On The House

Clare returned to the perk-rich environment of the DigiTart centre and collapsed on her bed – it wasn’t just a matter of space, but warm, clean space. After pulling the night shift, then spending most of the day with Jaz and Officer Medway, all she wanted to do was sleep. The cybercop was like a virgin on her first date - so very funny, but ultimately wearing. Jaz had found a surrogate Kyla, so Clare had hinted and joked and... the crazy cop had taken him home. Sweet, but nuts. And just like Kyla.

So just lie back, enjoy the warm and clean...

"Wake up, Clare.” She was woken by an insistent hammering on the door. “Time to go. I know you’re in there."

Clare sat up. "Thanks Annie." Her throat was dry and creaky, so the hammering continued – Annie was a solid friend, even if her relationship with her clothes was too off-again/on-again. “I’m up. Really.” The hammering stopped, but still echoed in a nagging headache. “Really, really...” Urgent floundering got her disentangled from the bedding. "Lights – low." She repeated louder until the system recognised her.

Her reflection in the mirror looked good enough – all she had to do was talk to the punters. Her rep would be digitally perfect and immaculately rendered – probably. The geeks still made crappy changes.

Clare took the time to dash into the communal bathroom. Her image in the mirrors there was no better. She scrubbed her teeth, striving for the alive and fresh feel. It eluded her and she stamped to work - the alive and pissy feel would have to do.

"Running late?" the shift supervisor enquired sharply.

Do you see me running? "Sorry." She hurried into her pod – the server terminal was already showing a queue of three callers. The list lost a name and gained two more in the time it took her to squeeze in.

"Shit." She had left all her study material in her room.

"Looking fantastic tonight," a nervous voice told her as she put the earphones on.

<Caller is Mike. New client.>

Her rep did a twirl, playing teasingly with the hem of its abbreviated skirt.

Two deep breaths. "Thanks Mike." It was time to be cheerful, and read the script. "We haven’t met before, have we?" It was an effort to sound so much better than she felt – in spite of years of practice.

"Er. No."

<Analysis. False name.>

She covered the microphone. "Who gives a shit who you are?" Another deep breath and then back to the script. "Well, great to meet you Mike. I’ve just had a good long sleep so I’m feeling really fresh. What can I do for you?" Who writes this crap? And did the server pick it because she had just been asleep?

Her rep smiled invitingly and twisted to show how well the graphics could render the luxurious curves. Clare tapped at the connection stats – Nervous Mike had poured all of his cash into getting interactive audio and was probably seeing nothing more than a blurry blob. Whatever – if the punter was OK with graphics resolutions down at the one dot-per-nipple range, that was his business.

"I wanted some advice…" The evening started with the level of banality that she had come to expect.

# # #

<Server: Login in progress.> The terminal chimed insistently, with ever-rising volume.

<Server: Are you a regular customer?>

<CallerAnon: I have used you once or twice.>

Clare woke abruptly and read fast. "Shit. Phil. Has to be." She hadn’t even removed the headset before dozing off.

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

<CallerAnon: Clare the Confessor.> <Request audio.> <Request 3D.>

"Hello Phil." She took control smoothly. "What can I do for you tonight?"

"Hear my confession."

Her rep’s left breast flared red with serious virtual violence.

"Not really my sort of thing." Now piss off.

"I want to talk details." His voice didn't match the violence. Stress indicators were high, but the wrong sort of high. "If I was going to kill you, how would I go about it? Give me some pointers." The rep’s throat shaded yellow… quickly through to red, a continuous band of colour around her neck, darkening steadily towards ominous purple and black. The server twitched her lips in an utterly inappropriate smile.

"I wouldn’t know where to start," she hedged, hand to her own throat… just checking. Her rep’s smile widened – the geeks had no programming prepared for this. The ones who pulled the wings of flies as kids probably got filtered out by the psych profiling during the interview process.

"You must have some ideas? Come on... Advise me. It’s what you’re supposed to do."

"This is outside my programming."

"You’re a sophisticated system. Extrapolate a little."

"This exceeds my limits." If he kept pushing, she would run out of stock phrases and the whole thing would get very repetitive.

