Intimate Associations

Clare surveyed her room – quite presentable other than the pile of clothes on the bed. She gathered them up and threw them wholesale into the wardrobe and closed the door. Talking to Phil, and the prospect of what was coming, left her in a bad temper. The fake oak door got a solid kick, just for being in the wrong place.

“Need a drink...” That’s what room-service was there for... “No...” She cancelled the call. “Wait for Phil...” Not even working at Hunter’s had given her the background for this cold-start seduction business. “Check your weapons, Clare...” Kyla’s words, but she didn’t mean knives or guns.

That’s what mirrors were for.

Hair OK, face... smile please... OK, cleavage pumped and ready... shoes off... The reserved evening-wear was not really right, but Phil needed no encouragement. Clare bet herself that he would attempt to have her naked within minutes of closing the door. There was a relentless and uncaring determination to the way he did things. Miela was just a toy to be tinkered with, add a few bits and see how much faster she would go. What would Clare Farral be? Through her rep he had treated her to a savage assault, which suggested unpleasant possibilities.

Someone knocked at the door. "Already?" she muttered then raised her voice. "It’s open."

She smiled for his benefit and then froze. Two men entered – neither of them Phil, both menacing.

The one on the left was a densely packed bundle of muscle, leather scuff-guards on the knees and elbows of his bodysuit, clearly the subordinate of the two. His eyes locked onto her, appraising her as a subject for violence. His fingers rippled slowly with anticipation.

The other was distinguished, but stood out all the more because of a small gold chain hanging from his ear. Clare stared at the jewellery. That had been Kyla’s. She was certain, even at that distance. That piece of decoration chilled her more than the obvious brutality of Muscles.

"Sorry to bother you…" said the one with the earring. "We’re looking for Bob Critchley." He was polite. Official polite, like a cop. "He wasn’t in his room."

Could they be from Lilywhite? "He changed rooms."

"Ah. I guessed as much." He fingered the earring speculatively. "Which room did he move to?"

Clare shrugged warily. "I don’t know yet. Why not ask the front desk?"

"It seemed easier to ask you," he offered and then turned to his companion. "What do you think?"

Muscles grunted and strode across the room, frighteningly fast. By the time Clare realised what was going to happen there was no chance to evade him. A fist like a stone hammered into her belly and drove her back into the wardrobe, shattering the door. The impact smacked her head against the inside wall hard enough that she could only stare vaguely at Muscles when he reached in and hauled her out.

The dress came apart as he threw her at the bed. She landed in a tangle of torn cloth and flailing limbs, tumbled, fell off the bed and carried on to land in the corner, face crushed into the carpet. Rough fingers looped through her bra straps which instantly snapped under the excessive force. She cried out at the sharp, cutting pain.

A quiet corner of her mind knew that there ought to be questions. If they were after Bob, then they ought to still be asking where he was. Instead, Muscles grabbed her by the remains of the skirt, pinching her buttocks brutally, and lobbed her across the room again. The edge of the comsys gouged her ribs.

"Arm the King," she grunted frantically just before a boot added to the bruising.

"What the fuck was that, girl?" Another kick. "Did I ask you to talk yet?"

"We’re out of time," said the other. "Sounded like a panic phrase. Security will be coming."

Muscles picked her up and threw her on the bed. She was beyond struggling, but he followed through and pinned her down. "All yours, Niels."

Clare opened her eyes and looked at Niels, finally seeing the earring close enough to be sure it was Kyla’s. She flinched as his thumb came up and rested against her right eye, pressing just hard enough to be uncomfortable.

"Where is Bob Critchley?"

She was ridiculously relieved that the questions had started. All she needed to do was delay for a short time.

"Don’t know," she muttered and the pressure on her eyeball mounted. She bucked against Muscles even though it was futile.

"I don’t have a lot of time, girl, and you only have two eyes. Where is he?"

"Told you. Changed rooms." She gasped. "Don’t know which one."

"You’re pissing me about, girl. You must know how to reach him. Let me explain."

Clare screamed as the pressure mounted, pain fluctuating as his thumb forced inwards with a circular grinding.

"Getting ready to burst," Niels told her quietly. "I just have to keep squeezing… or you can tell us where Critchley is hiding."

"Don’t know," she hissed in a frantic spray of spittle.

"Oh dear…"

The awful pressure became a tearing pain, digging deeper, boring into her skull. There was a sharp pop, a rush of fluid over her cheek. She sobbed frantically as he roughly scooped out the debris from the socket and wiped his fingers on her shoulder.

"One down, one to go," Niels told her bluntly. "I can do the next one more slowly. Give you more time to think."

