. “Don’t worry, they did it carefully, ain’t no way he’s going to know we’re inside. I’ve got the best men on board for this one, Vince! They’re no amateurs!”
“It’s time’s like this where I really miss all the precautions the military took when doing this stuff,” Vincent sighed as he turned and gazed out the window.
“Everything is fine, man. If he tries to look into the credentials you sent him, it’ll just come up as classified in Unity’s servers. You’re covered.”
“I need to meet with his boss,” Vincent muttered as he furrowed his brow.
“The boss? Why, is that gonna’ be your access point?”
“Yeah. Kyle definitely has a thing against him, which will make it really easy as long as I can play the part.” Vincent continued to think, then asked Alan a question. “Do we have any contact with our informant?”
“I can send messages but no direct line,” Alan responded, a bit confused at Vincent’s question.
“Could you ask them if they have access to the security holo-tapes, and if so, do they have any of interactions between Kyle and O’Donnell? They seem to have ample access to Unity’s servers since they were able to create my fake profile.”
Alan stared off for a moment, preoccupied in his neural feed, then refocused. “Done. Even if they do have it, will you be able to make do with just that though?”
“I’m going to have to. O’Donnell seems to be very informed about what’s happening in China. I have nothing to offer him in terms of information, and making fake requests for something like funding may trigger red flags for him,” Vincent continued, tapping his fingers on his thigh as he continued to ponder. “Tim Bailey is a fine persona to use for middle-tier employees, but it won’t work for higher-ups like him.”
The car continued to drive on as the cabin filled with silence; Vincent preoccupied in his thoughts and Alan in his neural feed. Soon, the car pulled up to the curb in front of the small Pharmacy. As Alan and Vincent walked inside, the clerk at the counter paused his neural feed activity and stood up to greet them. Alan stretched out his right hand and smiled.
“Any weird dreams lately?”