A Rare Personal Appearance

Another night, another shift, another cosy pod. Clare Farral studied the intricacies of drive transmission engineering with specific adaptations for the Martian environment. Not her strongest subject, but with time and effort the material was soaking in and the DigiTart job included taking the examinations in three weeks time. If she passed, the practical courses would have to wait until her contract expired... which might be sooner than expected the way the Server was progressing.

<Server: Login commenced.>

Clare glanced up – it was taking a while. Come on mate, do you want it or not?

<Server: Are you a regular customer?> The terminal was flashing – put on the headset.

Clare put down her studypad and complied - she only took it off because of her chafed ear . Nothing happened, likely another damned comms glitch, or another chicken, but then a subsidiary window popped up – anomalous connection, line still open. A counter started to record the duration of the delay.

<CallerAnon: Define regular.>

"Shit." Clare pulled off the headset. "Someone’s logged another computer in."

<Server: By regular we mean you have used our service before.>

Clare scrolled her studypad down to lubricant formulations and properties, and the importance of dust exclusion systems.

<CallerAnon: Regular>

<Server: Do you have a preferred hostess?>

<CallerAnon: Yes.>

Clare looked up and quickly read the conversation. A decent AI at the far end should have been able to manage something more convincing.

"Real guy." She pulled on the headphones again. "Need a live dork to be that stupid. And a Y chromosome to be that much of an arse."

<Server: Which hostess?>

<Clare.> <Request audio.> <Request 3D interactive.>

"Hi, this is Clare," she announced smoothly as the server handed over control and her default rep went live. "What can I do for you tonight?" The script was showing minuscule signs of improvement. She added a note: How you doing tonight? That would sound better.

"Hear my confession."

Clare closed her eyes for a moment. The request for the three-dimensional rep... shit. A diagnostics window was already working overtime logging and analysing; another popped up – potential threat identified, attempted traceback in progress.

None of the script suggestions were any use.

"Hi Phil.” No ID from Server, but it had to be him. “No problem. Tell me everything you want to do... to her." Her rep smiled.

Phil laughed grimly. "I want to strip her naked."

"A good start, but... tone it down... not so aggressive... Tell me what you have in mind – I have some ideas to get the most out of it." Her rep began a simple performance. To her practised eye it looked like the basic version of EroTech’s Playfriend – not the greatest porno package but very dependable.

"To strip her…" Yellow flared across her rep’s belly. "Tear off her skin…" shifting to orange as the force mounted "...and spill her guts on the floor." A burning red hand print clawed at her stomach, crawling higher to taint her chest. "I want to stamp on her heart and grind it flat."

That was... Clare took a breath. Shit. His voice was calmly sincere, reflecting none of the raw anger that he had played out over her rep. The colours faded back to normal but the image of his pawing hands clung in her mind.

"A bit violent, Phil," she said as lightly as she could. "Are you sure that’s what you really want?"

"No doubt. Would you like to watch?" A lazy trail of maiming purple meandered from throat to groin.

"Not my sort of thing." Keep it calm, keep it down... vomit later. Be professional. "Perhaps one of the other… hostesses." Shit, shit, shit... She almost said other girls.

"No. I’ve chosen you, Clare. Will you give me absolution?"

"That’s for priests..." Give me a moment. Just need to breathe. Stop the fucking tram. I never want to ride again. The face of her rep blushed red stripes, an unsubtle choice of colour to indicate enough force to tear skin. "I could..."

"Of course." He shifted his virtual grip to her throat. "Just give me your attention perhaps? Tomorrow night?"

He waited for a reply. Clare had never encountered anything so horrid, not even when she worked at Hunter’s. She swallowed. Water. Sip of water. It was only her rep's throat… not real. "Sure," she whispered finally.

"Thanks." Soft strokes of yellow down her arms, barely shading toward orange. "I need to talk it through. A whole new experience for me. See you."

<Server: Connection lost.>

"Shit. Shit!" Clare sucked at her water bottle, desperately thirsty after an hour of hell. "Did you trace that?" The elapsed duration was logged as under two minutes. "Shit."

<Server: Search narrowed to mainland UK. Low reliability. Threat level on caller increased. Call is flagged for possible police report. Deranged caller ‘Phil’ was masking his/her location. >

"Her?"

<Server: Gender not confirmed.>

"Man. Definitely a man." Another sip. A cough. "Shit." She rubbed her hands together. "Shit. Can you log me off for half an hour? I need a shower."