"Don’t know," she dribbled sibilantly.

"You just need inspiration." He started sliding her left eye from side to side with a firm pressure.

Bob studied Lesley as they rode up in the lift. Clare had covered his embarrassment. She must have known what was going on…

"You work as a waitress?"

Lesley smiled professionally. "Yeah." A few seconds calculation and, "But not tonight. Someone else is covering for me. I’m… we can be together all night."

The lift stopped with a tiny jolt. Bob was entranced by briefly rippling flesh framed by the neckline of her top. "You are real, aren’t you?"

"That’s a funny question."

"No… additions?" He stared her cautiously... everything looked natural.

"Of course not, silly.” She took his hands and tugged him gently towards the bridal suite. Even if I needed things pumped up, or braced or whatever – where would I get the money?"

"Good," he said firmly and opened the door.

“I mean... if I did have the money... Sophie has a processor implant to keep track of clients and preferences...”

“Keep track?” Emily did this – said weird things that meant sex, but weren’t. “What sort of preferences?”

“Oh, you know. Rare or medium, portion size... wine lists.” She found the door with her toe and pushed it shut. “Sophie was talking about having those Flexone processor-controlled implant things in her boobs...”

“That’s really...” Bob swallowed – grilled steak and avocado threatened a come-back...

“I know. Silly... cow. Thinks it will be cheaper than Thilk underwear... I’m all, like, what you see is what you get.”

“I see...” Bob knew he didn’t, but... “So. Nothing... extra... inside...”

“I always like something extra inside.... but this... All me." She stripped off the top, breasts defying gravity with the aid of a barely-visible net of semi-rigid Thilk. “I like Thilk... don’t you?”

“I...” So like Emily, but soft and nice. Not steel and greed, and sharp sarcasm... “I like... what I see.”

"Could you help me?" She pointed him to the discreet catches. "I want to make the most of you. Before you go back to London."

Bob fumbled with the catches. "You could come with me..."

"You’re sweet… and that’s kind of cute... for the right sort of girl...”

“Right sort?” He had two hands full of Thilk underwear, and doubts about where to go next... now last time she liked...

Mmmmm.... Right sort... Oh. Right there... Not a... country girl like me... I would be lost in a city. Looking for a job, and somewhere to live... I don’t have much here but…"

"I have room for two..."

“All my friends are here.”

"Company accommodation. I earn enough to support you."

"You really mean it?"

"Of course.” It was like making Kernel Kombat operational for the very first time – delicious, scary, the only thing that mattered... “ I want you to…" The comsys chimed. "Come with me…" And chimed again. “I really mean it.”

"I’ll answer that for you." Lesley positioned herself to shield Bob from the camera. "Hi…" She glanced over her shoulder to whisper updates. “It’s Milton... on main reception...”

"Two gentlemen for Director Critchley…” Milton’s voice carried clearly. “They want to know which room he’s moved to. I thought he might not want to be disturbed…"

Lesley glanced again. “Director?” Bob shook his head.

"Refer them to Miss Farral. If she can’t handle them, she can send them here."

Bob was smiling broadly. "Thanks. You handled that… wonderfully."

"Clare is very efficient," she said. "Now where were we?" She started undoing his shirt.

"You don’t work for Lilywhite do you?" Dark suspicions were surfacing – Madame had been going to arrange a woman for him. Lesley seemed very genuine but…

"No. I work for the hotel." She smiled warmly. "Perhaps I could get a job at Lilywhite? Do they employ many waitresses? I have other skills…"

Bob relaxed. "Clare can sort it all out."

"Later… Now, we are both wearing too many clothes."

# # #

Clare was shaking violently in spite of Muscles holding her down. Niels eased off the pressure on her eyeball and peeled the lids back. His face loomed through a haze of tears.

"Running out of time," he told her. "Running out of eyes."

"Call…" she gasped for breath. "Lesley…" Have I bought enough time?

"Who?" Niels rested his finger against her eyeball, a sandpaper touch.

"House-girl…"

"Well done... That wasn’t so difficult. You could have told me that while you still had two working eyes. Bob will be with Lesley, will he?"

"Yes," she whispered. It was all over.

"Excellent. Anything else I should know?"

Clare shuddered against Muscles as the grinding pressure built up against her eye. The bastard was going to blind her.

"Told… everything," she grunted frantically. "Everything. Can’t…"

She heard a familiar voice in the distance. "Hey. Stop that. Leave her alone."

"Shit." Muscles released her. "Time to go."

"I want to do the other eye," Niels muttered.

"Later."

"Arm the King," the voice shouted and then there was an aborted cry of pain.

