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- Ben & Sebastian
Job perks – so beguiling, so addictive... Since Kyla's murder, Clare had moved up in the world, a higher floor, bigger and better perks. The DigiTart calibration project had given her a warm and comfortable room and communal facilities shared with five others. Now she magically rated her own suite.
Luxury beyond her wildest dreams. The personal bathroom was bigger than her old subsistence apartment, there was a private comterm, and her DigiTart terminal had an adjoining room all to itself. So far, she had only used the comterm to check with Lianne Medway to see if they had found Kyla’s killers. All this, just to talk to Phil the Nutter.
It was a tough life – less than half an hour of work each day. Her studies were coming along well and if this special assignment lasted another week or two, she might get her level 3 exo-geology accreditation. Another step closer to Mars.
The only fly in the ointment was being on call twenty-four hours a day. Phil was a night-owl - twice, so far, he had dragged her out of bed at some ungodly hour.
The interactive sessions were only a matter of minutes long but increasingly frequent and aggressive. The first day had not felt too bad, but three days in and she was worn down, so like the grim days before the Hunter’s Casino job, forever looking over her shoulder.
The bathroom was wonderful – a real hot shower and no water rationing. Fresh towels, soap, all the luxuries she could dream of. Who needed Mars when she could have this? Kyla would have called it getting soft – getting acclimatised to fragile and transient comforts.
"You have a new assignment," Madame announced as Clare emerged from the bathroom. "You will act as driver and general assistant to Project Director Critchley for the next few days."
"What about Phil?" And my study time.
"Project Director Critchley is travelling to oversee the rebooting of UltraNet at Coriolis Net Products. You will assist."
"UltraNet?” Oh shit – already acclimatised to fragile and transient comforts. “Phil is the guy in charge up there."
Clare shook her head. "It’s too soon. He doesn’t know what I look like."
"Calder Lilywhite believes that Phil will deduce your identity. You are permitted to reveal that you have worked on the DigiTart project."
"No problem.” Oh shit... When does he want to leave?" Shit, shit, shit... but they were paying the bills, and all those perks had a price.
"Your vehicle will be ready in approximately forty minutes."
"Shit." She hurried through to the bedroom. "What about clothes? Emily hasn’t sorted that out yet…" I’m not ready. Really not ready. Not at all...
"No time left now."
What would Kyla say? Get it together. Now.
Clare hauled the wardrobe open, grabbing the first pair of Stellex leggings and matching T-shirt. The metallised cloth picked up the room lights in a sparkling shimmer as she tossed them onto the bed and rummaged for some underwear. She glanced at herself in the mirror – body mass wasn’t so different from Emily, but the distribution…
"Madame, you there?"
"What does Emily do to stop her tits bouncing around? No way she wears anything under those clothes of hers. Did they put in support struts when they built the padding?"
"Is this relevant?"
Clare looked at the mirror again. "Yeah. I’m curious. I'll do a better job if I know."
“That is an inadequate reason.” Madame assigned processing power to determine whether Clare was serious. When that failed, it logged the conversation for further analysis and alerted Calder. "This information is commercially sensitive."
“Go on. I gotta know now. I won't tell a soul..."
“Under the present circumstances...” Calder provided authorisation. "You are reminded of the confidentiality agreements which you signed. Emily’s modifications are supported by subcutaneous programmable flexiplast mesh. Designation is DerMesh Lite."
"Hah." Clare pulled on the leggings. "Like a cybercop's sensor mesh."
"Correct. The product is manufactured by CyberLine."
“So she’s got armoured tits.”
“DerMesh Lite provides low impact protection.”
“But it’s there... and almost invisible.” Just skin that doesn’t move quite right – Clare made the obvious, commercial extension... "You could make a cybercop with no visible external signs. No connection nodes and if a subcutaneous sensor net were left in passive mode… no external transmissions."
Madame was silent.
I need to know, need to know, need...
“That’s so cool...” The sensor mesh itself would shield any signal leakage from the control processors and provide moderate impact protection. "And she just uses it to keep her tits in shape."
Her scruffy jumper was draped over a chair, a disreputable item hand-knitted from scraps of wool by the night manager at Hunter’s Casino. There was no need for the extra warmth with the Stellex T-shirt, but Clare pulled it on from pure sentiment – and to make a point.