<Server: Log off authorised. Do you wish to request trauma counselling?>

"Not this time." Just a scare. Just need a bit of time. Just need a drink.

#   #   #

In the communal bathroom, Clare leant against the wall next to one of the shower stalls, just enough pressure to pop a panel free so she could pack her towel around the heat-exchanger. An unofficial perk, and totally impossible at the Old Heathy subsistence hostel.

Three minutes of hot water were scarcely enough to wash away the memory of Phil’s macabre desires. The shifting pressure display on her rep... so deliberate and calculated. The bastard had set out to terrify her through a brutal virtual assault. Nasty. Just plain nasty. What sort of arse would try to do that to an AI...

"He knows..." Otherwise, what was the point? "Knows I'm real."

The water cut off and hot air swept through the shower cubicle, just like the subsistence hostel, except that those blowers rarely had working heaters. Clare pushed the door open immediately and stepped out to wrap herself in the warm caress of her towel. They told her that the air dryer was more hygienic. The towel was sheer pleasure.

"You’ve had worse," she told the wall, her voice firm and reassuring. She pulled tighter into the snug embrace of the towel. "Much worse." The initial shock was over, the experience fading. "Was that whole fucking performance was for his benefit or mine? Bastard..."

Wrapped in the towel and clutching her clothes, Clare padded from the bathroom to the kitchen area for her part of the dormitory. The décor was plain and simple, and utterly luxurious compared to Old Heathy.

The floor was cold, a good, freezing pain in her feet to take her mind off Phil. He wasn’t the first crank caller, but the others were mostly just lame. Phil was master-class nasty, enough to churn her guts but… she took a deep breath for calm… get real... Phil was just a vicious crank caller. If he persisted, the DigiTart server would block his access.

But he knew she was real...

She put her key in the AutoChef and selected a Chocaulait – a dream of a drink compared to the thin, synthetic coffee she had lived on before joining DigiTart. Hot towels, Chocaulait and French fries – enough to make even the likes of Phil an acceptable price.

She sipped at the hot chocolate and then carried it back to her room, accommodation only marginally larger than Old Heathy – but clean, dry and warm. And roach-free. She sat on the bed and sipped her way through the drink.

The comsys chimed. "Please return to your station. Incoming call. Specific to Clare Farral."

"Coming." She pulled on her Stellex leggings and baggy old sweater. There were regulars who asked for her specifically. It was crazy – they knew it was just a sim. Perhaps some sixth sense told them, but these guys asked for a rep by name. Probably just human nature.

It couldn't be Phil. Not until tomorrow. Please. No more sick bastards. That was inhuman nature...

Back in her cubicle, the terminal was flashing – call waiting – very odd. She pulled on her headphones as the message changed.

<Server: Call Transfer. Source: law enforcement centre, Blossom Lane. Subject: Criminal Investigation. Accept?>

She blinked. The terminal had never done that before and ‘no’ was clearly not the right answer. "Accept." She had to repeat as the server failed to pick up her sudden whisper. She adjusted the headset; caught the sore spot on her ear again.

<Server: Two way visual.>

A chubby young man contrived a dour expression on a face which was only meant for smiles. From the screen, twinkling blue eyes tried to bore into her skull, almost enough to make her laugh.

"Clare Farral?"

"That’s me." She forced a smile in return. This was real face-to-face. All customers saw was her rep. "What can I do for you..." Shit. Don't say that.

His eyes flicked to one side for a moment. "Apartment four four two. Old Heathrow House."

"That’s the one."

"Please return to your apartment. Report to Officer Medway."

Not good. Her contract with DigiTart was for six months, with an exclusive extension clause after that – not that the full term or any extension looked necessary. One of the major conditions was to remain in the building until the end of the contract, and that had a special provision built in for her all-important exams, a deviation from the boilerplate clauses that had taken fives rounds with the lawyers to sort out. The accommodation was better than Old Heathy, so no complaints there. And the bonus...

"I can’t leave here. It’s in my contract." It was really just an extreme confidentiality clause.

The cop frowned. "Your employer has agreed."

I’m going out! That was good, right? How many lawyers does it take to screw-up a contract?

#   #   #


Clare stepped out of the door of the Lilywhite building, hunching her shoulders at the touch of light rain. She had forgotten what weather really felt like; the reminder was not welcome. A brand new Urbano town-car was waiting at the curbside, driver staring at her.

The door opened. "Farral? Get in."

"Uh. Thanks." She hurried through the rain. "Thanks for the lift."

"My job, girl," he answered, pulling away.