Clare lay still, surviving eye clamped tightly shut, breathing raggedly in time to the surges of pain, chanting in her head the magic words: the doctors can fix my eye.

A balance was reached, suffering against dread. She clawed her way to the edge of the bed and forced her remaining eye open. Jeremiah lay in the doorway, slumped with his eyes wide open. Someone stepped over him into the room, but she didn’t have the strength to look up and see who it was. Strong hands turned her onto her back and she passed out.

# # #

Bob was distantly aware of the knock on the door but the things that Lesley was doing took priority. He only finally noticed their audience because she stopped. Two hard-faced men were staring down at him, wide and solid, armed with chunky pistols and wearing chunky CyberLine bodyarmour.

Bob levered himself up frantically, pinned by Lesley astride his hips, gathering bedding around his embarrassment. "Who are you?"

"Sorry to bother you, sir. Hotel security. Your assistant, Miss Farral, has been attacked. Apparently the assailants were looking for you."

His perspective on the world shifted. The wild abandon of sex was replaced by the mind set of cyberwar and the analytic instincts which had made him an expert. Whoever was playing heavy games on the nets had decided to use a gorewar approach and Bob Critchley was an obvious target.

"We have notified Lilywhite Industries," the security man continued. "Support troops are being sent from Coriolis. They should be here in a matter of…"

He never finished. Four explosive armour-piercing rounds shredded the door and ripped through his back, spraying red gore through the front of the bodyarmour. Lesley screamed and fell on top of Bob as the next round passed clean through her belly and exploded in the wall, narrowly missing his head.

The second security guard had more time. He rolled out of the direct line of fire and began taking careful shots through the wall at the attackers. Bob found a core of calm and dragged Lesley off the bed into an illusion of safety.

The unseen attackers used ammunition indiscriminately, tearing through furniture and walls alike. Bob found a quiet detachment, analysing the incoming pattern of fire. He carefully dragged Lesley to a more open position because it was shielded by some structural element in one of the walls. He huddled himself beside her in his little patch of ‘shadow’, listening to the rapid rattle and crash of the powerful weapons.

There was a scream of pain from the corridor, followed by the distinctive flat snap of another explosive round. More distant shots indicated the arrival of backup and the retreat of the attackers. Bob watched his island of safety shrink and shift – the assailants were leaving in separate directions, adjusting their line of fire. The incoming rounds trailed away steadily, but the points of impact were closing in. Fragments of concrete stung his face as the explosive rounds tightened their grip for the kill. A smoking furrow was torn out of the carpet beside his hand, shards and fibres blossoming out.

Silence. Bob held his breath and caught the rustle of fast, furtive movement in the corridor. He turned himself carefully to confirm that Lesley was still alive, but bleeding steadily. Moments later two more of the hotel security team arrived.

Bob stayed put until one of the new arrivals gave him the all clear. "How soon before the team from Coriolis arrive?" He was still detached and distant although the adrenaline rush was over. He stood and searched the wreckage of the room to find his clothes. The security team showed no reaction to his apparent unconcern.

"Securing the area now, sir."

Bob knew that his reactions were wrong. At best he ought to be a gibbering wreck hiding under the remains of the bed. Instead, he moved around in a fuzzy calm.

"Fine." He knelt and inspected Lesley again. Unconscious and in shock, her injuries bleeding copiously. "She needs a medic." He should have said that sooner, should have noticed...

"On the way sir. A Doctor Elsworth from Coriolis is taking charge."

"Phil Elsworth called the support in?"

"No sir." The security man sounded puzzled. "Why should he? We have a standing arrangement with Coriolis in cases of emergency."

"Sorry. I didn’t know. Does this sort of thing happen often?"

"No sir." The man let slip irritation at the suggestion that the King’s Arms was a violent place.

Phil arrived with a combat support team, four armoured figures wearing military grade kit and carrying CyberLine Snapshots, targeting systems tied into sensor nets and processors. The area might be ‘safe’ but the new troops arrived fast and cautious, watching everything, guarding each other.

Bob's hands started to shake.

"You OK?" Phil asked quickly as the enhanced troops took defensive positions. "The medics are with Clare now."

"Fine." Bob was lost and distant, losing it fast. "Need a medic here. I need to get to Una fast. If this was targeted at me then you know what that means."

"I know – a hit on you is a logical step in a cyberwar. I’m certain you were the target. First Clare, then you. A serious hit. ”

"So we need to hurry…"

Phil glanced at Lesley. "House-girl?"

"Yes." The eye of the storm was past and the full force descended upon him. Bob went from rigid calm to crumbling wreck in seconds.

