The Meaning of Pain

Clare needed sleep but there was too much to do. Aggressive programs from her Lilywhite card spread into the system and broke through the outer layers of Phil’s data tricks. His true employment file emerged, replete with unexplained meetings, strangely regular absences and a total lack of routine medical exams. According to his official file he attended every six months, the hidden one showed no checks at all.

"Something you’re hiding... Or someone... I wonder who you really are." It was the most obvious explanation – any medical examination would show that the present Philip Elsworth was not the same man who had originally joined the company.

She stood up and paced around the room to keep herself awake. Cranfield would say... take it easy, you need to rest, don’t push yourself... which she could ignore since he wasn’t there. What she wanted to know was how and where Phil would hide. There was no clue in his records – the true or the fake. He was adept at manipulating the computer systems – that had been obvious from the fact that he had managed to disappear – but not good enough to simply erase and replace his true record.

Her new eye suddenly activated without warning – there were two images of the room, a ghostly double-outline to everything. Lurching drunkenly from one piece of furniture to the next, Clare made her way to the bathroom, Phil and his schemes temporarily forgotten.

She vomited just short of the hand basin; the optical processor shut down. Clare sat on the toilet seat until the worst had passed. She stepped carefully around the foul puddle to get water to rinse her mouth out, and rested against the basin to let the last of the disturbance pass.

"Mercenary," she told the room when she was done vomiting. "Phil is a mercenary. Has to be." She stumbled out of the bathroom and carried on pacing, recovering by brute force. “Clever, clever Phil... where are you hiding? Clever and arrogant... don’t hide, do you? Get in people’s faces. Push them around. So something... rough. Simple and rough. But not obvious, because you’re a devious bastard. Devious and rough, and perfect for whatever comes next...What are you going to do next, Phil?"

Clare sat at the terminal again.

"Will it be on your schedule?" She pulled up Phil’s personal files, including a calendar packed with meetings and miscellaneous jobs. "Got to be another fake..." She looked it over; a mass of detail, all making sense... "Cyberwar fucked everything. Most of these would have been cancelled... so all faked, or nobody bothered to tidy your diary."

The Lilywhite hacking routines went to work again, but this time nothing came up. Clare stared at the blank window and then resumed her pacing.

“So... clever bastard... hiding somewhere devious, and you never trust anything important to the company computers... So... What next? What you going to go after? Una was the original target, but you can’t get in there at the moment." She kicked the chairs to ease frustration. "What were you up to?"

The cracking program was powerful, but insufficient. Clare sat down and started switching off its various automatic functions in favour of directing it manually. It was a year or more since she had done this sort of thing, but the familiar tricks were there – dormant skills waiting to be used. The rust flaked away as she warmed up.

The first thing she explored was the initial tampering with the camera records. Una had found it first, and analysed it faster, but Clare saw the things which the computer had missed. The glitches which made it show up were crude, like the morning after the techs improved her DigiTart rep and turned it into a cartoon girl... which turned out to be a hit with some clients, so they still used it... Glitches, but not glitches, almost as if they were there to draw attention... and take the eye away from what mattered. There was no obvious destination for the trail which petered out quite rapidly.

"Another false one," she told the screen with satisfaction. "So, which way did the bastard really go?"

The last sighting of Phil on the security cameras had him talking to someone at his desk terminal. A brief check of the security logs showed no comms traffic so she delved further, levering her way into Phil’s personal systems. His office terminal was a powerful machine, capable of working independently of the company facilities. Once she broke through to the system logs there, the comms records were quite different. The caller had been connected via the external nets – something else not logged on the company records. Whoever Phil had been talking to had security override codes to match the ones Clare was using.

“Wait... shit....” She called up more records. "The nets were down... wow.... shit... Someone punched a secure link through when everything else was totally buggered."

Clare found the message logs – a full record of the exchange. "Shit." The encryption was beyond her ability to break. She transferred the file to her room terminal in the hope that Una might make some sense of it later. The only thing that was clear was a security alert which occurred during the conversation, armed with enough priority to simply barge in and cause a hiatus of several seconds.

“Oh shit.” Clare felt a chill. “You bastard... you were on this bloody secure channel and that security alert was me. Hast to be. You crashed in on me seconds after I poked that camera... right?” Her time sense was too screwed up to be certain whether the two events were coincident. “Yeah. I just know it. You were on an encrypted channel when comms were dead.... talking to a bloody mole at Lilywhite. Who? Shit. Who were you talking to?”