"You do this a lot, I suppose?"

"I drive."

"Sorry. Stupid question. I used to drive for Hunter’s Casino."

He snorted. "Not the same thing."

"I did drive," she insisted and then giggled. "I didn’t only drive."

"House cars?” He negotiated past a moron who was clearly lost and too proud to let the traffic nets take over. “Or clients'?"

"Mostly house cars," she admitted. "I once drove a Rolls."

"New one?" He tried to sound nonchalant.

"Old one. Special conversion."

"So you only drove it on electrics?"

Clare shrugged. "We never left London. Client claimed he had an unconverted one."

"Bugger me…"

The conversation died once they entered the neighbourhood of Old Heathy. The driver concentrated on the road and potential threats. Everything looked quiet, but you could never be certain in this informal marketplace where the rich folks came to buy products and pleasures unavailable elsewhere.

"This the place?"

"Yeah." The grubby façade of Old Heathrow House, a home of sorts but not one to stir much pleasure. Rain-eroded concrete, dark with grime and mould, rusting fittings and blistered paint. The façade panels were supposed to be durable aluminium, now corroded to metal lace courtesy of the accountant who’d found a cost-saving. "Home fucking home."

"Call Lilywhite when you’re done." He glanced warily at the rear-view monitor again, hand drifting to the automatic pistol in its secure slot. "Don’t want to hang around here."

"Sure." She ran from the Lilywhite car to the door of the apartment block, cursing the rain. A foul end to a bad night.

Clare jogged up the stairs to the fourth floor and found a cybercop blocking the stairwell door. It was like a natural extension of the décor: stench of piss and vomit, festering garbage huddled in the corners, mould growing through the cracked EasiKleen surfaces and a cybercop in full combat armour. A collage of death and decay. Sights and smells she had treated as normal for so long were unbearably vile after a few weeks in the relative luxury of DigiTart – the quickly-forgotten world of anti-perks.

"Officer Ralson," he stated formally. Multiple fragments of Clare stared back from his mirrored visor.. "You are Clare Farral. Room four four two. You are expected."

<Ralson: Wake up, Lianne. Datastream coming…>

"Yeah." Clare gulped, ignorant of the net activity around her. Cybercops were always bad news. She had never been caught but guilt had a way of oozing out under pressure.

"Primary associate of Kyla Chamile."

Clare grinned at silly memories. "Kinky Kyla. Yeah. And her snitch, Jaz. Kyla taught me how to fight after I got mugged." And taught her to be wary of cybercops. Taught her to keep her mouth shut – a lesson that had just slipped. “Not sure about primary...”

"We interviewed your neighbours.” There was the sound of the silent gotcha. “Do you know of anyone who might wish to harm Kyla Chamile?" The cop ignored a small rat which scuttled out and sniffed around his feet. There would be bigger ones close by.

Clare shrugged. She could hear the way the conversation was going. "Sure. Just about anyone." She tried to stare beyond her reflections. "Everybody hates cybercops and her wiring was fried. So, someone taken a shot at her? How many did she total?"

The cybercop stepped to one side. "Go through. Officer Medway will speak with you at the door of room four seven two, registered to Kyla Chamile."

Officer Medway was another cybercop, tall and slender – bulked out by reactive armour and body-form power cells – dangling her helmet from one finger like the street whores with their goodie-bags. At least the whores offered a fun time, whatever they delivered.

Medway’s eyes tracked Clare until they were face to face. She had already reviewed the brief interview with Ralson.

"Must be bad," Clare muttered. "Two cybes in one place."

"Me and Kyla went through enhancement at the same time." A defensive cybercop – not many of them to the armoured carrier-load.

Clare peeked round the cybercop and saw Kyla, the trashed door, the forensic team like a cloud of flies. "No way. No fucking way....” It was the most shocking things she had ever seen, even during her years with Hunter’s. “What happened?" No one could get to Kyla.

Medway shifted her feet uncomfortably. "Former officer Kyla Chamile has been murdered…"

"No fucking way...”

"She died without a struggle."

“No...” Clare shook her head. "Can’t be."

"It is strange," Medway agreed sharply. "We want to know how that happened… Where were you for the last forty-eight hours?"

"At work." Keep your answers short and simple, standard advice from Kyla. That was the training. Leave no openings for the gotcha. That was how Kyla taught her to deal with cops.

"For a full two days?" the cop demanded sarcastically.

"Haven’t left the place since I started a few weeks back."

Medway narrowed her eyes. "Why not?"