"Work with me... put yourself in my place... How would you set about killing the whore called Clare? Psyche yourself up. She deserves to die. How do you do it? And I don’t just mean the death, but the whole deal. You have to make an example of her."

Random flecks of red hammered her rep. "Why?" she whispered.

"It’s needed. A lesson."

"Who for?"

The rep’s head turned crimson. "Pay attention. All the other little digital tarts. They have to know she died horribly. Why she died. You are the teacher, the instrument of a higher authority. How do you go about it?"

"For a start, I wouldn’t tell her what I was going to do," Clare answered without thinking. The phrase 'digital tarts' was so deliberate, meant to scare and succeeding. The possibilities expanded – was he only threatening her, or someone else? All the DigiTart staff? The rainbow assault on her rep went dark, deep into the violent. She had never identified with the graphical slut Lilywhite had chosen for her but this was suddenly very personal.

"But I want her to know. Plenty of warning, time to think. That is all part of the game. She has to know what is coming and be helpless to prevent it." He sighed abruptly. "You know, you’re damned good for an AI. Are you based on a real person?"

The server rescued her before she could say anything stupid. "I can not discuss my design." She read the script, hiding behind the blandness.

"Pity. Oops. Must dash. If you do have a real-life basis, tell her I would love to meet."

<Server: Connection lost.>

"He knows I'm real."

<Server: Probability assessed as... unlikely.>

“Crap. He knows.” Clare shivered with certainty. That tone of voice at the end... “He knows. He was playing with me. Shit. He knows and wanted me to know....” but those nuances were lost on the server. It could estimate emotional state and honesty but it couldn’t work out what someone really meant when they were lying. "Trust me. He knows." She gripped the edge of the table, skin stretched taut across her knuckles. Slow, deep breaths... one... two... three... not calm, but better... let go now... "Did you trace him?"

<Server: Search narrowed to Western Australia. Low reliability. Deranged caller ‘Phil’ is still masking his location.>

"Definitely a him, now? You weren’t sure last night." Clare had no doubts.

<Server: Gender now confirmed. Voice stress patterns were sufficiently distinctive.>

"And he’s after me."

<Server: Threat assessment suggests high risk. Threat not likely to be directed at you personally. Threat level raised to maximum.>

"Bollocks. He knows I’m real and he’s out to get me. Hell. He might even be watching this place. Is there any way he could work out who I am?"

<Server: You are logged off. Take a break.>

"Thanks…"

<Server: Take a shower.>

# # #

Clare ignored the suspicious looks from her supervisor – why couldn't the woman trust the AI? – and headed back to the dormitory floor. She was shaking, uncontrollable tremors rooted deep in her belly and reaching out to every extremity, an uncharacteristically bad reaction. There had been moments of fear like this out on the streets, nights of stress running a snatch for Old Henry and times of pure terror breaking locks for Chubby Silas. Or the night the punter she drove home from Hunter’s wanted another sort of ride, to somewhere extreme, far beyond her experience and comfort. The terrors of her past were at least as bad as Phil.

She paused just inside her room, the comfy land of perks. Thief, breaker and driver – jobs she understood, with people she could see, tangible threats. Phil was a monster in the dark of night. He might only be a harmless shadow, but there was no way to tell until the lights came on, and no way to find the lights.

Clare grabbed her towel and headed into the communal bathroom. The simple routine helped as she arranged her towel around the heat exchanger. Unless it was done properly, only half the cloth got decently warmed.

She pulled off her jumper – the knitting was getting old and fragile, touched with precious memories. The Stellex top and leggings were shed more carelessly, until she forced herself to stop and fold them properly, using the routine to settle her nerves.

There were several mirrors in the bathroom and she managed to raise a smile to herself. Standing in her underwear, she was no match for her rep, much too real and normal, but the sight brought back memories. There had been enough punters at the Casino who appreciated her unconventional charms and educated skills.

She stripped off her underwear and stepped into the shower, slotting her key into the controls. Hot water burst around her and the timer started counting her three minutes.

She didn’t bother with soap. Scrubbing was the answer. Proper scrubbing, and scraping so hard it hurt, just a bit of pain to help forget... forget enough. Fear eased; cold contemplation latched onto the problem. How would Kyla tackle this?

