Miela

They drove in silence for a while. Medway was in constant contact with the police nets, trying to get information on either of the men who had followed them.

“So? Who are... were they?” Clare was caught up in her own central worry – Lilywhite might survive the Digital Tart by sacrificing Clare Farral. So she needed a lead, an advantage, something from Niels and Muscles... like... “Who do they work for?”

“No information.” Medway was not surprised – nothing about her investigation was easy or obvious. “No matches for faces or fingerprints. The quick DNA test is crude – sometimes you get lucky, but not this time.” Two ghosts, two dangerous professionals. “An investigation team will dig further.”

“So... I mean... the explosion was a good idea, right?”

“Unorthodox... illegal...” And absolutely right for the people who killed Kyla. “Creative. I like it.” Just desserts for anyone associated with shooting Jaz. “If it ever came to court... and it won’t... reasonable force, extreme circumstances...”

“But they died.” Not killed by Clare, but suicide. “I mean... why?”

“Professionals.” And that was crap – Medway had enough contact with hired help, a lot of them ex-cybercops. “No. Something else. Whatever they were getting paid... who the hell tops themselves at the first sniff of a cop?”

“So this Digital Tart has crazy-loyal people who die for her. Or him.”

“Or them. Still don’t know what Digital Tart is... and perhaps it was a double-murder. No suicide at all.” The attack on the police barracks killed all of the assailants, but that was because dozens of off-duty officers with weapons and training took them down. “A remote. Or stress-triggers. Something automated. You thought Niels was in charge – no reason why the guy with the dead-man switch had to be the one in charge.”

“Shit.” The Digital Tart sent out people wired to die. “You think they knew? Shit... of course they knew... Niels knew. And Muscles triggered it.”

“Or reported in.” Medway reviewed her logs – there had been a lot of chatter on the public nets and no chance to log it all. “Muscles reported in... and someone else... decided. Those two were... done with. There was no need to kill them – plenty of time later after we arrested them and if we got close to something. So they were done with. No longer needed. Someone chose to do the housekeeping now... Bloody ruthless, but very practical.” So rethink the assault on the barracks – the attackers all died because they never stood a chance. Someone – the Digital Tart maybe – sent them in, not expecting them to come back.

"How did they do it?" Clare asked eventually. "How did they kill Niels?"

How the hell should I know? There was a delay before Medway replied. "A poison capsule, maybe? A small disruption charge against the brain-stem? Only the post-mortem will sort that out."

"Could it have been the cortical interface?” Clare tapped the side of her head. “Direct brain damage or something?"

"Afraid you’ve been rigged to die?"

"Yeah." Clare stared into the distance. Niels had had a second or two of foreknowledge – would she even get that much? "Phil didn’t have these implants done out of the goodness of his heart."

"It is theoretically possible, but it would never be that quick. Besides... wouldn’t Una have found it? I had the impression that computer was designed for finding things like that."

Clare laced her fingers together over her stomach. "Not really. Una is very clever and a little bit strange, but it was supposed to find hostile patterns in net traffic. I think Bob also did something weird to Una – but probably not enough that it could track down something clever programmed into my processors. And we know that Phil is one seriously devious bastard."

"Take my advice – get them removed and replaced with something conventional."

"I might do that."

"Would you have poked his eyes out?" Medway asked, as they approached the jurisdiction of the Greater London Police.

"I don’t know." Clare was still thinking about her possibly treacherous implants. "I think that I was just bluffing. Depends on what he’d said next. I was pretty pissed off." Could this stuff in my head make me do it? Or stop me?

"It’s a big question," Medway told her softly. "They ask you something similar when you train to be a cybercop. Can you shoot someone if required? They ask that long before you get the implants."

"How do they know? Do they just take your word for it?"

Medway chuckled. "They spend a few weeks teaching you how to use a gun and then they send you out on the streets with a real cop. Just to see how you perform. That course ends when they know the answer to the question."

"Isn’t that dangerous? Trainee cop with no armour?"

"Oh, you wear standard body armour – not the fancy stuff hitched to a processor array. Just enough to give you a good chance against the average shit-with-a-gun."

Clare knew what was coming. "Who did you shoot?"

"A kid. Some mindless piece of trash. My training officer was sorting out a hold-up. He left me watching the front door while he went round the back. It was a fair bet that the real hard scum would try to smash their way out there. So I got the pathetic little shit waving an automatic rifle like he had a flag at a parade. Dumb kid fired at me and I shot him – dead before he hit the ground."

"There were always rumours.” Clare forgot about her possible programmed death. “Watch out for the trainee cops. I only ever saw a couple. Even Kyla used to say keep out of their way."