"Part of the contract. They provide food and a room."

"But you keep your room here." Accusation hovered, a gotcha hawk ready to swoop. "Why?"

"I asked them to keep the pad here for me. There’s no guaranteed future in the job. They agreed." And now it didn’t matter. Kyla and Jaz didn't need the extra bolt-hole any more. Kyla was dead. Crazy. No one could ever creep up on Kyla. "Where’s Jaz?"

"Jaz? Who is Jaz?" Medway glared at Clare, running a few seconds of the conversation with Ralson from her evidence logs. "You identified this person as Kyla’s snitch. Is this the person who moved the body?"

"Moved?"

"Kyla Chamile did not die in this room. Where is Jaz?"

Clare, listen to me – short and simple, and nothing you don’t have to say.

“Ah. Right.” Too much said already, so she went off-script with a deliciously provocative smile. If you’re going to go out playing with a cybercop, do it properly. "Would you let someone polish your nodes?"

Medway blushed – very, very red. "Perhaps." Her eyes narrowed, aggressive anger overriding embarrassment.

"She always said that Jaz was the best. He did the chains for her. He went everywhere with her. Absolutely…" Another startling detail caught her attention. She stepped closer, peering round Medway. "She’s naked."

"Irrelevant. Not unreasonable in her own room." Medway switched back to her own priorities, "But she did not die here…"

"She’s not wearing her sensor net."

"Irrelevant. The interface nodes for her sensor net were… damaged. Tell me about Jaz."

Clare shook her head. "But she always wore it. Jaz was the only person she ever allowed to take it off. He must have been here when it happened – unless someone removed it afterwards." She looked again. "And her chain is gone."

Medway accessed her data systems for a moment, logging an arrest, requesting a full search. "Clare Farral, you will accompany me to the Blossom Lane Compound. Consider yourself under arrest until you have answered my questions satisfactorily. You will open your apartment for search." She paused for a brief exchange over the police nets. "A warrant has been authorised."

"Oh shit. This is stupid." DigiTart was a comfortable job she wanted to keep as long as possible.

"Proceed," Medway told her grimly.

Clare opened the door to her own room and stepped in to fumble for the light switch. The feeble additional glow was barely worth it. The room was tiny, just space for a bed and a chair – all other facilities were communal – enough room for one, or two very intimate and agile friends.

Jaz was sleeping, a snoring heap on her bed.

"Oh shit." Medway was right behind her – no time or chance to do anything. "Meet Jaz."

He stirred slowly and stared at Medway, visibly mistaking her for Kyla for a moment – rosy memories of how they first met. The offer to polish her nodes was on his lips, before he remembered and started to cry.

"You are both under arrest. Bastards." Medway lodged the information on the police data net, getting an instant return identification on Jaz. "Joseph Azmir, you are charged with the murder of Kyla Chamile. Clare Farral, you are charged as an accessory to the murder of Kyla Chamile. You will both accompany…"

"Bollocks!" Short and simple. "I’ve got an alibi for the last couple of weeks." Kyla’s training had never covered a situation like this, but surely she would have approved? “Same as fucking always. Pin the shit on a couple of subbies.”

"You will both accompany me to Blossom Lane," Medway repeated firmly.

The job at DigiTart was more than just good… Time to do something desperate. She could hardly make things worse. If Medway arrested her she might be living back in Old Heathy Subsistence by the end of the week.

"Not going to look good, officer." Short and simple, but off script and nothing left to do but wing it and hope the deviation got flagged as utterly fabulous. "False arrest. Bound to screw up the work I’m doing for Lilywhite. I reckon you might expect to be hearing from their lawyers in no time."

Medway smiled. "I shall lodge the arrest records with your employer."

Clare tried to keep calm. Always calm, Kyla had said. If you get good enough, you might even fool the stress analysis software. Short and simple, balance polite and submissive behaviour with carefully chosen moments of assertiveness. Clare needed more practice.

"Won’t help." Clare tried to carry the bluff a little further, just waiting for a turn of luck...

Medway stared at her disdainfully, raising her helmet to snap back into place. "There is…"

She staggered to lean against the door. Her data nodes were going crazy as a powerful jemmy routine cracked her system and read her evidence logs.

"You all right?" It was an automatic response. Clare steadied the cybercop and helped her sit next to the terrified Jaz. It was crazy to be concerned, but Medway had hints of human under the armour – almost like Kyla.