Phil had threatened her – no doubt. Personal threat. Indirect and unprovable, but all the more menacing because of it. Coming on top of Kyla's death it was enough to shake her to the core. A dark and suspicious corner of her mind said that the events were linked and nothing her more rational aspect could say would shake that lurking fear. Then there was the possible link between DigiTart and Kyla’s death. A tenuous thought. Unnerving.

Time and hot water dimmed the immediate stress. Long and leisurely... never enough... but this was over-running... really over... The countdown was stuck at three minutes. She had no idea how long the water had been flowing but it was wonderful. Regretfully, she pulled her key out, a twinge of guilt over the waste.

Clare stepped out and dried herself with a towel toasted to perfection. There was a small audio-only comsys so she logged a call with maintenance about the shower. A moment later the comsys chirped for attention.

"Clare Farral?"

"That’s me...".

"Report to lift four." One of the restricted ones.

"Seriously?" Stupid fucking thing to say... It was hardly likely to be a joke, and if it was, the doors of the lift would not open. "I need to get dressed first."

"In your own time." So, immediately was the only option.

The doors of the lift were standing open when she arrived and shut behind her. The lurch of movement told her she was going up, and fast, but no way to tell where. The floor indicator just had an arrow – no numbers, no names – until it stopped.

Penthouse. Calder Lilywhite. Please wait. Security assessment in progress.

“No way...”

Calder Lilywhite, owner, inventor, billionaire – whatever that meant in the post-cyberwar economy.

“Gotta be a joke...”

They – mostly Annie – said he was a recluse, which was reasonable since he was rarely seen, even though he lived over the shop. In fact, they and Annie said a lot of things…

The lift chimed for attention. “Mister Lilywhite will see you now.”

Keep an open mind… Ways up, or in, were in short supply. If he needed his hand held... Or anything else... Keep an open blouse was Annie’s stock advice.

The doors opened on birds singing from luxuriant foliage and water trickling in the background. It might have been clever lighting and audio effects, but once she stepped out of the lift, there was an artfully lit waterfall to her right. A flutter of wings and a tropical songbird found a new roost in a tangle of a vine. Clare reached out and touched the plants, stretching further to let the water chill her fingers. This was beyond mere perks.

"Yes. It’s real." A woman emerged through a gap in the foliage – at least as tall as herself, but with the curves and looks Clare associated with her rep, even down to the sparse clothes. "I am Emily. Follow me."

Shapely legs that went all the way, as Annie might put it, endless cleavage and flawless skin – if Clare had that body, she would definitely undress to show it. Absolutely perfect... although... just a few sensor nodes perhaps... or high-end gold ones down the spine...

Focus!

"Thanks. Nice place."

Emily smiled coldly. "I like to live in beautiful surroundings."

"Oh." Emily was a beautiful surrounding.

“Through here.” Another patch of tropical rain forest – no birds this time but water bubbled everywhere. “Calder...” Emily gestured at Clare, a dismissive flick of her wrist. “You wanted this one.” Calder Lilywhite was sitting in a worn cane chair, sipping a drink – a cliché if he hadn't looked so natural. A second chair was set for Clare, and a glass kissed with condensation. “Call me when you’re done with her.” The ornamental Emily withdrew with a neat turn on the spot and a precise walk to remind everyone that she had it.

Neither they nor Annie mentioned Calder’s age - barely older than Clare, very calm, compact – absolutely whatever he wanted to be – a slim, fit, youthful package of self-assurance.

"Sit down, Clare." His voice was light, almost too high.

She sat, nervously, but if an open blouse was the way forward... "You wanted to see me?"

"It concerns Phil. The first time was random. After that he specifically asked for you. According to the logs, you labelled him deranged after the first contact."

"Complete fucking nutter." So, not open blouse time after all. "Did I screw up?"

"You have done everything perfectly, Clare." That was unlikely, so where was this really going? "You have applied to join the Mars colonies, yes? Your academic results are good. Physical and psychological aptitudes good. Another year or two and you are almost guaranteed a berth on one of the ships."

"That’s right..." The best chance to get away from the current grind – certainly a harder life, but with room to make a future. “Just want my chance.”

"You could do it a lot sooner."

Offers like that did not come free. "How?" Keeping an open blouse was suddenly the easy option.