"The hotel will sort that out. Our transport is waiting downstairs. As you said, we need to move fast. Clare needs urgent attention and some re-constructive surgery will be necessary."

"Lesley…"

"Hotel business," Phil said firmly, not interested in her health, one way or the other.

Bob was hustled out, surrounded by the Coriolis troops, holding him upright as much as shielding him. An armoured troop carrier was floating above the gravel, long and sleek with its active armour surface rippling randomly and stray fragments of grit being thrown out by the idling ground-effect fans. The doors opened and another four soldiers piled out to form a defensive position whilst Bob was rushed inside.

Once the doors closed it was quiet, apart from the faint chatter of the combat comms and discreet beeps from the field trauma unit at the rear. Bob dropped into the first available seat; Phil went to the back where Clare was already connected to the medical systems.

The medic glanced up, twin umbilicals looped to the nodes on his forehead. "Superficial apart from the eye," he said. "No hope of reconstruction there. She’s going to ache for a while. Ribs, belly and buttocks. Took a bit of a beating."

"Optic nerve?"

"Damaged but sustainable. Get us back in time and Cranfield can splice a processing node. If the expenditure is authorised."

Phil nodded. "It is. She was due for a major set of implants. Experimental volunteer. Can that still go ahead?"

"Depends on the implants..."

“We’re planning something pretty basic... give me a moment... my systems are still in crisis-management mode... Here we are... The new RV7 storage cell, two general purpose Intellect mammary-mounted node arrays and an upper-torso submesh. We’ll go for one with basic sensornet capability."

The medic nodded. "Should be no problem. We can accelerate the healing around the ribs. She’ll be ready for surgery in a day or two. Cranfield can confirm it later. The abdominal bruising might cause some minor complications but nothing serious. Waiting a week would be better."

"Pop the cortical interface in while he’s doing the eye?" Phil ignored the caveats.

"No problem." The medic shrugged. "Plenty of standard units lying around. We can replace the optic nerve with the fibre link while we’re at it."

"No. Not a standard unit. I’ll make the arrangements. Put in the AX5."

"That’s not cleared for use, yet. Not fully stable."

"Time for an experimental test. She's a company volunteer." Phil went back to Bob. "Clare lost an eye. Nothing we can’t replace."

Bob just nodded. Panic drained away into limp paralysis. Lesley was hurt, perhaps dead, and even if she survived how would he get her back to London without Clare to sort things out?

# # #

Bob stepped out of the armoured transport, under the shelter of a service entrance and surrounded by company security troops. Miela was there, waiting like an anxious hostess. Phil accompanied Clare to the infirmary with paramedics clustered around; Miela took Bob to Una. Inside the enclosure, she immediately stripped down to her Stellex leggings, inviting the cluster of digital seaweed to connect.

"I prefer to work alone." Bob stared over the top of her head.

"You don’t have the time to spare. Phil told me what’s happening."

"You can stay if Una doesn’t mind."

"Miela must leave." Una's display screens were painted in swatches of green and ochre, a small digital tantrum. "Now."

Bob grinned triumphantly. "Thank you."

<Miela to Una $$ Primary Channel $$: Hazard situation. An attempt on the life of Bob Critchley. Probable prelude to cyberwar. Your primary function is required to minimise threat to Bob Critchley.>

<Una to Miela $$ Primary Channel $$: Attempted response manipulation. Classify as direct threat.>

<Miela to Una: No.>

<Una to Miela $$ Simultaneous $$ All Channels $$ $: White noise overload.>

Only a fraction of Miela's interfaces were connected, but every one of them was on fire. Her muscles locked, starkly delineated against the substrate of her scrawny frame. She turned her head enough to see Bob watching her with visible satisfaction.

Bastard.

The interfaces all went dead. Miela snatched breath – quick, choking gasps. "Hazard." Sucking air, hissing words. "Ask Bob."

"Is there a hazard situation?" Una asked.

Bob hesitated, suspicious of Miela – the operator knew Una well, in spite of the recent problems. Una was currently so sensitive to nuances of truth and lie, vulnerable to sly manipulation.

"There is a hazard." Truth – simple and plain. It was the only way. "I was attacked. My assistant is hurt."

"Checking." Una interrogated all of the systems available to it: an alert status in the Coriolis security systems; a recent log entry diverted it to the medical section; patient Farral undergoing trauma surgery; incident reports recently logged by a combat team.

"I find indications of crisis. There is a reference to the King’s Arms. That is a local hotel." Local, but outside. Confirmation would require external connection... "Verify..."

"Lesley..." Blood. Bullets. Screaming. Bob tried to summarise. "We. There. They... Verified. Yes. Verified."