"Gun happy," Medway grunted. "They never tell you on the course, but the rumours always go round. Graduation exam – kill a crook and become a cybercop. Some recruits get a bit… trigger happy."

"Scary."

Medway coughed, so close to uttering the authoritarian line that’s the way it has to be... "Perhaps someone ought to change it." Francesca Tarbuck's sister hadn’t fallen foul of a trainee, but she was still a victim and survivor of the worst side of the police. “Hard ways... from harder times. Time for changes.”

“That’s politics.” And too expensive for Clare, just trying to stay alive. “Someone else can do that. Career change, Officer Medway?”

“No. Not me. Back to the suit.” There was no doubt that the way the police, or more specifically the cybercops operated, was less than ideal. “But I know someone... corporate. She’s looking for a cause. Almost got a toe in politics.” The streets were nowhere near as rough as they had been when the enhanced divisions were first set up. Perhaps it was time to change things. “You ought to meet her... that would be interesting. Meet her and her sister... that would be very interesting.”

“Politicians.” Clare hunkered down in the seat. “No thanks.”

“Kyla would have liked her. Would probably have taught her sister how to keep out the way of RPG exhaust.”

“A politician with a sister... with a face...”

“Melted.” Someone really ought to try to persuade her. Someone like Lianne Medway. “Like I said. You ought to meet her.” And help persuade.

“Right. If I survive this. Yeah. Why not?”

The London suburbs grew up around them and Lameduck switched over to its electric motors on command from the traffic nets. The constant whine of the gas turbines had become a part of the background, only noticeable when it suddenly stopped. The ancient capital – still clinging on to its reputation as a financial centre – was quieter than usual. The nets were mostly running again and traffic was as under control as it ever was, but there was a scent of caution in the air. People were waiting for the other boot to drop.

"I ought to give Lilywhite a call." Clare glanced at Medway - shot a kid to qualify as a cop. "I don’t want to get shot this close to home. Security will be nervous."

"Lameduck can route the call," Medway offered.

<Lameduck: Contact has been made. Arrival instructions have been issued.>

Clare leant forwards to talk to the car. "Nothing else?"

<Lameduck: Arrival and parking instructions.>

"Doesn’t sound like your boss wants to talk to you," Medway observed.

"You going to carry your gun?"

"You think I shouldn’t?"

“No. I mean yes. I mean..." Clare was bugged by the lack of updates or instructions from Calder. “I think you definitely should carry your gun. And spare ammunition. Lots of spare ammunition. Maybe a spare gun. Two spare guns…" Something was not right. “One of those bastard, face-melting RPGs if you’ve got it.”

“Sorry... withdrawn.” Too bloody dangerous... and not for indoor use.

Lameduck rolled down the ramp to the Lilywhite car pool. The armoured doors eased up into the roof, barely letting them pass through before closing again. Both Clare and Medway glanced nervously over their shoulders. Lameduck navigated its way to the designated parking slot.

The car pool was just how Clare remembered it – noise, people, machinery and smells. She’d been expecting it to be deserted, perfectly empty so that no one else would get caught in a treacherous hail of bullets.

"Looks busy." Medway kicked the door fully open. “Who’s that?”

A young woman approached, walking daintily with an air of childish innocence, cheeks and cleavage sparkling with SpangleDust. "Hi Clare."

"Hi… Annie." It took Clare a moment to put name and face together – disturbing since the pair of them had worked through a bottle of wine only a few of weeks previously.

"You look rough…"

"Been a bad few days." Clare stared at Annie – face flushed, eyes bright, alive and excited about something. "You been OK?"

"Things have changed… Big Timmy got bored with Alice… and he’s been…"

"Say no more… Alice? What happened to Nigel? I thought Timmy was… obviously not."

"Bit of both… They’re waiting for you upstairs." Annie stared at Medway. "Are you a real cop?"

Clare heard the tone, the innocent tease, the verbal trap just waiting – normally she would let a cop stew, but this was Medway, friend of Jaz, perhaps even friend of Clare... <Careful. Not innocent. Not fussy.>

<Medway: You’re getting better at that. Is she the Annie...? Of course she is.> "Real enough." Medway's hand settled on the butt of her gun. "Just coming off light duties. Medical problems. Need a little target practice."

"Follow me," Annie said sweetly and then whispered to Clare, "She mean it?"

"Yeah. Watch yourself, Annie." A few weeks ago, Clare would have helped Annie lay the verbal snares. “Is that a new shade of SpangleDust?”

“Dead new. Buyer-luminous or something like that.” Her hips twitched. “Saw the ads. A sprinkle to light the way. Can get you some, if you like.”