"Phil is a threat to this company." He was disarmingly frank, but why not? He had built a major business out of nothing... "He mentioned UltraNet – an important project being undertaken by one of our subsidiaries – Coriolis Net Products."

Clare shrugged. "Never heard of it… them…"

"Doesn’t matter. What does matter is finding out what Phil intends."

"And you want me for... something?" The light at the end of the tunnel – or was it an oncoming maglev?

"I think I know who Phil is. I would like you to meet him. Go up to the Coriolis plant in Yorkshire. Introduce yourself. Let him know you’re his Clare. Throw him off balance."

"Sure…” Shit. The bastard didn’t need to come looking to get his hands on her throat... “But he’ll never believe I’m…" Clare shrugged and gestured vaguely at her normally proportioned breasts. "His DigiTart."

“We will fix that.” Calder smiled, a calculating predator. "On one of his next calls, we’ll have an accident. Your own face will go out instead of the rep. Phil already knows that the DigiTarts are fakes – that's obvious. Then we’ll see how he reacts."

“Oh shit...” He knew. That bastard knew... and she had known he knew... “Are you sure...” that this is a good idea? Of course it wasn’t – Clare sucked cautiously at her lower lip. "So who is he?" And how do you know he knows I'm real? "And why has he been calling if he knows…" He had more than hinted at killing her. “I mean. This is serious shit.”

"The most serious shit there is. Phil is chief development engineer for the UltraNet Server. No idea what he’s up to. That’s where you come in. UltraNet is important." He sipped his drink, eyes dancing, daring her to ask, and then answered before she could. "He mentioned UltraNet the first time he spoke and you asked the… server about it. Of course the DigiTart server has never heard of it. Hasn’t even gone on line yet. Terribly clever. Very secret."

So Phil was a geek – nothing to worry about. A nasty little geek who clawed her rep... and kept doing it... and geek could so easily be an early development phase for psycho...

"Is Phil dangerous?"

"Maybe. We’ve already agreed this is the most serious shit.” He leant forwards. “Are you on? Get this right and you have a ticket to Mars. Or whatever else you want. I’m told you have some exotic and lucrative talents in the ah... intimate entertainment business. Clearly not your preferred career going forward.”

"When I meet him… How do I dress? I wouldn’t feel comfortable in one of those dresses." Her eyes flicked in the direction of the door where ornamental Emily was presumably waiting. "I’m not built for it." She looks familiar. I know she looks like my rep. Even so… something else familiar.

"I will provide something suitable," he promised. "Even without Emily’s… visible charms you’re reasonably attractive." Another smile. "Built for performance more than looks."

Thanks for nothing... Shut up. Ignore it. Focus. "This will get me on the Mars programme?" Clare knew she would do it anyway, and trust him to deliver. A gamble against being trapped in a stagnant hole forever.

"I hold a significant fraction of the Mars Programme stock.” Calder was amused and let it show. “It gives me influence."

That was an answer, but not a promise. "How big a fraction?"

"Big enough."

That was evasive... and understandable. This wasn't a negotiation, it was a take-it or leave-it deal. "So I go, flash my tits, take down Phil..." Try not to get... "Is this dangerous?" Stupid, stupid, stupid... of course it was...

"Does it matter?" He laughed, unable to contain it. "You’ve asked about the danger twice. This is a gamble, Clare. Are you ready to take risks? Small risks mean small gains and losses. I’m giving you the chance to play the big time – big risks, big gains, total losses. Arse on the line. Eyes on the horizon. Are you interested?"

"I suppose…" She looked him in the eyes, reading the message clearly. There was no bargaining, no deferring. An answer was needed – like pulling away from a junction and not being truly sure if there was time: foot down and listen for the wheels spinning, hoping not to blow a power fuse on the motor electrics. "When do I start?" And are there more perks?

"A good decision." He was pleased, very pleased. There had been negotiating room in that take-it or leave-it deal after all. Calder had hidden the opening with smiles and good cheer, and are you up for it? "We start tonight. It will be tedious. We have set up a special terminal. We will route only Phil to you. No other customers. Emily will show you the way. Anything you need, discuss with Emily." His lips pursed in a moment of irritation. "I realise that the impression she gives is… poor. Believe me, Emily is both clever and gifted. You can also use Madame for more basic requests."