In frustration she logged herself into the security monitoring programmes and sent a flurry of bots out looking for Bob. Even with total access to everything, it took time, enough for her to drift off..

"Clare?" She jerked her head up. The terminal had a warning flag – audio only. “What do you want? I’m busy.”

"Bob... Yeah.... Where are you?"

"Crawling around service spaces," he grumbled. "No sign of Phil. Half these places are knee-deep in dust. No one has been down here for months, maybe years. What do you want?"

"He won’t be there..." That was a certainty. "He won’t be afraid of cameras. He can override them."

"It would show up."

She snorted. "Only if he wants it to. Trust me, Bob. He’s a clever bastard and he’s had time to prepare. So what’s he up to? Where would he go next?"

"Into hiding," he replied firmly. "You get some sleep and leave this to me."

Clare knew the sound of a brick wall when she hit it. "OK. Fine. So, before he went into hiding, what was he trying to do? What surprises did he leave?"

"Don’t worry about it, Clare. Elsworth was after Una. There’s no way in to the suite, and there’s no other way into the system maintenance spaces. There is nothing he can do to harm Una."

Clare bit off an angry response – Bob was being an arse and she was far too tired. Just because Phil could hit Una directly...."What about the operators? Phil could... How well will Una function without them?"

"It’s a possibility, I suppose." Bob was still an arse, but that grudging concession was a start. "Go back to bed. I will look into it."

"Thanks." Arsehole... She broke the connection. "Who said I was in bed? So... if Phil went after the operators..."

Clare went over the camera records for the accommodation complex, focusing on the ones where the operators lived, and then narrowing the search to Miela as the only one currently available...

“Well that’s crap management...” Allowing enhancement surgery and secondments to overlap so that there was only one operator left. “Really crap. Or dead suspicious... And Phil... you do the bloody scheduling, don’t you? So what’s Miela been up to lately...”

There was literally hours of camera record outside Miela’s apartment, but so easy to sort backwards... there... most recent... Cranfield walking past. The timestamp... ages ago, but that was because Clare had that little snooze... so it really was Cranfield just after he left...

“Wait... back... two seconds...” That blink, so small it might just be lack sleep. “Step forward... one frame per second...” Or it might be absolutely real. “Stop. Back... step forward one... again... step back one... which way did you go, Doc?”

A rapid search of the other cameras showed no record of him leaving the building. So... there... further back... the pair of them arriving. Switching cameras revealed his car parked out the front of the building, but the current feed showed no car. More hunting showed him driving away and then round the building before he went out of sight – but none of the other cameras picked him up.

Clare used her terminal to crack access to the main security control point. A young man stared at her from the screen, close-shaved head, sharp eyes – a guy comfortable with a chain of command, not a crazy, sleep-deprived woman with a short fuse....

"You have reached security. Officer Tiggles responding…" There was a growing frown. "How did you gain access to this channel… Miss Farral?"

"Doesn’t matter," she replied briskly. "I’ve located Philip Elsworth."

The frown deepened. "Director Critchley is attending to that."

"Director Critchley is an arsehole." A very short fuse. "Sorry. Shouldn’t have said that." The truth shall set your teeth on edge... "Take a look at a few camera anomalies – all from in and around the accommodation block. Or better still, find out where Doctor Cranfield is. According to the records he has vanished."

"I will have to refer this to my supervisor."

"Refer it fast, Officer Tiggles. I’m going to make sure Miela is OK." She leant close to the terminal. Fuse is burning, arsehole... "If I meet Phil and survive it I’ll make sure you have trouble sitting on your arse for the rest of your life if there isn’t some help down here now."

She broke the connection and shut down the whole Lilywhite jemmy software. The terminal reset to its normal state as if there had never been any interruption.

# # #

Clare approached Miela’s apartment – the door was standing ajar, not a good sign. She crept back to her own room. There was a mirror on the wall in the bedroom – edges tastefully decorated with a grapevine engraving. Clare hit it with a chair. The numbvest took the edge off it, but the over-exertion wrapped fire around her ribs. She used a blouse from the wardrobe to pick up a conveniently sized mirror fragment.