"Arrangements have been made for suitable clothing to be delivered at your destination," Madame informed her. "Your body parameters are on record. Emily is making the selection now. Your vehicle will be ready in approximately thirty-five minutes."
"Great…" Clare called up the exo-geology tutorial on the screen and laid out her books. She was thoroughly immersed in her studies when Madame gave her a ten minute warning. Clare shut everything down. "I’m ready." So, so not ready.
Clare stepped out of the lift and into the underground carpark – secure lift, checkpoints, armoured doors, a concrete temple to the gods of Security. Gruff guards, sparse signage and prompts from concealed speakers guided her to the transport manager’s office.
The duty manager was young and, against all good sense, sporting a scrappy, bum-fluff beard. He pushed gold and green wide-framed spectacles up his nose, a perfect complement to his loud, vulgar jewellery – so hot a year or two back. He glanced at her, at his desk terminal, and then back up. "Says you can drive."
"Had much practical experience?" Young, outmoded, and protective of his vehicles.
"I drove the courtesy cars for Hunter’s Casino when they were short." That was no more than scratching the paint on the truth. Mostly.
Bum-fluff snorted. "Pure electrics." So beyond the pale and beneath contempt, rather like his spectacles. "I’m talking about real experience. We use Mitsubishi gas turbo-electrics for long-haul VIP stuff – best performance you can buy. Can you handle that?"
“You’d be amazed by what I can handle.” And no idea what it really meant to drive for Hunter’s. “I have experience...” Best not spook him with those details when there was the chance of driving one of the ‘Bishi fuel-burners… Clare almost held her breath in anticipation. "The Gazelle or…"
She moistened her lips. "Reactive suspension?" He nodded. "Voice control?"
"All on board systems," he said. “So? Can you handle it?”
"Years of experience." In my dreams.
He frowned, but the instructions on his terminal gave him no choice. He opened his mouth to deliver a parting shot...
“ Director Critchley, sir...” Frowns and glares melted into a politely bland expression.
"Is the car ready?" Bob glanced at Clare and instantly dismissed her.
The garish Stellex leggings were bad enough, but the muddy mess of colours in her sweater was appalling. Gutter trash. Looked like a subbie...
"Another few minutes, Director Critchley," the manager apologised. "Your bags are being loaded."
"Driver here yet?"
The manager cringed minutely. Clare beat him to the answer. "Ready. Clare Farral."
“You?” Was Calder really hiring subbies? Or was Emily messing with him again...? "I expect my assistants to be better dressed."
"Short notice." Fuck you... Sir. "Emily is arranging for my things to be delivered."
"Emily?" He closed his eyes. “Of course. Emily.”
"No expense spared." Clare did a quick twirl. “Got pulled off another job. Short notice, you know?”
“Great.” Clare knew his type – not rich enough to enjoy it, not poor enough to feel it, terrified of sinking down into the mire, insecurity oozing from every pore. “So, big job. If it goes well, do you think the company could stretch to some of that fancy engineering to hold my tits up?"
“Really?” Clare could hear the roar and scream of a ferocious guerilla war, savage corporate clashes between Bob’s Brigade and the Emily Specials... “But Emily...”
“Emily, Emily, Emily...” Those damned DerMesh implants had delayed installation of two additional processing nodes into Kernel Kombat for over a year. “Never bloody listens...” All rational arguments failed, even with... “Calder. He let her...”
“Let her what?”
Me? No... Emily. "Right. Pity." So that was a seriously touchy subject and then some. “I mean... it’s not that expensive, right?”
“Expensive?” Touchy as a land-mine. “Do you have any idea how long she delayed my upgrades for... Never mind.”
“So, not cheap... Do they do a proper version? Sensor nets and armour?"
"I have no idea. Waste. Total waste. So much money..." He wound down to a frustrated whisper, “Calder always takes her side...”
“She has a very nice front...”
Bob took a deep, barely calming, breath and turned back to the motor pool manager. "Is the car ready?"
"Of course, sir. Follow me."
Clare brought up the rear and revised her assessment of Bob Critchley. He was the same height as her, but stocky with broad, deep shoulders, exuding the impression of great capability – a totally false impression. His movements were hesitant, eye contact fleetingly skittish, his hands trembled when she spoke about Emily and her implants. The Project Director needed a minder to cope outside his own narrow world.