"Madame?"

"That’s me," said the voice which had summoned her from the bathroom. "The most sophisticated computer intelligence yet created. Welcome to the team."

"Madame is what we’re… calibrating?" Clare guessed.

"DigiTart… might eventually be a subsystem of Madame," Calder admitted cautiously. "If DigiTart works out. I know it sounds odd, but there are reasons." He changed the subject. "Time to go. I really am glad you chose to do this. I have a feeling you will work out well."

Ornamental Emily had already appeared but Clare took an extra moment to impress the boss. "I learnt your motto. It seems to work. Carpe Sphaeras. I looked up what it meant." And the computer said you got it wrong.

# # #

Calder waited until he was alone. "Madame. Initiate registration of Clare to the Mars Programme."

"Done," Madame assured him. "Her skills are remarkable."

"And often misdirected or under-utilised." He pulled out a prototype DigiSlim tablet to flick through Clare’s record, again. "Emily has a knack for picking useful people."

"Clare Farral's skills might become misdirected at us." Madame streamed supplementary information to him. "The file is extensive but analysis suggests the proposition that our information is incomplete. Clare Farral has been involved in a large number of nefarious exercises. It is improbable that we have identified all of them."

Calder chuckled. "So she still has some secrets. Fine. We have enough to offer her to discourage any sort of betrayal. Emily will keep an eye on things."

"Emily did select Clare Farral to intercept the communications from suspected unstable callers. She handled Phil very well. I will trust Emily’s judgement."

"Yes..." Calder sighed. "Remind me to speak to Emily about her clothes again."

"Noted. Records indicate that your sister will take no notice. Analysis with DigiTart Beta 1.911x2 indicates that Emily will enjoy ignoring your concern."

He didn’t reply. The attempt had to be made, and excessive tolerance offered when it failed.

“You know...” He brought up some of the covert surveillance taken as part of Clare’s background assessment. “A bit shorter, and better stacked... my perfect woman.”

“Analysis suggests...” Madame forced his last five partners to overlay Clare’s image. “You would be bored within three weeks. Further analysis predicts a relationship with Clare without body modification would last...”

“One week?”

“Indefinitely.”

Calder blanked the tablet. Madame was not calibrated for that sort of analysis.

# # #

Emily led Clare through the rampant rain forest which hid the shape of the penthouse suite where Calder locked himself away from the world in a class of luxury Clare had never imagined, and certainly way beyond a few job-related perks. High-end comfort, with a high-end ornamental Emily, who defied expectation with a conventionally decorated office – functional and understated.

Clare expected the sort of back-room shag-suites that Hunter’s Casino kept for those special members. Emily, in person and up close, was a picture of excess but her office was all business – a plain, generous desk, four large wall-screens and a powerful TruVu 3D workstation.

“Sit." Emily settled gracefully into her own chair. "This won’t take long."

The tone was all business, to match the office. Clare was fascinated by the business-like tone – clever and gifted, Calder’s words, but the outward impression of mindless decoration was difficult to shake off. And she looked so like Clare’s DigiTart rep...

Emily caught the attention. "Is something wrong?"

"Is my rep based on you?" I’m sure I know you…

“No.” Shoulder length blonde hair bobbed as she shook her head. "I designed all the reps..." A sly look, mocking amusement... "Didn’t Calder tell you about me?"

"No."

"I do more than design reps – but what do you think of yours?" Her eyes twinkled with malicious entertainment.

Clare opened her mouth to answer... careful now... what the hell... pompous tart... "Dull and predictable. Mass market appeal." Oops. Like you. Didn’t mean that. Shit…

Emily pursed her lips, a curious buckling of the skin – something unnatural. "There is more to it than that. It isn’t easy designing almost two hundred separate female reps." The way Emily's face moved was reminiscent of when the techs made a bad change to the rendering on Clare's rep.

"Who did the guys?"

"I used a number of models and I checked out all the men personally." The smile deepened, extending the curious flexing of her skin. "Very personally."