“Maybe...” <Farral: SpangleDust is all she needs to be dressed.>

<Medway: You have strange friends.>

<Farral:!>

<Medway: And you just got your out-going ident working... Practice, practice, practice...>

Annie led them to the executive lift – one of the restricted ones – but didn’t step inside herself. The doors had already closed before Clare could worry about it.

"Welcome back, Clare," Madame announced smoothly. "Welcome, Officer Medway."

“What?” Medway suddenly had her hand resting on her gun.

“Relax.” Clare reached out a calming touch to Medway’s shoulder. "What’s been happening, Madame?"

"More than I have time to detail," Madame replied as the doors opened. "Please proceed down the passage and take the first left."

"Another computer?" Medway guessed.

"Yeah. It’s…" It had never been explicitly said, but Clare was certain that Madame was the same as the system which identified itself as ‘Server’ on the DigiTart programme. So Madame was a Digital Tart – possibly the Digital Tart. Oh, crap... "It’s very good at what it does." And was probably all of those digital helplines and chat services. But are you a criminal mastermind?

They turned left. A door opened automatically halfway down a short corridor – Medical Suite 3. It looked much the same as the rest of the Lilywhite building, clean and functional, but with the added scent of disinfectant and suspension gel, and white lab-suits hanging on the walls, an empty honour-guard flanking the path to the inner door.

Clare stopped at the entrance. “I’m fine... don’t need a doctor.”

“Probably just routine...” Medway stopped as the smell hit her – suspension gel – the barracks, the fire-fight, Jaz hanging in recovery. "What’s going on?"

"How the hell should I know? It smells like..." that bloody lab at Coriolis...

“Suspension gel... just...” Medway expected to see Jaz later that day, if everything went well. Alive, well and not hanging in sludge. All they had to do was catch Elsworth… “Bad associations.”

“Fuck. I’m too young to have hang-ups like this.” Clare took a determined step over the threshold. She had enough hang-ups for someone twice her age – no need to add more. “No reason Lilywhite shouldn't have gel lying around.” Along with scary medical kit, breather-suits and ominous double-doors ahead, extensively labelled with hazard and restricted access. "One way to find out..."

One door flapped open long enough for a white-suited meditech to call out, “Come on then.”

“Right.” Clare strode on. “Can’t be bad...” She stopped dead just inside. Can be awful.

Miela hung naked in a gel tank, a complex umbilical providing air to a face mask and a tangle of cables to link to her nodes. Bob Critchley studied her randomly twitching muscles – a helpless fly caught by a spider-web of trailing connections. A team of meditechs gathered close by, monitoring.

"What the hell?"

Bob looked round. "Clare. You made it. You remember Miela?" He was like a kid with a new toy.

Medway stepped to one side for a better look. "Shit… what are you doing?"

"Come in… come in…" Bob looked pleased with himself, the kid with the new toy, and about to perfect the art of pulling the wings off flies.

Clare moved closer – he’s as bad as bloody Phil... "So? What are you doing?"

"Asking her questions." Bob was suddenly defensive, every inch the malicious child. "The room is shielded so she can't make transmissions. Her only contact with the outside world is through her nodes."

"Is she answering?" Medway ran a comms check – nothing responded. No backup if I need it...

"Not really. Her system is so complex we don’t have anything sophisticated enough to co-ordinate the activities – only Una could do that." The defensive tone was overlaid with frustration. He was just itching to pull another wing off that fly.

"And Calder won’t let you take her back up there because it’s too dangerous." Clare stopped and stared - muscles twitched frantically up Miela’s left thigh, ripples riding up through her buttock and high into her back. "Is she supposed to be quivering like that?"

"She was being uncooperative." The naughty boy was caught with a wing in his fingers. "I think we’re making her believe that that leg is being burned. Difficult to be sure."

Clare shuddered – absolutely and completely as bad as Phil. “And is it helping?”

“Just need time...”

“How much time?” How much pain? Miela – probably a part of the conspiracy, because she lied about too many things, probably a deserving subject... “Torture, Bob. Right? You know that? Is this the way Lilywhite does things?”

“We need answers. I need answers... People got hurt and Miela is a part of it. So I need...”

“You need to get laid by a nice girl with big tits. What you want is revenge for the nice girl with big tits who got shot. And this...” Clare hammered her fist on the side of the tank. “Not the way to do it.”

Medway looked away... just think of nice things, think of Jaz... "Not strictly ethical." She fingered her side-arm again.