Medway said nothing. Her processors were still not responding, other than to echo the incoming data across her cortical interfaces. A deluge of legal documents from Lilywhite piled into her system, culminating in formal charges of false arrest. The final document was simple and direct: Or rescind the arrest of Clare Farral.

The Lilywhite Company was running some serious legal software. And seriously illegal. Hacking a cybercop...

"Shit." Medway’s hands shook. It was the most horrible invasion of her soul. "Someone just cancelled your arrest." She was staring at Clare as if she were the devil, fully materialised in a cloud of sulphurous fire.

"Your loss, my gain." Clare said cheerfully, without thinking. "Means I’m innocent…"

"Means you’re guilty," Medway growled, recovering fast and thinking like a cop. "Corporate legal systems don’t do that for gutter trash like you." Corporate legal systems didn't usually do that for anyone.

Clare ignored the insult. "What happened? Who loves me? Lilywhite?"

Medway stonewalled, and then conceded. "Yes."

"Lilywhite." Clare had been bluffing. How important is the DigiTart project? "They don’t want you arresting me and pissing around with… the work I’m doing for them. So now what?" Clare paused and studied Officer Medway. Jaz was still under arrest, and that would break him. "Would it help if I just volunteered to come with you? I need to get some sleep, but that can wait an hour or two. For Kyla’s sake. But I have to be back at work soon." She closed her eyes for a moment. "And please be gentle with Jaz. You’ll get far more information out of him that way. Kyla always said that he was naturally submissive – and very delicate."

Medway took a deep breath. This was not the way things were supposed to be. Never let feelings cloud your judgement. That cut both ways. She was too eager to catch the murderer. The door of Kyla’s room had been forced – subtle enough to evade the sort of superficial investigation expected in subsistence accommodation. If Jaz was the killer, then there would have been no need for the damage. She logged a modification to his arrest... but to treat him gently was... cybercops were supposed to be at the most direct end of community relations.

Clare wetted her lips in anticipation. "Officer, when was the last time you had your nodes polished? I’m good, but Jaz is just about the best."

No fucking way... From another cybercop, in the comfort of Peel House, it would have been an interesting question. She called up the initial evidence summaries from her processing nodes. There was nothing useful yet. She didn’t have enough data. Her correlation algorithms were best at finding significant details in a mass of information. Dragging conclusions from negligible evidence demanded the intuition of the unenhanced brain.

"Just a little polish?" Clare prompted helpfully.

"What would you know about it?" Medway muttered, formal façade slipping.

"Some professional experience." Clare stepped closer. "I used to specialise in entertaining people with enhancements…"

"Just enhancements?" Gutter-trash. Just gutter-trash. With powerful corporate lawyers...

"I had a flair for it." Clare gave her best almost-smile – lips just parted, hey look at me, no great beauty, but so much promise.... "Jaz taught me even more." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Kyla was generous… friend, teacher, guinea-pig…"

Medway stared at Jaz, a dejected figure slumped on the bed, watching her fearfully in turn. Scruffy clothes, extensively patched – dark shirt, ragged sleeveless denim jacket apparently composed entirely of bulging pockets and what had to be genuine jeans from long before the last cyberwar – a typical piece of gutter trash, weak and ineffectual. Scenarios ran through her processors, but based on the information available it was difficult to make him the killer.

"How did Azmir enter your apartment?" Old-fashioned copper’s instinct latched onto the obvious item her enhancements had missed.

"I gave him a key." It wasn’t a good answer to give, but her fragile Lilywhite-generated immunity ought to be enough.

"That is in contravention of your terms of residence here." Gotcha.

Clare shrugged. "Kyla was a good friend and she sometimes needed to catch people off guard. Be somewhere unexpected – like behind them. She used my place. You can watch her door from here. She had the connections to get the spare keys cut." Kyla was dead so there was no harm in saying it.

"And it’s useful to keep an ex-Cybercop sweet." Medway tried to regain control. She had never been rattled by a suspect before.

"If you knew Kyla then you know you've got it arse-backwards." She crowded Medway as much as she dared in the already cramped space, wishing her mentor were there to watch, maybe even coach a little. "Kyla looked after people. She cared…" Clare wiped away an unexpected tear. "Really fucking cared… If she hadn’t, she might not have got her nodes fried."

Medway lowered her gaze. “I knew her.” But had lost touch after the accident – her own discomfort at being with the wreckage of a cybercop. “Long time...” Kyla maintained links with those who could accept her as hero and cripple.

"She told me how it happened," Clare whispered. "One night… a bit drunk. Told me."