I am that minder...
She'd slipped so easily into a contemptuous attitude. Making Bob look a complete pillock was easy, might even be funny for a while, but utterly wrong. Her job was two-fold – check out Phil, and look after Bob Critchley as he ventured out from the comfort of Lilywhite headquarters into the real world. If she couldn’t stop him from making a tit of himself, which was clearly going to be a challenge, she at least had to make sure no-one in that real world noticed.
The car was a pale metallic gold, customised bodywork decorated with a sketch of the iconic 'Predator Girl' in thin red lines – Clare had known both original model and artist at Hunter's; both now dead of a joint overdose. The styling was appropriately low and sleek; smoothly swept curves to slide cleanly though the air at high speeds, the Predator Girl stretching out along the length, reaching for the next thrill. She... it cried out to have hands trace the sensual lines... this was not the moment to hug the delicious bodywork.
Clare got in and let the seat mould around her body, little shifts and nudges as the servo mechanisms sought the optimum configuration. Without any prompting, the steering column crept towards her and narrowed the diameter of wheel. She ran her eyes over the display indications and then settled back to wait for Bob to say go.
"Switch it off," he grumbled from the back. "Can’t stand these bloody seats wriggling. Christ, that’s better."
Clare felt her chair slump. "Enable front seats only," she muttered and the self-customisation reasserted itself. "Show me the route."
She scrolled thought the proposed journey, told the doors to latch and then engaged the electric drive. The Panther rolled forwards, the steering light and easy. The exit route was marked clearly, but one of the staff walked in front, directing her. The manager was taking no risks.
The roads were wet but the rain had stopped. The traffic in north London was already heavy and got worse as she approached the motorway junction. Six northbound lanes of cars, trucks and buses crawling out of London along the M1, all carefully spaced, mostly running on automatic and only a handful showing the tell-tale steam trails of fuel burners once they were beyond the mandatory clean zone.
"Are we in a hurry?" She woke Bob from a light doze and had to repeat the question.
"There’s a bloody war on, girl. Of course we’re in a hurry."
She joined the main traffic flow, smoothly sliding into a gap and matching speeds. "What war?"
Bob woke up enough to realise what he had said. "Cyberwar," he told her sharply.
"Shit." She was barely born the last time two big corporations decided to settle their difference on the nets, and grew up in an economy shredded by the collateral damage. "Which companies?"
"That is unclear... different from last time... bigger, maybe.”
“Shit...” A full-scale cyberwar brewing, maybe bigger than the last one. Kyla was killed whilst hacking the software for her implants and the best bet had to be CyberLine as the money behind the kill. The fourth commercial cyberwar had been settled as much by gorewar as by the skill of the hackers. Bombs and bullets stopped the assault co-ordinators as effectively as system infiltration. “Not good... but you’re going to stop it, right?”
“Right...” Bob needed to work on convincing.
"Hold tight." She accelerated into a gap in the next lane, hesitated, then skipped again. The ’Bishi electric drive was one of the most responsive on the market and the car dodged neatly from lane to lane, effective speed climbing towards the hundred klick mark. In the back seat, Bob shut his eyes and tried to go back to sleep. The reactive suspension evened out the wildest manoeuvres, other than the lateral swings.
Clare kept edging her speed up. The vehicle spacings were starting to widen anyway, giving her more lane-hopping windows. As she got the hang of the handling and response, she slipped through narrower gaps, surfing the packed motorway until the clear stretches were long enough to push the electric drive to the limit.
The speedo registered a hundred and twenty, dashboard icons went from red to green... the fuel drive was now worthwhile. Clare smiled... switch to fuel... yes, I really mean it... and there was the distant hum of the gas turbine, like a lover’s touch. Speeds matched, and the electric drive shut down, leaving the turbine to run the vehicle, and recharge the battery system.
This was what the ’Bishi Panther was for – the best, safest and most reliable legal speed machine - and Bob did say they were in a hurry. Responsive steering, reactive suspension... Clare went all the way in the sexiest thing she had ever driven. The absolute best. Ever.
Bob drifted off to sleep. The further north they went, the less traffic until Clare could push the car to its cruising limit. She could have just kept driving forever, but less than two hours from leaving, she came off the motorway and let the electric drive cut in for the last twenty klicks through country roads to Wellerbridge and the King’s Arms.
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