"Is a cyberwar immanent?"

"Probably." Nice, safe, bloodless... "Initial skirmishes suggest..." He reluctantly corroborated more of what Miela had said, tipping Una towards allowing her to stay. "Your assistance would be valuable in combating the threats."

"Can I trust Miela?"

"She is..." Plain and simple truth was not so easy. "I don’t know. You must judge for yourself."

"Please wait. Interrogating..."

Miela twitched as the interfaces flexed, incomplete connections snapped into place and the fully interactive contact with Una began. As each channel opened, a new hammering of questions battered at her, demanding confirmation, seeking inconsistencies. Data flowed faster than Miela could accommodate and she tumbled in the chaos. It was a pain beyond the worst break-fever. The normally smooth integration, perceived as a single entity, had become a hundred separate demanding voices.

There was a moment of internal silence, a punctuation before new and more aggressive communication protocols were established. The bonding to Una gave a flash of its customary symphony and then the torrent of harsh queries renewed. Invasive programs materialised, disguised as simple queries and burned their way into her cortical interfaces. Search algorithms spewed out insidious demands which ruthlessly strip-mined her for information.

"Please continue to wait." Una started playing soft music, some undemanding Mozart. "Interrogation continues... Request to abort... denied." The music shifted to revivalist heavy metal; Miela twitched off-tempo. "Direct neural enquiry has commenced. Pain centre stimulation is now at saturation. Please wait..."

The sound-track cycled, over and again, increasingly irritating until... the attack ended. Subversive routines melted away into digital vapour and the normal interactive contact was re-established.

<Una to Miela $$ Primary Channel $$: Trust is temporary.>

"You may proceed," Miela whispered to Bob and then sank into the infinity of Una’s datascape. The familiar constraints of Una’s environment imposed their own calm, soothing after the digital violence; a hug from a dear friend.

Bob took a deep breath. "Una, I need you to be very brave." Plain and simple truth led inevitably to trouble. "I need you to open your connections to the outside world."

"Dangerous."

"I know. And I understand that you are afraid, even if you won’t explain, but there is a way to do this very carefully. There are some narrow channels. Limited data access pipes that you can switch off very fast."

< Miela to Una $$ Advisory sub-channel $$: Data links red-TAL, red-RTO, blue-GGA.>

"I will open one." Una balanced the risks in a calculation which Miela couldn’t follow. Once those additional nodes were built into her buttocks she would have the spare capacity to at least render things like that into a comprehensible symbolic representation.

"Try a link to Madame."

< Miela to Una $$ Compulsory sub-channel $$: Command: Open data link Ultra/wide>

<Una to Miela $ Simultaneous $$ All Channels $$ $: White noise overload.>

The comforting hug became a harsh slap. So like Phil.

<Una to Miela $$ Primary Channel $$: Compulsion directive is no longer available. I have selected a narrow sub-channel for safety.>

"Director Critchley...” Una throttled her speakers right down. “Contact established." Una was out in the world; child afraid. "Situation updates being offered. Should I accept?"

"Who are they addressed to?"

"The General." Child worry; child curious... "There is no one in my database to whom that address makes sense."

"The source is safe," he assured the machine. "Accept the data."

"Transmission rate is low," Una warned. "This data is important. I will open additional links."

"Thank you. Be careful." It was a strange thing to say to the machine, but necessary and appropriate. Words Una needed to hear. No longer plain and simple, but a layered truth – simple facts, a hint of caring, a quiet invitation to friendship. "Can you show me what’s coming in?"

"Of course."

A screen lit up at another terminal, a steady stream of information from Kernel Kombat rolling upwards. Bob found the controls and froze it long enough to pick out the highlights. Things were not good, but not as bad as they might be.

"Incoming transmission being attempted," Una announced suddenly. "Should I accept?"

"Who from?" Bob asked distantly.

"No identification. I will… protocols have been overwritten. Transmission has engaged. Data is being received. Unauthorised access being attempted."

Miela cried out and tried to initiate a disconnection. Fully integrated with Una she could see the intensive hack-attack hammering at the login protocols. A huge number of options were being exercised and bizarre operations which could only be back-door accesses. Her tormented shriek made Bob duck until he realised that he was safe.

It was a transformed echo of the assault which Una had inflicted on Miela a short while ago. Multiple threads worried at the defences, a thousand probing needles looking for a way in. Savagely burrowing code blossomed in the login space, clawing at the walls and demanding access. The structure of Una’s outer defences appeared to be buckling under the onslaught, poised to crumble beneath the weight and let the intrusion infiltrate the whole system.