Medway looked away. "She cared." That was a tough concession. "That’s why this is being investigated. Not just another murder to go on the books. Too many people remember her to just let it slide."

"So, you gonna do this properly?" Kyla deserved that much…

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"You're ready to fit up Jaz." Clare stared a challenge straight into her eyes. "You gonna do it properly? Look for the bastards who did this? Not just the nearest subbie?"

"Bastards? Plural?" Copper’s instincts ran ahead of the processors. "What makes you say that?"

Clare laughed grimly. "You think a solo killer would have survived? They must have known who she was. There are people around here with whole fucking armies who would have loved to have killed Kyla and none of them dared."

Medway looked away. "Multiple assailants. Right."

"Did you ask for this job?"

"I was available and I knew Kyla."

"So, how far will you take this?" Clare had her own preconceptions of cybercop priorities and concerns. "We’re not usually top of the list here, unless someone starts a riot. Is this just a token look?"

Is it worth me sticking my neck out? I’ll do it for Kyla, but she would never approve of me doing something stupid.

"That depends on you. And Azmir. If this investigation doesn’t get moving quickly then someone will pull the plug." The face of humanity peered out from the façade. "What was Kyla working on, Azmir?"

Jaz flinched and looked away.

"Call him Jaz," Clare corrected. "And let him polish your nodes. He’ll natter away without a care in the world doing that."

Medway blushed again. "You work for Lilywhite..." Change the subject, fast... "What do you do there?"

"Whatever they ask me." Clare went back to short and simple. And old skills – no rush, you just tell me what you want... "They pay well. The food is good and I get to carry on studying. You want to know what I do, ask them."

"Studying for?"

"I want to go to Mars."

Medway laughed grimly. "Want to run away."

"Well this place is a fucking mess."

"Economy’s booming."

"Not for me it isn’t.” Clare waved cautious round the room – elbows tucked in. “Not for anyone here. It's not booming, its fucking limping. There’s no future here – not unless you have family money, or a job with a big corporation. No future on the Lunar stations either."

Medway laughed derisively, "You think there’s a future on Mars?"

"Better than here."

"So, what were you doing night before last?" Medway changed tack again – the suspect had a gift for touching raw nerves.

"Working."

"Specifically?"

Clare shrugged. "I told you, I’m not allowed to say. Ask Lilywhite." This was bordering on obstruction, possibly beyond what Lilywhite could smooth over. "It took a request from your lot just to get me out of the building. I signed on for six months. No going out. No calling friends."

"Tough contract."

"Pays well. So, I wasn’t here. Jaz was. You want something, let him polish your nodes." She forced a lewd smile. "Kyla said he was superb. Better than any of the medics or techs when she was in the job." She leant forwards for that hint of intimate girl-talk. "Let your hair down, shed your armour –" a suggestive moistening of the lips "– and unlatch your sensor net. Trust me: Kyla said he is the best." She leant closer still. "You know how it is… small lint pads… slow circular motions so that those little static discharges happen just so…" she bit her lip in feigned ecstasy.

"What do you know about it?" Medway struggled for another change of topic. "I keep hearing vague bullshit from you…"

"A girl has to make a living," Clare murmured in her ear. "I had some prior experience. Lilywhite employs me for what I know."

Medway hesitated. Her processors were still making nothing useful of the available evidence but her gut was clear: either Clare or Jaz held the answers. Kyla would have known how to handle this.

"Touch like a feather," Clare whispered ecstatically.

It was the only thing that ever made Medway blush and it was absolutely against regulations. It would mean removing her body armour. She closed her eyes.

<Medway: Ralson, get up here. Watch the door. No-one in until I'm done.>

<Ralson: What’s going on, Lianne?>

<Medway: I’m…> she blushed again and the link dropped. <Medway: I’m going to take off my armour… to help question a witness.>

<Ralson: What questions are you asking with your suit off? You gone fucking crazy?>

<Medway: Trust me Mick… he’s just going to… polish… nodes.>

<Ralson: You are crazy. You want to play kinky games, do it on your own time.>

<Medway: This is for Kyla… //vid sequence//combat status overlay//>

#   #   #


Medway was about to die. Her weapon was empty, armour power almost drained and the three shits she was chasing picked that moment to turn and fight. The tallest was letting rip with an automatic as the first petrol bomb was thrown, a curtain of flame rolling over her for a few seconds. Kyla was a step behind her and missed the worst.

<Medway: Have to pull back…> The next petrol bomb was descending towards her.

