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- Ben & Sebastian
Clare waited patiently in the foyer of the King’s Arms, absently picking imaginary lint from the skirt of her sober evening dress, unconsciously finding the outline of the Emily-esque shag-me-now underwear. Phil was late and so was Bob – although he did have exhaustion as an excuse. After the first five minutes the fine detail of the fake period décor lost its appeal, and even the game of tracing the faint cracks caused by hidden cable conduits palled.
Lesley stepped out of the lift, neatly dressed in a long skirt and baggy top. Obviously off-duty.
"Bob wanted me to wear something informal," she said in response to Clare’s raised eyebrow. "The customer gets what he wants."
"Fine." Not off-duty. "How was he?"
Lesley chuckled. "Inexperienced and enthusiastic. All part of the job."
"Did you wear him out?" The evening would be easier if she could spar with Phil unhindered by Bob.
"For the moment. I’ve told him to call me once he’s eaten."
Clare nodded – perfect. "I’m surprised he didn’t ask you to join us."
"He did. Against the house rules."
"Can I call you when I want to get rid of him? One quick smile and I imagine he will make his excuses. I want to deal with our guest alone."
"Sure." Lesley shrugged. "You know how to reach me. If you want any help with your guest one of the other girls will be free."
"Not that sort of evening," Clare assured her sourly. "Bit of an odd character. What we used to call a jolly-boy."
"Shit." The house girl sucked her lips for a moment. "Leave your terminal active on voice command. The key phrase is Arm the King. Security will be at the door in no time. If anyone asks… I never told you."
Clare watched her walk away, grateful to have some backup. It was a reality of the profession, never knowing when a client might turn nasty. Jolly-boys, jolly-rogers, cookers, spice-mills and spit-twisters... all the dangerous deviants, all the names a working boy or girl needed to know. All the warning shorthands...
"Clare.” She turned at her name. “So sorry." Phil was striding across the foyer, anything but apologetic. Most of her experience of him had been up close, an overpowering presence. He entered as if he had a retinue, and expected the world to kneel at his feet – there ought to be an army of flunkies unexpectedly delayed outside. More than just a jolly-boy. A full blown long-john. "A last minute problem. My, you look splendid." He gathered her in his arms and kissed her with a lot more familiarity than she was prepared for. "Now where the devil is Bob?"
"Coming soon." She waved loosely in the direction of the lifts. "Took a bit of exercise and forgot the time."
"Important to keep in shape. Of course exercise is even more important if you go for our subcut mesh. You can get utterly unfit and still look good. Body goes to pieces and you don’t even notice. Processors and mesh hold everything together, just the way you want it to look. Of course, not an issue with the boob-job we’re going to do for you."
"Did Lilywhite agree?" she prompted, but he just smiled vaguely. "Stop teasing and tell me."
"Full approval. Bob will be busy with Una tomorrow I imagine." He patted her belly. "Don’t eat too much. We have a slot in the surgical unit mid-morning. Anaesthetic can make you vomit." He stared over her shoulder. "Bob. Wonderful to see you. Good workout?"
"Uh. Fine." Clare turned in time to watch Bob flush crimson. "Fine."
Phil whispered in her ear, "Oops. You didn’t mention it was with a woman."
"The table is ready, Bob," Clare announced. "I think you’ll like the waitress."
"Behave, girl," Phil admonished and managed to find a scrap of flesh at her waist to pinch sharply. "And you should eat more. Nothing of you." He looked up to include Bob in the conversation. "What do you think? A bit more flesh on her? Or do you prefer the skinny ones like Miela?"
Bob blushed again. "Don’t really like enhancements."
Phil guided Clare towards the restaurant with a firm arm around her waist. "Now, Bob, there are all sorts of different enhancements. Half the girls in this place look as if they have something synthetic padding their breasts and probably not a scrap of electronics between them."
"It’s the electronics I don’t like."
"Is that a hint of phobia, there?" Phil poked mercilessly at Bob’s insecurities.
"Just don’t like the idea of people poking things into my head." Bob stared at him like a sullen schoolboy. "Computers are fine… in their place."