"No bloody use, either," Clare growled, smacking the tank again. "Compared to what Phil has already done...” Screaming in the dark, not being able to scream in the dark... “Absolutely pointless. Phil is a torture expert. This is fucking amateur hour. Have you learnt anything?"

"We have learned nothing," Madame announced smoothly, pushing Bob into a silent sulk. "It would be most logical to allow me to interface directly with Miela, but Calder is afraid that Doctor Elsworth may have intended just that." The twitching leg relaxed. "Perhaps if you talk to her she might be more co-operative."

"Why not take her out of the tank?" Clare suggested.

"Calder feels that this is the safest way to do it," Madame replied.

Bob stood up and gestured to his chair. "Sit down, Clare." He handed her a headset – identical to the ones she had used on the DigiTart project. "Talk to her." His authoritative tone was unconvincing. A bad and guilty boy, afraid of Clare.

Clare put the headset on, catching the remnants of the sore patch on her ear. What do I say? She stared at Bob who looked away and then at Medway who simply shrugged.

"Hello, Miela. Can you hear me? It’s Clare Farral."

"Clare?" Frail and afraid – a voice lost in her own personal, hellish darkness. Odd, really, because this was only Bob-Hell, a mere whisper of what Phil could do.

"It’s me."

There was a long silence. "Are you all right?"

Clare moistened her lips. "I’m fine." That was a lie.

Miela took a long time to consider that. The audio loop rattled a few times, tiny fragments of words like someone mentally clearing their throat. "Are they doing this to you too?"

"No." Guilt blossomed again. "They just brought me in to talk to you."

"It hurts." Her left arm twitched in the gel.

"It’s supposed to, Miela. Is it bad?"

Miela managed a rueful chuckle, overlaid with a sad sigh. "Bad, but… not too bad."

"I’m sorry. They know you lied about Doctor Elsworth. They know you lied about a lot of things. I’m afraid they don’t understand."

"I had to."

Clare ran her fingers through her hair. This could have been me. "I know. I understand. But they want to know why."

A long silence and then, "I can’t say. He won’t let me."

"He’s not here."

Miela gave a sad laugh. "He’s always close. You’ve felt his lessons."

"Yes." But no more than a taste, the torture entrée for a day or two, whilst Miela had endured years of the full menu of Phil.

"Then you do understand."

“I wish I didn’t...” but all Phil had really taught Clare was anger, and a desire for revenge. Miela had learned endurance and submission. "Will he come for you? Will he come for me?" Teach me to give up?

"Of course he will. Especially for you. I don’t think he needs me any more."

Clare muted the microphone. "Are you recording this?" she asked urgently and Bob nodded. “There’s something not right.”

Bob stared at Miela – loving the wing-pulling, repelled by the damsel-fly herself. “She’s getting dumped. Newer, younger model...”

“Maybe... but it’s not that.” The electronic linkage made for a relatively flat, emotionless voice, but... “I’m not sure... I think she likes the pain.”

That froze the wing-puller. “That... damn. I didn’t think of that. I need to look back over the logs... keep her talking.”

"Miela?” Clare un-muted the microphone. “Why does he want me? Did he tell you what he is planning?"

"He didn’t tell me anything. I can’t tell you anything." Miela, lost and pleading, but not quite right... "Will you ask them to let me go?"

"I’ll try," Clare offered. "But they want answers.” And I want answers. “They will never let you go if they think you’re holding back.” And Miela was definitely holding something back.

“You know everything I know. You know more. You really do. Phil talked to you. Talked about you.”

“What did he say?” And why do I care?

“You are the future. He kept saying that. The future.” That sounded like envy, but it still wasn’t right. “I was the future once.” And that sounded like a lie.

“Miela... I will do what I can. Talk to you soon..." She almost said sorry.

Bob cut the connection. "You should have said ‘try to remember something’ or make the offer of help conditional on information." He sighed and stared at the slender figure, jaw muscles clenching. "I’ll have to turn the pain back on." The little boy was still eager to rip another wing from the fly, still feeling the guilt. “I’ve got the pattern now. Pain exposure has caused habituation. Even mild pain will work, if it’s unfamiliar...”

"Don’t bother," Clare told him bluntly. Only so many eyes, only so many flies. "She’s felt far worse... and she will adapt. You don’t even begin to know the meaning of pain. Or how Miela reacts."

"I know what I’m doing," he muttered.

"Phil is an expert.” And that was the real point – an expert, with years of experience, and Miela was his toy, the one he honed his craft on.He’s been teaching her since her eye implants were done. She’s utterly conditioned to obey him. Classic carrot and stick, Bob. Heavy on the stick. Carrot garnish."

"I can match him in that. Vary the parameters..."