Out of luck, out of time. Another medical retirement coming up. Burning petrol would get inside the suit...

Kyla threw her sideways, jumped and landed at her feet. Burning fuel still pooled around Medway’s ankles until Kyla rolled her over and dragged her free, flames licking up the side of her own armour.

<Kyla: Stay.>

It was time to pull back and wait for reinforcements. They were lucky to have survived. Another petrol bomb was being lit and that was something the armour just couldn't handle for long.

The three idiots never knew what hit them. Medway watched it all, recording it in her evidence logs. Kyla ran at them, a screaming fury who used the last of her battery charge on the exo-skeleton motors, disembowelling the first and dragging the other two down a fraction of a second later. It was suicidally stupid, but it worked.

Afterwards, they dug three rounds out of Kyla. Shallow, messy wounds where the slugs had been flattened and slowed by her armour. Just another day on the streets.

#   #   #


<Medway: There’s more…> Records she should have erased, memory resources which should have been put to other uses.

<Ralson: I’ll guard the door.>

Medway’s body armour unlatched.. click... click... snick... Jaz sat bolt upright at the sounds, staring, fearful and excited. She removed the arm sections, handing them awkwardly to Clare in the cramped space, before undoing the shoulders to release the breast plate, a thick section crammed with subsidiary systems. Jaz knelt on the bed and stared at the glittering sensornet, fingers delicately tracing unfamiliar elements of its newer design.

"Jaz?" Clare patted his arm. "Get your tools out. Officer Medway was a friend of Kyla’s."

Jaz pulled small cases and wallets from the endless pockets of his jacket. Before Medway could object he was laying them out on the cheap bed, then examining the various open latches of her suit. Minutes later, Jaz lifted off the remaining armour segments, muttering under his breath at the state of the nodes. Medway perched nervously on the edge of the bed, stripped down to the skin from the waist up. She had never been so naked outside the safety of the Peel House barracks, and she flinched when he fingered the lowest node above her left buttock.

"Bad bit of inflammation there," he grumbled and unlatched the sensor net, locating the manual releases faster than she had expected.

"A recurring problem..." Breathe. Just breathe. Or not...

His touch moved on, over her nodes. He was more delicate than the best lover she had ever known, and he knew how intimate this contact was. It aroused him, which made no sense for someone who had never experienced enhancements.

Clare stared. Medway was a bit of a looker without her armour, a trim figure fighting thickening at the waist, decorated with a complex pattern of nodes to control sensornet and armour. Clare had to look away. This wasn’t the time to get interested in a cybercop, and Medway would not understand. Some things were beyond the merely kinky. Clare scratched her ribs, just where the control nodes would be if she were a cybercop...

OK, just another peek. It wasn’t that cold but Medway had really cute goosebumps spreading around her waist and rising up her chest...

"Jaz, what happened to Kyla? Can you tell us?" Clare prompted him because Medway was lost – those goosebumps reached her throat and met an overwhelming red flush. The murderous look in her eyes said embarrassed, but enjoying it – perhaps there was hope for Medway.

Jaz shut his eyes to squeeze out more tears. "Pulser. Just here." He fingered the top vertebral node. "Then here." He sighed. "Serious heavies. Thought it was to do with Milo."

Medway shuddered as he caressed her power socket. With the body armour in place she was safe, and the new stuff gave superior pulse shielding, but naked like this she could die as easily as Kyla had done. The connector had been upgraded for better overload buffering, but a direct pulser shot…

"How did they get close?" She sat down on the edge of the narrow bed, hands twitching with the instinct to cover her breasts, unexpectedly self-conscious. The sensor net was a dear friend – taking it off was difficult... Evidence log review... witness-statement from Clare: Kyla was naked without her sensor net on. Damn right.

Jaz pulled a soft plastic spatula from his tool box and began easing ingrained dirt away from the lower vertebral node. "System rebooting."

Medway nodded with transparently false nonchalance. "Better than the best sex," she muttered for Clare’s benefit. "Professional kill. Kyla was decommissioned. But they knew what to do. Where was the data for the reboot coming from? You can’t buy that code anywhere. And how did they know when?"

Jaz swabbed the skin around the contacts with a light moisturiser. "CyberLine. Kyla got a trojan in. No problem. She was doing a job for them." He made her gasp by running his finger around her waist, tracing the edge of another segment of structural sensor net protruding above her leg armour. "Kyla didn’t have these nodes."

"New development." Medway scanned her user-guide for how to disable the manual release. She wasn’t ready for this. There had to be a way...