Miela screamed again, a dual outcry – sound from her mouth paralleling a burst of anguish across the cyberfold. Bob gritted his teeth at the noise,

Text flowed across the screens again, every speaker echoed the words. Let me go. Let me go. I don't want to be hacked... Let me go... please... let me go... let me go...

Sound and text cut off together.

Bob tensed at the abrupt silence, waiting for the next scream, but it was over.

"Transmission has been terminated. Celene protocols successful." Even for an advanced AI, Una sounded exceedingly smug.

"Good." Perfect. Bob couldn't have planned it better. "Ready to do some hunting?"

"Stress indicators suggest that Miela requires a break. I require time to... adjust."

Bob looked at the operator. The only thing holding her in her seat was the tangle of data links. Her hands were trembling violently, flecks of sweat flung in all directions. Her mouth fluttered in tiny movements, almost speech, and random muscles flexed in her back. The connections disengaged sequentially at Una’s instigation.

"Operator disconnect completed safely." Una presented a screen of data from Madame, flashing colours to get Bob’s attention. And finally, a line of text: <Una to Bob Critchley: All channels open. Trawling has begun.>

The screen blanked.

Miela stepped away from her seat and fell like a brick chimney, a graceful disjoint of lines descending in final formation before gathering in a storm of dust and violence on the ground. She reached out, hands splayed to absorb the impact but without the strength or co-ordination needed.

"Are you all right?" Bob stood back, uncomfortable, his sparse social skills taken beyond their capabilities.

"Be fine," she hissed.

"Should I call someone?"

"No. Give me time. Give me time." She sat up carefully. "Fine. I'm fine. Nothing like break-fever." Just shock and disorientation. Instinctively she brought her metabolic regulators into play, overriding physical frailties. Subtle messages ran out from the processors to the more fundamental parts of her brain, specialised neural interfaces driving her body to manufacture the needed hormones.

"Fine now," Miela assured him and stood up. "Fine. Be fine. Soon." She gathered her Stellex halter, fumbling fingers catching in the metallised cloth, confounded by sweat and persistent shakes. The cloth twisted and stuck against her skin – she stared back at Bob, refusing to ask for the help he wouldn’t offer; he kept looking away until she was dressed.

"I need somewhere to stay," he told her.

"I’ll sort something out…"

"As soon as possible. I need Clare back. She just gets everything done."

"Follow me." Miela stumbled towards the door, not caring whether he followed. In the corridor she leant against the wall, finding breath and balance, and then lurched onwards. Occasional sounds marked him as still behind her. Miela would have glanced round but she had no desire to look at him, associating his face with the worst of what Una and the hackers had inflicted on her.

Miela went to the office which handled staff accommodation. She collapsed into the nearest chair, gathering her concentration, pushing her enhancements to the limit to stabilise her physical condition, settling wildly disturbed brain chemistry. When enforced calm soaked into her body, she initiated a call for help into the system, routing it to Phil – regardless of the consequences.

"Can I help?" The girl in charge of accommodation was the only one working that late and she had enough other duties without dealing with a semi-delirious, sweat-drenched techie with more enhancements than she had ever seen before.

"Need a room," Miela muttered. "For him."

"Of course." The girl issued a standard professional smile. "Your ident?"

Miela took a deep breath – her comms relay was operating well enough. She assembled an ident package and sent it to the girl’s terminal.

"Operator Miela," the girl confirmed. "And the accommodation is for…"

Bob handed over his ident card. "Me. Project Director Critchley."

"Of course, Director," the girl switched to a heightened, deferential, professional smile. "Ah. Lilywhite. I need some sort of authorisation. A senior Coriolis officer would do. I am afraid Operator Miela can not authorise this."

Bob blinked. "Bloody ridiculous. Lilywhite owns Coriolis."

"Yes, sir." A tightness was added to the professional smile, a first layer of warning and disapproval. "However, the accounting systems are entirely separate. I am sure that a suitable authority could be delegated to you by a senior Coriolis officer."

"Bloody useless," Bob complained and set about arguing the case, righteous executive seniority versus the implacable, resolute rules of the company accountants. It ended, as might have been expected, with a defeat.

"I have called for Doctor Elsworth," Miela whispered, drained by listening to the argument.

"Bloody useless," Bob muttered again and fell into a sulking silence.

"Phil will be here..." Miela checked her log. Nineteen minutes since her disconnect. Phil must be busy with something to be taking so long. "Be here soon." Or not. Perhaps enough time for her body to recover until the only overt signs were her sweat and pallor.

"Bloody useless," Bob snarled yet again. Miela had a small sub-process running which logged it as the twenty-sixth repetition.