At Miela’s door she used the shard to look around the corner before stepping cautiously inside. The door to the bedroom was also open a few inches. Mirror in hand, she padded forwards. The lights were on low in the bedroom, just enough to see by in the jiggling reflection. Miela was sprawled naked on the bed.

Clare took a deep breath and her new eye switched on again. There were still two images, the mismatch now reduced, but still a blossoming nausea took root in the pit of her belly – she clenched her jaw and held her breath to fight it.

Breathe... again... just breathe.. this shit is getting old... in.. in... in... hold and out... slowly... and again... not going anywhere... standing still...

Her brain was convinced that she was moving in a dozen different directions at once until she shut her eyes, blocking out the confusing images until there was only a faint hint of inconsistent dark smudges.

There... breathe some more... one-elephant... two-elephant... three-elephant...

Clare counted ragged seconds, cautiously opened her right eye a crack after every ten. Seconds became a minute, and then two as the electronics stubbornly refused to go dormant.

Bastard... Right. Go for it... new eye shut and... She raised her mirror to look... and white fire exploded in her right eye – worse than anything that Miela had done during the calibration procedure.

The mirror fell; Clare lurched forwards into the bedroom, flailing for balance. The pain gnawed its way down, a relentless pile-driver cracking through her skull until she fell to her knees.

The pain stopped. Her breath was rasping in her throat and tears streamed down her cheeks. Every nerve resonated in the dying echoes of the shock.

"You took your time." Phil stepped into sight, towering over her, menacing in dark body-armour, a sleek, lightweight shell to protect against mild impacts. "You confused things with that encryption you put on your terminal – but I guessed you were coming when it stopped."

"Bastard."

He shrugged indifferently. "I’ve been talking to Miela. She’s been keeping close to Bob – mutual support or something – but she won’t tell me where he is." He crouched to bring his face more nearly level with hers. "I really want to find Bob and I’m running out of time."

The data scrambler was in his hand. That was the cause of the overload on her optical processor. Clare stared at it – the images from each eye were still distinct but pain and stress were accelerating the learning process.

"So?" All she had to do was keep him talking until security arrived.

"I thought I might ask you. Miela has passed out." He raised the data scrambler. "Remember our last conversation?"

White fire and aftershock – worse than anything she had experienced so far. Wild, tearing claws burrowed into her belly; her breasts exploded one after the other – two volcanoes of heat and pressure. Her throat locked against her, preventing her from crying out and she barely felt the floor as she fell sideways. Pain, in spite of the anaesthetic – inserted directly into her nervous system and beyond the control of the numbvest.

"Just an opener. Tell me, what did it feel like?" His fingers pinched each breast through the thickness of the numbvest and she scarcely felt it. "Are you ready for more? Much worse. Much, much worse." His fingers traced a lazy caress across her belly, below the numbvest. "Perhaps you would like something more familiar?"

Clare felt a brief pressure but had no idea what it meant. By closing one eye, she could get rid of the confusion of the double images but there was no way to move her head to see what was going on. Phil leant over and looked her in the eye, lips curled into a smile on the edge of her vision.

"Open the other one. I want to see how well they match." The data scrambler pressed against her cheek.

Two overlapping Phils looked down at her. Tears formed in response to the confusion until she closed her natural eye. The image from the prosthetic was perfect – sharp and detailed. Some small feature in Phil’s own eyes caught her attention and she triggered the zoom function without any conscious effort. The image juddered with the frantic beat of her pulse and the ragged shakes of her breathing. Delicate mechanisms twitched within his pupils – two artificial eyes.

"Where is Bob?"

"Don’t know," she hissed. It was Muscles and Niels all over again.

The data scrambler pressed against her right breast. "Internals fully operational." He mimicked voice-of-god in her head. "Processors linked into your nervous system. The subdermal mesh would shield against a scrambler – but it needs to finish growing. Try this. Always goes down well with Miela."

Fake data arrived – the mesh that she didn’t possess yet warned that pressure and temperature had exceeded limits. Local nerves were harshly stimulated – hot iron crushed her chest, burning and grinding. The pain was less excruciating than the initial burst, not quite his crap about achievable pain versus endurable, but still cause for a good scream... a real scream... except he did something else and her throat locked before she could get it out.

Instant pain, just add electrons.

"It’s the duration that matters," he told her as the heat and pressure wore at her. "Just tell me where Bob is and you could have this instead."