"Well you certainly charmed our prima donna." Phil was unstoppable, a conversational bully. "Una has been playing up, beyond anything even Miela could deal with – until you brought your message from Octavia. Who is she?"
"One of the original system programmers." Bob was not a good liar.
"Inventive." Phil didn’t believe; didn't directly challenge. "So, what’s the food like here? Since we have extensive accommodation and restaurant facilities on site I’ve never tried the King’s Arms before."
Clare managed to disengage his possessive arm from around her waist by looping her elbow through his. "We’re about to find out. Time to be adventurous."
"Splendid. I like a challenge. So, come on Bob, tell us about Octavia. Not some ex-girlfriend of yours, surely? I’ve been involved with Una from the start and I never heard of her."
"She developed some of the early AI subsystems and training algorithms." Bob trotted out his practised line. He needed a lot more practice. "Very low level stuff on Una, but the memories are still there."
A waiter intercepted them, jacket and trousers filled with excess perfection. "Your table is ready."
"So, how soon before Una is back on line?" Phil set a snooper-pooper on the table as he sat. "The whole system was so close to being ready when the old girl had her freak-out."
"A day or two." Bob was sulky, trying to defend the machine, embarrassed by it. "Now she is prepared to talk, I just have to iron out the personality glitches."
"Miela will be a big help there. She gets deep into the system."
"Yeah. Right." The sulk deepened. "Fine."
"You must have been at this a long time." Phil paused as a pint-sized redhead of generous proportions poured wine for him. "Takes a lot of experience to deal with troublesome AI systems like that." He winked at the waitress, and then turned to Clare. "You haven't been with him all that long." He paused for a theatrically puzzled frown. "And you said you worked on the DigiTart project before. That’s only been active for a few weeks, and I’m sure I would have come across you during the planning phase – some of the processing algorithms are common to Una, so I tend to hear snippets."
"I was working with the training team. Setting up that side." Clare cobbled together a story, caught out by Phil's conversational bombardment. "You can’t expect a bunch of engineers to teach a computer to flirt. They’re all like Bob…" She glanced at the boss she was supposed to be nice to in public. He was tracking the complex motions of one of the waitresses walking across his line of sight, and temporarily oblivious to the verbal skirmish. "Very clever and never get out enough."
"Fascinating." Phil sounded genuinely surprised, but surely he already knew this?
"It’s very time consuming. Very tiring. Takes a lot of dedication, but customer satisfaction rates are good." Clare settled into her creative embroidery. "It can be embarrassing, of course. The trainers have to monitor the calls and correct mistakes, advise on better approaches. You know the sort of thing."
"Where do you get these trainers from? Not exactly standard qualifications."
Clare hesitated. She had no idea, but she ought to know. "Emily sorts that out. She has a gift in that direction." Had she got him on the run or was he playing with her?
Phil laughed and changed the subject. "Now that Lilywhite has given the go-ahead, you will have a mesh and processors to rival Emily."
"What?" Bob was distracted by the waitress, but Emily triggered a deep-seated frustration. "Waste of time and money."
"Valuable developments," Phil countered. "These experimental systems can be very tricky. It’s not always easy to find volunteers like Clare. The likely outcome is that she will have an advanced set of processor implants and just a few software fixes needed over the next couple of months. On the other hand, it may go so badly that we have to remove it all. So long as Clare understands that and is prepared for it, then this is a wonderful and mutually beneficial venture."
"Plastic surgery would be cheaper."
"You’re missing the point, Bob." Phil turned smug and patronising "Take that waitress. Probably most of those curves are natural – there just isn’t enough money around here for that sort of surgery. Any of the top places could make the ugliest girl look like that for a fraction of what a DerMesh and processors costs. Fine – that’s appearance. What we are about to do for Clare is give her the processing power of a cybercop with a processor array which would fit in this wineglass."
"So why bother with the mesh? It costs a fortune."
Phil sipped his wine. "Ours is cheaper…"
"But still expensive."