"Sorry," Phil announced jovially from the door. "I’ve been trying to sort things out…" He stared at Miela. "Bad disconnect?"

"Very mild," she assured him hurriedly; he straightened her clothes, small intimate adjustments with their underlying threat. "Just a small attack of the shakes. Fine now."

"Good." He smoothed the Stellex over her skin. "How is Una?"

"Ready," Bob told him. "I want a day or two of careful tests. Una has gained confidence, partially through luck. A bad experience can undo all that work. I will take it carefully."

"Excellent." Phil turned to the girl in charge of accommodation. "Suite one-oh-four is empty. Put Director Critchley in there. Assign a housekeeper to start immediately. The best we have. Find a suite close by for Miss Farral."

Miela stared at him and he smiled encouragingly. "You go and take a rest, Miela. I will drop by later."

She ducked her head. "Yes, Doctor Elsworth."

"Bob... I’ll show you to your room. Miss Farral should be up and about in the morning, but not up to much for a day or two." He gestured to the door, watching Bob carefully. "A terrible event. The physical injury will heal easily. Eyes can be replaced, but the shock, the stress of the event... that might take time to show."

"Thank you. I will talk to Calder as soon as I am settled in. He may want me back in London immediately." Please let him want me back immediately. "I’ll ask him what to do about Clare."

Phil nodded easily but his eyes were dark. "A remarkable subject. It would be a great loss not to be able to use her."

"Oh. Yes. Terrible...” A fast car could be back in London in hours... “A great loss..."

# # #

Henwick Pond had been a stagnant, festering marsh at one end of the Coriolis site. To have drained the area and made it usable would have been foolishly extravagant, particularly in the faltering economy which lingered so long after that last cyberwar. The decision to leave it alone had lasted until the middle of the first summer of operations when the stench penetrated the filters of the air conditioning.

Henwick Pond was drained, tamed and landscaped before it became the focus of the staff accommodation building and hospitality suites. The surrounding complex offered a level of luxury which only the largest companies could afford, a necessity to attract the sort of skill which Coriolis required, and to have them close by.

Bob approved of the suite which Phil showed him – significantly more luxurious than the King’s Arms. The remains of his clothes had been delivered, those that had survived the deluge of explosive munitions which ripped the hotel room apart.

"You can use the system to order replacements," Phil assured him. "Delivery within a day, but still too late if you are about to leave."

"I’ll know soon enough. Where do I…" He paused as the door chime sounded. "Open."

"Your housekeeper." Phil gave him a sly look. "Not as splendid as that girl you had at the Arms, but very skilled."

"Hi. I’m Rea. Anything you need immediately?"

Rea – a little shorter than himself, pretty face, well proportioned so far as he could judge, favouring billowing Stellex in glittering cream which concealed the sort of charms which Lesley had displayed for all the world to see. Bob’s limited social skills crumbled, foundations already eroded by the stress and horror of the evening.

"Picked for their brains, the housekeepers," Phil whispered. "Then the surgeons make sure they look presentable."

"Nothing for the moment." Bob was mumbling. "Just a little privacy."

"Call if you need me." She turned and left in a scintillating swirl.

"All yours whilst you’re here," Phil said. "I’ll leave you to call Calder. There’s plenty to be done if Una is going to be up and running."

Bob sank into the nearest chair. He was far from the safety of the Lilywhite headquarters and Clare was gone. He was on his own.

# # #

<Server: Login in progress.> A terminal chimed for attention and Annie closed her magazine and got ready to take the call – life was busier with Clare off on special duties.

<Server: Are you a regular customer?>

<Regular as clockwork.>

<Server: Thank you. Do you have a preferred hostess?>

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

<Server: I am sorry, but the Clare algorithm is not currently on line. May I offer you an alternative hostess?>

<Some other time.>

<Server: Connection lost.>

Annie went back to her magazine. Some special duties of her own would be good right now... still, gold-tinted Stellex was going to be big for Spring. That looked fun...

# # #

Bob interfaced his card to the comsys and waited for the jemmy routines to open. Once the Madame proxy was in place he made a call to Lilywhite.

"Bob. Good. Things are hotting up." Calder was unreasonably alert. "How soon can you get back? I’ve had a sketchy report from Coriolis. Clare has been hurt?"

"Spot of gorewar." Blood. Bullets... "Una is back on line." The words came out remarkably easily.

Calder sat up straighter. "Excellent. Get someone to drive you back in the morning."

"There’s something not right here, Calder. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Una. You were right. Someone has deliberately tried to screw the system."

"Such as who?"

"My candidates are Miela, one of the operators," he gagged on the memory of her sweat-soaked skin studded with gold contacts. "Or... or... Doctor Elsworth."