The pain stopped. Orgasm flared from some point between her knees. It was the most perfect, anatomically impossible pleasure she had ever known. It spread like a slow stain, creeping through her body until the edge reached her hips. At the flick of a switch, hot metal slammed into her chest again.

"Carrot and stick, Clare. Now you know what the carrot tastes like, we need a lot more stick." The pain shifted, sharp stinging points flared up and vanished like raindrops on a pond. "The range of warnings built into the system is considerable. Tell me where Bob is and it can stop. Remember the pleasure?"

The pain faded. Breathe, just breathe, why did it stop...? Don’t care... Where did he go?

The voice was still there, nagging, tormenting, where is Bob, give me Bob, tell me... but distant... Phil was gone, across the room, now tormenting Miela again. Clare was too disoriented to make sense of the operator’s whispered denials. The scrambling of her systems was like the aftermath of a slap, still stinging, stray signals flooding into her brain, swamping coordination.

Clare opened her eyes; only her natural one was working. She ached from head to toe – a collection of phantom pains generated by the processing arrays in her breasts. The effects were fading but there was Phil... the pain maestro... ready to return, to inflict at the perfect moment...

Her new eye flickered on and the virtual screen unrolled in her head, displaying a continuous stream of warnings. The double images steadily coalesced into one as the optical systems caught the necessary feedback. Error banners still sailed past, but those were coming from the processors and nascent submesh sensornet.

<Clare: Clare to right tit? Hello?>

<System: Error.>

<Clare: Status?>

It worked like magic. The information scrolled up, telling her that her eye was functioning perfectly and both mammary processor arrays were attempting to reboot.

The ghosts and ghouls of phantom pain vanished abruptly and the virtual screen blinked off. Now her head was empty, and she was standing in it, just waiting for an echo. On the edge of her vision a strange flickering appeared, scuttling away when she tried to focus on it.

Stand still you little shit...

The virtual screen reappeared. In the centre was the view from her prosthetic eye but around it swirled a mushy confusion. She tried to stare at the swirling edge and it expanded to fill her inner eye – complex, detailed and meaningless.

"Very good…" Phil was at her side, whispering into her ear, so close she could feel his breath. "I think we can attribute your sudden skill with the eye to your processor nodes. I doubt that you could have triggered the infra-red bands without help. And the RF overlay is impressive. Now… time to stop playing." He crushed the images with renewed pain. "Where is Bob?"

She could only wish that the protective shielding of her submesh were there now. The illusion was perfect, intense and inescapable. So much heat and pressure she had to die...

"Come on Clare. Tell me where Bob is." He moved the scrambler to a point close to her collar bone. "It can be so much worse..."

The pain changed. Something hard and searingly hot slapped against her skin, a rapid series of jabs, striking randomly. The only focus was a steady burning close to the scrambler. A new virtual screen unfolded and fluttered unsteadily in her mind. A schematic of her body took shape, littered with symbols and annotation in ridiculously small fonts, and the site of the ember on her ribs glowed fitfully.

"No escape this time," he told her and the words were echoed on the screen in her head, big and bold, stamping her flat.

Clare concentrated on the alternate display, a single point of stillness to anchor herself. The staccato burning of her skin made it impossible to think – the irregular, random jolts were a juddering distraction out of all proportion to the pain. She had endured far worse the last time Phil had played with her.

"That’s a node," she whispered and the pain stopped abruptly.

"Speak up," he encouraged.

Clare was lost in her moment of revelation. The schematic showed the layout of processors and interfaces; the illuminated highlight was one of the subdermal nodes and the exact spot where Phil was applying the scrambler.

"I can’t hear you," he complained and intense cramps clawed through her belly, worse than the nastiest dodgy burger from the subsistence vendors.

He told me that my own mesh wouldn’t give shielding yet. Bollocks. She grunted as the cramps twisted tighter but now she had the train of thought there was no letting go. He attacks the interface nodes. The mesh wouldn’t help. She opened her real eye and managed to stare up at him. Lying bastard. What are you up to?

"It could have been so good between us," he told her. "We could have been lovers. Bob would be dead and the world would be a different place." He laughed suddenly. "Of course, we can still be lovers. You will need training... all you have to do is tell me where Bob is and this lesson is over."