"Pain beyond anything you can imagine...” Clare laughed, sharp and humourless, because the memory was still there, strong as ever. Need to scream, can’t scream. “Or... or...” The dirtiest, trickiest, twist... “Or an orgasm like the greatest shag you ever had." She stared at him contemptuously. “Pain like you’ve never known. Joy you beg to end. Pain. Joy. Pain. Joy.” She tapped him hard in the chest, driving home the point with a finger. “He can switch them on and off. On and off... Over and over. You have no idea, Bob. On and off. Pain and joy. Until you’ve got no fucking idea which is which..." And I only got lost for an hour or two...

Clare stepped back, took a breath, found something like control.

“Shit.” She stared at Medway. "What did Una say about my processors? Something about really massive feedback to the cortical interface?"

Medway nodded. "Pleasure or pain. It would be the ideal way of building conditioning. You were right – you are supposed to be a weapon.”

“Shit. Miela isn’t the point. Isn’t the one that matters. This whole bloody charade was to get me here. Wired for... for...”

“Obedience.” Medway stepped close enough to whisper. “What would Kyla do?”

“No idea. Probably shoot Phil at the first opportunity.”

“Well, you can’t do that.” Medway offered a smile. “I will if I get the chance. Whatever he’s done... you should be safe if you keep away from Elsworth. It would take time to develop the conditioning."

"Unless there’s something buried, just waiting for the right trigger." Clare ran her fingers over the numbvest, unable to feel the pressure on her breasts, unable to feel the buried processor arrays. "No telling what might be in there."

Clare remembered the minutes of torment in Miela’s quarters – and it had only been minutes even though it had seemed like hours. The data scrambler had reduced her to nothing. Phil, the master of digital torture, had hammered her flat until she broke.

Bob was staring at her, as if wondering where to put a second gel tank.

"I’ll be fine," she said firmly. "I’ll go and talk to Calder. We’re wasting our time on Miela."

"The information has been relayed to him," Madame announced. "Please stand by."

Bob muttered under his breath. No bloody respect. Now that he was safely back within the confines of the Lilywhite enclaves he no longer needed Clare as his buffer against the world.

The terminal came alive with Calder’s face.

"Bob, get yourself down to the Kombat suite. The next round of the cyberwar is starting. Una is being… interesting."

Bob rose out of his sulk in an instant. "What about Miela?" Even from his tone of voice it was obvious that she was no longer an interesting enough problem – one he might come back to, but nothing immediate.

"Not your problem any more," Calder said flatly. "Clare – Miela is your problem. I am formalising what has been the case for the last few days. Your appointment as an executive assistant is confirmed. You will report directly to myself or Emily. Your present assignment is to find out what Miela knows and where we might find Philip Elsworth. Are you up to it? Yes or no."

“Yes.” That was a no-brainer... just don’t grin. This is serious... “I am.” There was nothing clear-cut about the hierarchy within the Lilywhite corporation, but anyone who reported only to Calder or Emily was on top. Bob was obviously trying to figure out their relative standing – Executive Assistant or Director, what was the difference in the Lilywhite world?

“Good.” Calder gave her a look – I knew you would say that. “Get to it.”

But what if I did say no?

Forget that. Focus on... making sure Calder didn’t regret the promotion.

“Clare.” Medway was whispering again. “Have you ever done this sort of interrogation before?”

“Not exactly...”

“You have a rapport... use it. And...” What would Kyla say? I know you can use a gun, Medway... but can you use your brains? “Advice from a mutual friend... listen to what Miela says, listen to how she says it, watch as she answers... and then put it all together. And think before you ask anything.

“Thanks...” Bob’s direct interface was no use. The flat voice, electronically rendered, hid details. “Calder... I want to take Miela out of the tank."

Calder’s eyes flicked to a random point in the room,watching a different screen. "I don’t pay executive assistants to piss around asking my permission to do things. Just get it right – or deliver your own head in a bucket if you fuck up."

“Don’t you mean on a plate?”

“Bucket. Not planning to eat failure, Clare. I just want to look before you go in the trash.” He relaxed a fraction. "Officer Medway, if you would care to follow Director Critchley. I understand you have a few questions to ask. I believe one of my... teams... tried to kill you."

The screen blanked and Medway glanced at Clare. "Divide and conquer?"

"Hope not," Clare answered equally quietly, not entirely certain. “What would Kyla say?”

“Do a full weapon check before you go in.” Except this was politics, or worse still, corporate politics – far outside Kyla’s expertise. “I can... wing it.” And Superintendent Morrison did say... “My boss wants whoever is responsible for Kyla, and all the rest of the crap. Not just Niels and his pal. Whoever is behind it. My boss was very clear. He wants their balls hanging from a hook over the front door.”