Clare did some quick mental arithmetic – more reps than operators by a long way. "Some of us must use more than one." It would have taken considerable skill to design so many…

Emily shrugged, a co-ordinated lifting of arms, shoulders and cleavage – more unnatural skin movement. "Different forms for different… specialities." She indicated the TruVu workstation. "Each one is available in 3D, full range of wardrobe and capable of an extensive range of movement. The server can do a lot of manipulation, provided I have done adequate preparation.

Clare stared at the terminal. "Phil must have something like that."

Emily glanced at it. "From the connection protocols, we know Phil has something a lot more powerful than this." She brought up Clare’s rep as Phil might have seen it, a frozen frame with the flaming stress trails he had inflicted. "A rough character. Perhaps the techs ought to synthesise injuries... no. Perhaps not. That would be a different project..."

"And I only have one rep," Clare muttered, unexpectedly identifying with her digital image.

"A certain amount of crude classification of customers is done at login. It helps to have an appropriate member of staff field the call. Some are more versatile than others." Emily stared pointedly. "We gave you one rep because that was all you needed. Most of the operators change with the face we give them. You did everything with one… Your range of talents extends beyond the current limits of the DigiTart virtual environment."

"What do you know about my talents?"

"I hired you – indirectly." She chuckled unkindly. "I'm Emily Lilywhite. Calder’s sister. I reviewed all the background research on the DigiTart operators. You will be more than a match for Phil."

Calder’s sister. The resemblance was suddenly obvious.

"So you based the images on yourself." Clare revised her estimate of Emily downwards. Pampered sister.

"I based me on the rep," she answered sharply. "Not yours specifically. Since I was designing the reps, I did one extra."

Clare nodded slowly. It was total bullshit – any cosmetic surgery would have to have been done months, if not years, previously. Emily had redesigned herself before she did the DigiTart reps – unless the two hundred represented her attempts to get her own appearance as she wanted it. And that was why her skin didn’t move right – too much surgery.

Emily tapped a key on her bracelet. "Madame. Display image Emily Before."

Clare’s rep was replaced with Emily’s dowdy sister. The girl turned slowly in the display, sullen expression, lank hair and puffy, narrowed eyes. A soft shimmer stripped her clothes away to show a tendency toward fat and the original breasts which lacked the pert artificiality of the remodelled girl.

"Tolerable in the right clothes," Emily said with forced calm. "And plenty of makeup."

"Seen worse."

"Madame, run the changes…"

The image shifted slowly, soft wax reshaped by an unseen hand. The mild bulge at her waist melted away as her breasts lifted into a more enticing form. Her posture improved with a straightening of the spine. Her eyes widened into an expression of playful innocence as her hair gained bounce and body.

"Lifted, trimmed and tucked," Emily said calmly. "Biochemical implants to control fat deposition, a few skeletal adjustments. Nature wasn’t kind to me and Calder had the money to change that."

"The hair?" Clare had never heard of any surgical intervention that could do that.

"Changed to a more expensive shampoo." Emily laughed, grimly. "End."

Clare looked at the new Emily – the insecurities were still there. "Is it just cosmetic, or did you go for processor implants?"

"Hoping for some upgrades?" Emily turned on the full power of her contempt. "Forget it. You get what’s good for Lilywhite, and most of the cyberware wouldn’t be much good on Mars. No net to tap into."

Clare shrugged. "Just curious. It all…" She gestured at Emily's voluptuous form. "Looks natural." The lie rolled easily off her lips – everything about Emily looked fine until she moved, when flesh which should have flowed smoothly, or bounced gracefully, held its shape with unnatural rigidity.

"Madame will pass on instructions. I will arrange a suitable wardrobe." She leant close. "My brother is placing a lot of faith in you. Do not let him down. Phil will be tough and you will have to do whatever is necessary."

"Sure. So, did you opt for implants?"

Emily smiled thinly. "Of course. The very best. All internal. Calder indulges most of my whims and I repay him by handling… problems."

"Problems?"

"Like Phil." She leant closer. "I would attend to him myself, but Calder needs me here to deal with our other problems. And you are actually more suitable."

Clare leant forwards as well, refusing to be intimidated. "What other problems?" Arrogant bitch... Shut up. Smile. You want this. Kyla always gave good advice.

"None of your concern. What matters is Phil. This is what you are going to do…"

 

 


Kommentare

  • Author Portrait

    I really like it so far :)

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