misgivings

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The second tower swept silently overhead, and now she could see the marble arch end of the bridge. The bridge terminated on one of the many irregular patches of dry land that were all that remained of Chinatown and Little Italy. Sometimes called Little Venice, it was extensively canalled, with shored-up buildings and new earthworks providing a complex system of channels along which a steady stream of tiny boats meandered. Crowds of people gathered at traditional eateries for breakfast or a meal more suited to their personal body clocks. Light played along the water, sending rippling reflections across bricks and stone, ricocheting unpredictably between parallel fields of mirrored plate-glass windows.

"Anything I should be worried about, Q?" she asked.

"Nothing at all, Clair. The way ahead is unimpeded and you are unobserved, except by me."

Unless Turner was right, I resisted adding, and someone or something much smarter than me was looking over my shoulder . . . .

Instead of hailing a water taxi, Clair and the others took the segways by lift to a higher level, where I helped them navigate the maze of bridges and monorails. They hopped from building to building as far as SoHo, the southernmost tip of the main Manhattan island. They touched ground on Broadway, which would lead them uninterrupted all the way to 33rd Street. This time they left the bridges and went right down to ground level, where the original road surface remained largely unchanged. Several degrees cooler than the upper levels of the city, it was a shadowy thoroughfare for maintenance vehicles punctuated only by the occasional disreputable bar or nightclub.

They hit Park Avenue at 14th Street. Between 23rd Street and 100th, where water reclaimed the island, Park Avenue was preserved as a national monument complete with yellow cabs and food stalls. Clair took advantage of the clear road surface to go faster, pushing the segways to the limits of their tiny motors. Around them, the buildings grew taller. The Empire State Building was just a few blocks ahead; they would go right past its base when they turned into 33rd.

"Anything yet, Q?"

"Still nothing, Clair."

At a sign advertising a "genuine replica steakhouse", they turned left and rolled on up 33rd Street.

From Greeley Square, the top of their destination became visible. One Penn Plaza was a tall, black glass oblong that was imposing even from several blocks away. No greenery marred its precise lines. No signs or logos, either, despite the perfect flatness of its north- and south-facing sides. Some organizations might have had visual ads rolling 24/7, as well as the usual augmented-reality overlays, but not VIA. The evidence of its labour was all around them, in the d-mat signs and every facet of modern life.

One Penn Plaza slabbed vertically out of a wider base. They circled the base once, anti-clockwise, checking the lay of the land. Nearby was a grand old building that had once been a post office and was now a postal museum. Madison Square Garden, with its famous circular theatre and exclusive restaurant, literally hung over the water to the south-west. There were numerous tourists, a couple of them riding segways like Clair.

I reassured her that there was no sign of anything untoward, that I could detect.

"This is too easy," she said.

"We haven't done anything yet," said Gemma. "The hard bit comes next."

"Yes, but we should never have got even this far. The dupes have hunted us from one side of the continent to the other. Why would they give up right when we're on the brink of talking to VIA? Wouldn't they at least stake out the place, in case this is where we'd come?"

"Maybe they did," said Shannon, glancing around him at the endless expanses of windows and sightlines. "Maybe reinforcements are on their way from the Farmhouse right now."

"So let's go inside," said Gemma. "We're not finishing anything standing around out here."

Despite her misgivings, Clair could only agree.

"The drone should stay out here," Jesse said. "It'll look too conspicuous."

I wanted to argue, but what could I say? The drone would stand out, and maybe there would be other ways I could observe. VIA was very secure, but not completely secure. Complete data security was axiomatically impossible.

Like Improvement was supposed to be an improvement, not something that made you unhappy and anxious.

All I said was, "Of course, Clair." I could watch her via her lenses until the building's version of a Faraday shield kicked in, if it had such a thing. "In an emergency, contact me via the Air. There'll be no point maintaining anonymity if you're discovered in there."

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