This was definitely the bastard who had assaulted her rep.

The pain eased off and then rapidly diminished. She opened both of her eyes as the optical processor came back on line. Two disparate images snapped together to show Phil kneeling over her, face close to hers. She blinked and lashed out, trying to slap his face.

The blow never even came close. He blocked her hand and reapplied the data scrambler. When the pain faded again, Miela was whimpering in the background. Clare stayed very still, just turning her head minutely to study Phil... So fast.... impossibly fast... The only explanation was some form of enhancement, but if that were the case how did he wave the scrambler around without affecting himself?

Cranfield. The memory was vague, but the doctor had told her about… signal boosters. That was what the data scrambler was. Phil had his own processor arrays and his data scrambler let him do horrid things to processor nodes...

Backdoors. Her implants – and Miela’s – crammed with backdoors in the software and he attacked through the nodes under her skin.

Phil had said – lied – that her submesh would give shielding when it was grown… perhaps it would, but not against this... so why did he say that? Phil knew his way around her processors better than she did. He could do anything he wanted, but he had mentioned shielding. It was a silly thing to say. It had to mean something, but it didn't.

Clare stirred slowly, one eye on Phil... two eyes on him... Her processors were experimental, full of unknown capabilities, maybe even a way to lock Phil out... or perhaps that was just a way to waste her time, chasing the impossible. Phil was too clever... spouting crap, spinning lies, tangling everything... Shielding meant nothing because Phil was hacking the backdoors in her system…

Out of time...

Phil was back. He’d got nothing from Miela. All she could think of was the problem of backdoors into the system. Every piece of equipment had them. The manufacturers put them in by reflex. Most of the time they were left over from development stages when the designers wanted a quick way in to test things. A weak point on every processor, node and system. Sneaky little backdoors – just like the ones which Bob had sealed for…

"Una."

Phil stopped. "Impossible."

"Back doors," Clare said clearly, concentrating on her problems, trying to confuse the truth. Trying to confuse Phil. "Over rides. The ultimate lockout." And Una had a physical back door – Clare was sure of it. Those access ladders in the maintenance bays had purely mechanical locks. That’s what it had to be. Phil was a control freak. He loved those unguarded entrances. Somewhere else for him to creep around, unseen and up to mischief.

The omniscient Phil didn't know Bob was with Una… but there were no cameras in the service spaces… were there? The pain was too much to be able to concentrate on abstracts. Just breathing required effort.

Critical errors. System rebooting...

Phil turned and ran out. Clare held her breath, just listening... the door shut and there was the distant crackle of something brutal and direct being done to the mechanism.

Gone. Away. Safe now... but need to chase, get after him, stop him... But the lock was fused or fried, or served with onion rings, or...

Just breathe for a moment. No chance of chasing after him for a while.

Clare lay still and stared. What just happened? She had not answered his question, not his actual question, or not meant to... Except she did. Mentioning Una had been a random outburst, a careless, stupid, disastrous outburst, that gave him the right answer – and everything she had said after to confuse him had been true enough not to disturb any significant physiological indicators, which he must be capable of monitoring. Processor arrays, synthetic eyes – he was as heavily enhanced as a cybercop.

The speed with which he had parried her slap... So, so fast... Had she simply been moving very slowly… or was he reinforced with DerMesh? The technical specs for that had mentioned something about improved reflexes. The stuff was supposed to be able to give the illusion of great strength by moving with the person, or for them, protecting them from the sort of physical deformation which crushed flesh and shattered bone. Really, it was very limited, but against normal flesh it would be terrifying and Phil was wearing body-armour to absorb some of the impact.

Just breathe for a moment. Pain was just a memory. Keep breathing in lungfuls of calm.

Phil was an enhanced cyber-monster who would have to wait. Nailing his balls to the wall would require more effort than she had realised. And power tools.

Reboot complete.

The last of the pain melted away. Clare stood, found her balance, and crossed to examine Miela – she was near-comatose. She gently stroked the interface nodes along the bottom of her rib cage and then the titanium disk of the power connector in her belly. Clare's own navel was quite normal-looking, just a little red to show that there had been surgery. She moved the belt of controls for her numbvest to look more closely and...

One of the modules was missing. Phil had sabotaged the numbvest. The anaesthetic pack was gone; the nutrients for the submesh were intact. What had Phil said about the guy suspended unconscious in the gel tank?