“You and me, both. Winging it.”

Clare turned to Miela. I can do this... "I can do better than Bob."

"Hah.” Bob was still defensive even though they were supposedly back in his comfort zone.

"Done all right so far," Clare snapped back. "Go play with your toys. Leave the real-world stuff to me."

"Your head in the bucket." Bob stamped away, ahead on points, at least in his own mind, but he lingered at the door. Just need one more round, one perfect come-back...

“Clare... this wing it...” Medway got between them, interrupted the spat, contemplating Clare, what she knew, what Kyla would really say... "I think you’ve got what it takes. I can guess most of your background. I’m sure you’ve seen the wrong side of more than one cybercop. Remember, this cosy corporate world is even more dangerous than the streets you think you’ve left behind."

"Change or die, Lianne," Clare replied. "I don’t intend to get killed."

"Neither did Kyla."

Clare ran tense fingers through her hair. "I hope she taught me enough." She looked beyond Medway and raised her voice, "Bob! Don’t lose the next cyberwar."

Not fair. Not fair. Bob ground his teeth, still waiting for the perfect comeback... Nothing. “Officer Medway... with me...” Not fair...

Clare grinned at Medway. "Whatever happens, I intend to enjoy it."

"Should have been a fucking cybercop yourself." Medway couldn’t help returning the grin. “Kyla would have peed herself laughing at this...” She turned and strode after Bob.

"OK." Clare turned to the meditechs. "Get her out."

There was a hoist and harness above the tank. The techs split into two teams, one moving an access gantry around the tank, the other kitting up a guy in a bright, glossy blue bodysuit and respirator mask. The scuba expert dropped into the tank, moving slowly through the dense, viscous gel to remove Miela's multiple node connections.

"Fit. Very fit..." Clare watched the scuba guy closely. "Seriously fit..." The other techs ignored her.

Miela rose slowly from the goop and Clare prowled around the small medical suite, looking into each of the side rooms. There was a recovery area with a simple bed, and medical supervisor in standby-mode.

"Put her in here..." Miela hung limp above the tank, dripping gel. "Mmmm..." Clare was distracted by the scuba-tech stripping off. "Eyes on the job..."

Clare watched Miela – disoriented and afraid to do anything, barely able to stand when they finally set her down. She had to be supported in the shower to have the gel rinsed off; and carried to the side-room. Helpless at every step, but not obviously in any real pain...

“Shit...” Pain. That was something due soon... Clare checked the status of her numbvest. “Shit, shit, shit...” The anaesthetic cartridge was almost empty and the spares were in Lameduck. According to the simple diagnostic display, she had about twenty minutes left before screaming... "Madame? Is there someone who can run an errand for me?"

"Of course. Calder has placed all of the DigiTart staff on general duties until the project may be restarted. What do you require?"

"Another of these." She tapped the cartridge. "There’s a spare in Officer Medway’s car – unless you have a supply here."

"A non-standard item," Madame conceded. "Officer Medway has authorised access to her vehicle. I will arrange collection."

The meditechs were still fussing around Miela in the recovery room, getting her dry and dressed in a medical smock. Clare followed them in – Miela was visibly recovering but unsettled, limbs twitching as the team worked around her.

"OK, everyone out.” Miela was still disoriented and vulnerable, but that was a closing window of opportunity. Clare leant close and whispered, “It’s over. All over. No more. Bastards...” Come on, look at me, trust me, let’s bond... The perfect moment to use that rapport between victims. She raised her voice again to shoo the medi-techs out. “I’ll get Madame to call you guys if I need anything." And then another whisper for Miela. “We’re fine, yes? Better off on our own...”

Clare watched Miela unfurl – eyes brighter, posture steadily less hunched, movement more confident. As each one of Bob’s techs walked out, she got better. The power of rapport... to be used quickly, before the moment faded.

“How are you feeling?”

"It is strange... I can't reach the company net." Miela’s voice was nearly as flat and dead as the earlier electronic form. The little smile, head dipping briefly to one side, all said that that was supposed to be a joke from the lost woman, reaching out for sympathy. "Like after a bad disconnect.” Head still, gaze almost steady – please remember how I was when that happened, weak and helpless. “Thanks for getting me out... thanks... really thanks..." That rapport cut both ways. She twitched the smock – see me, fragile and afraid. "This is confusing my nodes."

"Sorry.” Clare picked over all the pieces – Miela, lost, afraid, helpless, clinging to that rapport – and it all added up to being played. Miela was milking it, projecting a fragile kitten illusion. “I don’t know what they did with your clothes."