"May I?" he pleaded.

"Don’t mind me," Clare offered. "I’ve seen it all before."

"Perhaps later," Medway lied, glowering at Clare. "Tell me about CyberLine. Someone must have caught the trojan. Only way to know when to send in the hit. What was Kyla doing for CyberLine?"

"Very secret," Jaz assured her, working down the nodes on her back. "These are new." He traced the ones around her waist. "Do they replace the coccyx socket?"

"No. Kyla. CyberLine..."

"I think she found something important." He carefully pushed her left breast aside to inspect a node properly. "Bad surgery... Bit of scarring here."

"It got… damaged," Medway muttered. "What did Kyla find?"

Jaz inspected the matching node on the other side of her chest. "Didn’t say. Just wanted everything working before she…" Tears ran down his face again. "Took them on."

"Who took the chain, Jaz?" Clare asked.

He met her eyes for a moment. "They did. No one else would dare."

"Chain?" Medway reviewed her visuals of the scene and checked the chains hanging down Kyla’s back. "There was no sign of any missing."

"A tiny gold one." Clare traced the spot on her own belly. "She had it threaded through the pulser scar. Someone must have known what it meant."

Medway accessed the net but the police systems had no record of Kyla’s physical decorations. "What was it?"

"Belonged to the bastard who gave her the scars. He wore it as an earring." Clare grinned. "Kyla was big on revenge."

"Probably wanted it for the Digital Tart," Jaz murmured.

Both women stared at him. "What?"

He flinched and looked away. Clare closed her eyes in frustration and swore under her breath. Jaz was withdrawing into himself, and it might take hours to coax him out again.

Medway saw it too. A deep breath, a second, find the courage, imagine Kyla, armour snapping into place ... you ready to kick arse, girl?

Close your eyes. Click.

When she looked again, Jaz was smiling, lost in a dream and silently asking permission. Medway broke eye-contact, and stared at his hands, large, strong, yet precisely delicate. She guided his fingers to lift away the first section of leg armour.

"Regulation police underwear?" Clare stared at the glittering armoured thong. It was obviously a standard part of the sensornet layer, but why let that stand in the way of a good dig?

"Practicality," Medway answered primly. "Has the catheter mountings fitted. The designers thought… Ah!"

"Bit of dirt in the coccyx socket," Jaz announced.

"Be very gentle," Medway breathed, eyes flickering shut.

"I will."

Medway could barely speak. Concentrate on what matters... "Tell me about the Digital Tart..."

"It’s what the killer said," Jaz mumbled, working with a fine, flexible probe. "In the super's office. Digital Tart sent him to kill Kyla. Thought they were getting ready to take out Milo."

He concentrated on the cleaning and Medway used the pause to recover her composure. Her logs could play the conversation back later but she preferred to listen to it live.

"Not so sure now," he concluded.

Clare sat very still. The similarity of names might mean nothing… or perhaps Calder Lilywhite had ordered the execution.

"Is that all?" Medway asked as he moved on to another node and the excruciating pleasure subsided. "Direct spinal link," she added for Clare’s benefit. "I can’t describe it."

"S’all."

"What about Milo? Who is Milo?"

"Local hard man." Clare waved a dismissive hand and clipped the wall. "Ow... shit... Anyway, if it happens around here, Milo controls it." She grinned suddenly. "Not that your lot have ever managed to pin anything on him." The smile faded. "The Digital Tart… is that something important?" Be calm, unemotional, don't give a thing away... "Doesn't sound like Milo..." Does it mean Lilywhite?

"Just a rumour..." Jaz was working industriously, causing tiny charge fluctuations in her nodes. Without that, she would have been more circumspect. Talking took her mind off… it. "Cybertech black-marketeer. Not even sure if… Oh… one person." She was breathing heavily and crimson again with embarrassment. "Kyla would have been interested."

"Then you’d better look after Jaz. And I don’t mean put him in a cell."

Medway nodded. No one had ever worked on her quite like this: better than sex, better than the full reboot orgasm. Jaz had a touch which found the nodes in such a perfect sequence. "I’ll take him to Peel House." The words were out, a crazy thing to say. Cybercops didn't keep gutter trash as pets.

Clare was amused – it was a perfect and unexpected piece of matchmaking. "I’d better come with you to get him settled in. Just as soon as he’s finished…" The DigiTart service couldn't have done better.

Medway nodded again. It was the strangest arrest of her career. Just as well she'd never wanted to be a sergeant…

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