"There is the extra weight in the breast tissue to consider. Nothing serious – we could put some simple inert supports in. The point is, the submesh is also experimental, and far more versatile than DerMesh. The developers have already designed one which would grow around the spine to provide greater strength and support, with a processor array to control the movement. In principle, we could provide support to all of the major skeletal elements. Imagine a cybercop built like that."
"Which would leave CyberLine standing." Clare picked up the essential, commercial point. "They have nothing to match it."
"Nothing we know of," Phil amended. "But, yes, it would be significant."
"A definite commercial advantage. Huge..." Kyla had been hacking the CyberLine systems when she was killed. The same Kyla (presumably) who was on Phil’s list of experimental cybertech volunteers, now listed as unavailable. If Kyla was working for Phil, had she finished before CyberLine got to her? Had she been hacking CyberLine on behalf of Phil? Or to take him down? Or something else completely?
"An exciting time." Phil winked at Clare. "Let’s eat."
Clare ran her eyes down the menu. The damn thing was in French until she turned it over and found a translation. "French fries," she breathed.
"Not a very exciting choice," Phil joked.
"Sorry." She shrugged to cover her momentary embarrassment. French Fries, as she had rapidly discovered, were a fancy name for chips – but the ones served by the machines at DigiTart were a culinary wonder compared to the soft, tasteless things available in a subsistence accommodation. "I just... really like them."
"Any other strange tastes?"
Bob snorted. "Baggy jumpers and Stellex leggings."
"And chocolate." She resisted the urge to kick her boss under the table.
"Much more conventional," Phil approved. "But Stellex? I know Miela does, but there are good operational reasons. She has more style off duty."
"I only wear it in private," she said archly. "Or when Calder Lilywhite sends me out without a moment’s notice. Emily had to have all my clothes delivered from local shops."
The muscular waiter with the groin enhancement returned. "Are you ready to order?"
"Not bad…" Clare watched him walk away. "Not my type. Too muscular."
"We should discuss your tastes..." Phil let it hang a moment. "Later. Of course..." Bob blushed and buried his nose in his drink. Alternately embarrassed and angry glances were flashed at Clare. He was outclassed and the banter carried snide comments at his expense. "In detail."
"Yeah. Tell me more about Miela instead." Clare ignored Bob, momentarily frozen, glass wavering in his hand. "That’s a lot of hardware packed into one body. Something to interest Bob..."
Deflected, Phil gave a detailed account of Miela and her ongoing enhancement. Clare listened with fascination and growing unease at the way he talked of the slender woman like a pet project. He was obviously very protective and proud of her – not the woman herself, but the brilliant, cutting-edge arrangement of hi-tech hardware.
Bob sulked through the meal. Phil had managed to get under his skin without giving him any obvious comebacks. Clare tried to steer the discussion a few times, just to give her boss a chance, but Phil overrode everything.
As the coffee was being delivered the red-headed waitress approached. "Mr Critchley? One of your staff is waiting to talk to you. Gave the name as Lesley."
Bob looked mortified and Clare dived in. "You go ahead, boss. If it’s Les, then I imagine something big is coming up. I’ll entertain Phil."
"Les?" Phil asked once the embarrassed Bob had gone.
"One of our big developers." She ran her finger around the rim of the coffee cup – she had not realised how wonderful real coffee could be. This was even better than the heavenly stuff at Lilywhite. "You were going to tell me more about the enhancements you have planned for me. Now that Bob has gone…"
"We ought to find somewhere more private."
He drained his coffee and shut down the snooper-pooper. "Splendid…" His phone warbled for attention and he pulled it out, glancing at the screen before answering. "Hi. Can we sort this out later? OK… just a moment." He smiled at Clare. "You go ahead. This won’t take more than a minute or two. Which room are you in?"
"Forty three." She drained her own coffee, chasing the last drop around the rim with her tongue. "Don’t be late."
In the foyer the red-headed waitress caught up with her. "Did I do it right?"
The girl looked relieved. "Mr Critchley didn’t look happy and Lesley said…"
"It was fine," Clare reassured her. "Now I just have to deal with God’s gift in there."
"Need any help?"
"Yes. Lots." Clare sighed. "But I have to do this one alone."
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