Miela winced. "Doesn’t matter…" She flinched again. Real pain, or playing the part? "Can you just help me with this? Just get it off my shoulders…"

She looked skinnier than ever. The node mountings stood out clearly under skin lightly puckered from immersion in the gel. Clare traced the outline of one along the bottom of her ribcage where the skin was badly flushed.

"Not good," Miela agreed peering down. "Mild infection.” Her fingers stroked the reddened path, delicate, inviting help. “Need to get that seen to.” And then eye contact, wide-eyed and worried. “Is there any dermasafe around here?” Please help me. Please... “Usually comes in a pale green tube. A really lovely, lovely, pale, pale green. So pale and green and lovely."

"I’ll go and look." Clare stepped out into the tank room, just to get away for a moment. Winging it was not going so well, and that rapport was a sucking pool of quick-sand. “Back in a moment,” she called back through the door. Take a moment. Just breathe, and think, and work out what to do next. Take control, Clare... That was definitely what Kyla would say. Even if you can’t, just do it. You don’t have to appear strong to take control... be weak and helpless. Let your enemy want to help... Exactly what Miela was doing. “Shit...” There was a glass panel in one wall, a cupboard filled with medical supplies including the distinctive green tubs of dermasafe. Clare stared at it a while, just gathering breath and wits. “Found it...”

Clare returned to the recovery room.

"Bulk pack," Miela sighed. "A really lovely, lovely, pale, pale green. Isn’t it lovely?”

“Uh. Yeah.” Clare unexpectedly stared at the dermasafe tub – actually quite a dark green. “Pale...”

“So pale and green and lovely. Don’t you think?”

“Uh. Pale and green and lovely... Yes.”

“Thanks. For everything.” The helpless kitten was back, all grateful, with drooping shoulders, and big wide eyes... “For getting me out… really..."

Clare dragged a chair over to sit beside Miela. "You already said that."

"I mean it."

"I know...” Still playing me... “But seriously... I need your help. Phil is a threat and I need to find out what he plans next. "

"Just accept it. Phil will do whatever he wants. You can’t stop him." Miela inspected the rest of her nodes, looking them over one by one, because that was so much more important than talking about Phil. "Could you just rub some in?” Come on, just wade further out into the quicksand. “Best to do all of them.” Let me bring you down.

"I can't accept that…" There was a knock on the door. When Clare opened it, Annie was standing there, holding the anaesthetic cartridge.

"Rising to the top," she joked nervously, handing it over, glancing at Miela.

"Along with the rest of the scum," Clare agreed then lowered her voice. "Time of opportunity, Annie. Time for a smart girl to make an impression."

Annie winked. "Sure." She looked at Miela again. "Need any help?" She jiggled her breasts, two-handed, and red motes winked from the depths of her cleavage. “What do you think? I like the red...”

“Suits you...” Clare shook her head. "But not this time. Solo job."

"We’re fine on our own," Miela confirmed.

Annie shrugged and slipped away.

“She’s nice,” Miela said wistfully. “And what was that between her breasts? All pale and green and lovely...”

Red, red, red... Clare shook her head. Red, red, red... Silent words, in her head, like a fly buzzing by. Red, red, red... “Green and lovely...” Red, red, red... an annoying little fly, a true truth tapping against a window, trying to get in. Red, red, red... pass the fly-spray...

"A potentially unreliable girl." Madame’s comment brought Clare back.

Unreliable – that was Annie, right? "A bit wild," Clare agreed, putting the cartridge to one side and picking up the dermasafe. "But... Lilywhite has uses for her. Her sexual orientation and preferences are… unique, but she will do almost anything with anyone to get what she wants. All pale and green and lovely..." Red, red, red... Bio-luminescent motes gleaming in the dark of Annie’s cleavage. Green and lovely...

Red, red, red... Clare couldn’t move to swat that annoying fly. Nor open the window in her head to let it in. Or out. Or whichever way it wanted to go.

“Perfect. We’re all set...” Miela reached out and stroked Clare’s cheek. "Sweet are the uses of adversity," she recited softly.

Clare froze completely, mind and body locked, as the meaningless phrase suddenly became familiar, pale green antiseptic dripping from her fingers onto the floor. The next words were clear in her mind and the virtual screen unfurled to display them with the illusion of glowing text.

"Which is like the toad…" Miela continued as if prompting, idly guiding Clare to rub in the excess ointment.

Clare was lost in the glass monstrosity of the Coriolis buildings, the great crouching frog... or toad... pale and green and lovely... just demanding that she complete the line. "Ugly and venomous."