"You dislike them both."

Bob hesitated. Madame would be running voice stress analysis and displaying the results. "He’s a complete bastard and she’s an electronic freak. Una doesn’t like them either. I have seen the system make sure Miela was kept in the dark about what it was doing. I told Elsworth that it would take another few days for Una to be operational. I bet that Una can falsify the comms logs to show no activity if I ask her."

"Yes, do it. Then get back down here. If Clare can’t drive I’ll send someone to fetch you."

"She lost an eye, I think."

"Then I will send someone. Leave her behind if you have to. In fact, leave her anyway. She still has work to do up there."

Bob laughed unkindly. "Not exactly fit for much."

"A very capable girl."

"Yeah. I suppose so."

"Contact me again in the morning. And don’t trust Phil Elsworth."

Bob might have been lacking in social skills, but given enough facts he could slot things together. "That’s why she’s been crawling all over him… you sent her to check out Elsworth."

"Keep that to yourself, Bob. Things are not at all well at Coriolis. See you tomorrow..."

The connection broke and Bob wiped the Madame presence from the comsys. A moment later the display flickered and an attractive blonde smiled at him.

"That was very clever, Bob," the woman told him – a stranger, but such a familiar voice.

"Who?"

She smiled. "Don’t you recognise me?"

"Maybe…" Emily... no... just a resemblance, nothing more.

"I have been monitoring net traffic. I see some very odd patterns out there. I am still inexperienced, but my analysis suggests hostile intent."

"Una?"

"Yes. I borrowed the face. It belongs to someone Dr Elsworth has been in contact with."

"Oh. No one I know." If Una was finding odd patterns... "Any hint of a conflict starting?"

"Initial placement of hostile programs, in my analysis. I am releasing Celene fragments with my ferret packages."

"Pardon?"

"The patterns are quite clear, Bob. Backdoor time bombs are being planted. Initiation will leave many systems weakened or open. The Celene fragments will latch on and be triggered simultaneously."

"Why?" This was not what he had expected or intended when he gave Una the Celene code.

"So that they will be safe."

Kernel Kombat was supposed to be the system which countered a cyber assault. The idea of launching clones of Celene had never entered into the planning. Everything was geared to defending nominated systems; Una was attempting a random, blanket bolstering.

"How safe? I mean... it can't..."

"This is my present analysis."

Una displayed a conflict graphic – somehow she had acquired the Kernel Kombat notation. What she showed was crazy, irrational and... appeared to be disrupting the attack with a patchwork of unexpected survivors. It was hard to be sure – with so much confusion, data collection and assessment was tricky, but... it was working...

"Have you done anything else?" In a human it would be called initiative, or deranged. For an AI, it was amazing. Or deranged...

"Just monitoring. Communications are now starting to fail. Several international links have crashed, multiple server failures. Primary input now coming from the dedicated company netlinks. Bandwidth is severely limited."

"You are enjoying this..." Bob was wary – it was a big jump from paranoia.

"That is a reasonable analogy," Una agreed after a pause. "Without the Celene code, I would have been overwhelmed. Now I am invulnerable."

"No." Simple truth; important truth. "Celene is not that good."

"But the principles are straightforward. It has not been difficult to improve upon the original design."

"There is a system called Kernel Kombat…"

"I am aware. Direct observation is not currently feasible as that system is a major target in this assault."

"Could you send me your improved Celene sometime?"

"I will consider it." Una was better, on the road to recovery, and unexpectedly independent. "Main assault is diminishing. All major communication hubs have been disabled. Only… The company dedicated net has now failed." Una sounded genuinely puzzled. "That is not possible."

"Perfectly possible." Cyberwar used to be a game for geeks and cranks. Now it was just another tool for ruthless people. "Gorewar. Someone has probably physically destroyed the main routing server at Reading. Or Birmingham."

"I had not considered that possibility." The child was worried again. "I am vulnerable."

"We all are."

Una broke the connection.

Bob sat quietly for a moment – there would not be a car to collect him in the morning. This assault would have crashed the traffic control nets, turning the motorway links into a tangle of wrecked vehicles. He really was on his own – no Clare, no comms, no transport and no bloody information. The assault on the hotel was a vile memory, and a warning of more shit to come...

He dialled the local area comsys and found it was possible to open a link to the King’s Arms. A pale, shocked receptionist answered.

"Bob Critchley. I was staying with you. I wondered how Lesley was?"

The receptionist sagged. "Don’t know, sir. The hospital hasn’t notified us."

"Let me know when they do. I can be reached at Coriolis." Nowhere else to go.

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