Her fingers were shaking.

"Wears yet a precious jewel?" Miela prompted, holding her hand tightly.

The final words screamed for release. Bold letters in her head. A growing font, and flashing background. Meta-data behind the text demanded compliance. The glass toad of the Coriolis building opened its mouth wide, crouched at the feet of a towering Phil Elsworth.

"In his head." She whispered the words, but they reached everywhere, completing a memory-association with her processor arrays. Una had found nothing buried or hidden, but Phil had been more devious than simple encryption or concealment. A marked script filled her memory, a false recollection of a past performance.

"As You Like It." Clare couldn't stop herself. The words demanding release carried a promise of appalling pain if she refused, a rising, goading terror to force obedience. She was there. A time, a place, a performance put on with close friends, a perfect lie being replayed as truth.

"You know it," Miela said softly. "William Shakespeare. Do you know which year he died in?"

Clare did because her processors sprayed the number across her internal view, caveated with warnings to tell no one. It was pointless, except as a demonstration of her subjugation. The session of torture with Phil suddenly made sense. He had not been trying to extract information, but to implant it, programming Clare and Miela, two inert components of a deadly mixture.

"Do you know?" Miela repeated.

"Yes." Nothing more than a whisper, full of regret.

"So tell me," Miela prompted, her eyes meeting Clare’s, knowing perfectly well that the date would never be spoken. "Oh well, perhaps it would be better if we were alone."

Clare was no longer winging it. Every thought and action was now dictated by a rigid script, and Miela was there to prompt if she hesitated over her lines.

<Farral: Madame, this might take a while.>

<Madame: I will continue monitoring. I have access to the full works of Shakespeare.>

A dozen snappy answers went by, but they faded until there was nothing but the script.

<Farral: Glad someone does. Could you run an analysis package for me? It’s a word association thing – something Una thought might be useful. //transfer file//>

<Madame: Running.>

Clare watched the conversation on her virtual screen, a carefully planned infiltration. When she tried to generate a message of her own there was nothing.

"Madame that message was…" The word ‘fake’ wouldn’t come out. It stuck in her throat, refusing to budge, defending itself with a rising mire of anxiety.

"You’re wasting your time." Miela sat up unsteadily, no longer the helpless kitten, more a wounded lioness circling equally crippled prey. "The security monitors are now being fed a signal from my processors. It needed a trusted party to insert the trojan into the system. You must accept it. Phil owns you.” And there, the softness was back, inviting her into a shared universe of pain and servitude. “You will carry out his requirements perfectly." She stood carefully and turned her back. "Do the nodes that look red. We don’t have time for much else. You can finish doing it properly later."

A distant recollection of pain skimmed across Clare's consciousness, the most ingenious compulsion. If the program started playing its games of agony through her cortical interface there would be something tangible to fight – even if it wasn’t real. She knew that she could resist Phil and his infliction of pain, but fear, uncertainty and hints of remembered nightmares burrowed directly under her defiance.

"Now what?" Clare mechanically anointed each node which looked infected. A few days ago she would have enjoyed doing this.

"There is a service entrance – part of the underground levels of the building. Now that I have access to the building systems, you can pass unseen. Your processors will act as my focus, and your own skills will provide most of what is needed. You will open the external door and then escort Phil to the Kernel Kombat suite. The detailed instructions are already embedded."

"I... I... refuse... will not... I refuse." Falling. Drowning. Starving. Trapped in a subsistence hovel. A toy for the boys...

There was inevitability. Nothing to refuse.

"You know you can’t. The pain is a part you – accept it. Embrace it."

"Can’t…"

"I didn’t say enjoy.” Miela took Clare’s hand, smoothed away green goo, and kissed her knuckles. “You can never enjoy it, but accept the rewards.” A kiss on the back of her wrist. “I can help you with that.” And the inside of her wrist, long and lingering. “Time to go." She took the tub of dermasafe.

Clare’s hands were shaking. She had assured Medway she would do better than Bob. Phil planned this. A trap with layer upon layer where everyone played their part, Bob, Miela, Clare, even Calder. So many ways it could have failed, such an indication of genius that it didn’t.

Clare stood up, hunting for a gap in her control, testing for the limits of Phil’s influence. The threat of suffering loomed with every thought of action outside her instructions. No escape. Falling. Drowning. Starving...

As she turned towards the door, she saw a random variable not covered by Phil’s carefully crafted scheme. All she had to do was nothing...

That was easy. She was compelled to do nothing.

Nothing would be pain. Appalling pain.

That was easy too. Phil’s plans were based on pain.

One flavour of agony pitched against another.

One random variable.

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