Screaming in agony if he was conscious.

That was coming. Soon.

The room terminal was dead – a ragged hole punched through the screen, another indication of Phil’s enhanced body. Security would arrive eventually, but not in time to catch Phil, who would be hunting Bob at the Una suite. Now that he was on the move again, he would be a devil to track on the security systems…

"What are you up to, Phil?" Clare demanded, kicking the nearest chair. Information slotted together. "Why did you need me to tell you where Bob is? Why did you have to ask me? What are you up to? Why did you rush off?" Just because she accidentally told him...

It made no sense. Even if the cyberwar expert was out of range of the monitors, Phil would have been able to find out that he had gone hunting with a security team. Phil was pushing buttons, and she did not know why. And then he just left. It was crazy…

Someone knocked on the door. "Hello? Miss Farral? Miela? This is Security Officer Roland Tiggles. Are you in there?"

"Of course we’re in here. Just kick the fucking thing down." Arsehole. Fuse re-lit.

"Please stand back," the voice advised. A few seconds later the entire lock assembly dropped into the room, a smoking, crumpled mess. The sleek young man whom Clare had recently threatened with violence stepped through, suited up in black body armour, carrying his helmet. "No sign of Doctor Elsworth."

"He left a few minutes ago." Rescue was good; a rescuer a notch above idiot would be better. "Miela needs medical assistance. And I want a new cartridge for this thing." She slapped the numbvest. "When the anaesthetic wears off I’m not going to be a nice person to know."

"Er. Right."

"Come on." Clare strode past him. "Let’s go. Phil has probably gone to finish Una."

"He won’t get far." Security Officer Tiggles was blunt and in-charge, but struggling to keep up. Even the quietest fuse fizzes as it burns... "He might be able to screw up the cameras, but not human eyes. We’ve got our people out there, looking and watching."

"And he will know that," Clare said from the remains of the door. The memory of Phil standing over her surfaced. "He was wearing body-armour just like yours. Exactly like yours. Unpowered but…"

Phil had stirred the anthill and disguised himself as a security officer. He could go anywhere, do anything…

Tiggles’s perfect composure broke. "Shit."

"So, what are you waiting for?" Arsehole... "And Miela still needs medical assistance.”

# # #

Clare arrived at the Una suite, trailed by an entourage of a security officers, a force of fury and fading anaesthetic, driven and unstoppable, pitching her access-all-areas Lilywhite card against the door locks which opened with barely a hesitation...

“Wait outside until we have secured the area, Miss Farral.” Tiggles took his men inside, apart from two who blocked Clare’s path. Pain, fury and a burning fuse meant nothing against body armour and orders.

Arsehole...

Tiggles was back – all clear – before she could scream it out loud. The Una suite was spacious and open, with no obvious hiding places, and empty.

Arsehole! Two five year-olds and a puppy could have secured it.

"Una?” Spacious and open, but surrounded with a maze of concealed hiding places. “Will you let me into your maintenance areas?" She strode over to one of the terminals, movement to suppress the nagging pain of the micro-fabricators. "Phil has another way in. I’ve seen them."

"There are no other access points," Una told her.

"At the back of your maintenance spaces are manually locked hatches. Believe me. I have seen them – when Miela had her disconnect fever."

"No other access points are shown on the building plans," Una noted calmly, just a hint of an inappropriately chosen giggle. "The conjecture is offered that Phil has made unrecorded modifications to the building. Analysis suggests a high probability."

The screen flickered. <Una: Need to talk privately.>

"Una… no time to chat… Can you unlock the access point?"

There was a pause of several seconds – far longer than the computer should have needed to make a decision like that. The delay... her bloody fuse was burning hot.

"No." Una sounded surprised. "The mechanism no longer responds. The conjecture is offered that the mechanism has been sabotaged from inside."

Clare kicked the terminal. "Shit. He’s been in."

"Where are the other access points?" Tiggles intervened, the voice of reason, still oblivious to that burning fuse.

"Back in there somewhere." Clare waved her hand in the general direction of Una’s hardware.

The display cleared as Tiggles approached. "Una, can you display the layout?"

"The information may be false," the computer warned as the building schematics came up.

Clare gripped one edge of the screen. Gnawing fire was growing under the numbvest. "Here." Her finger tapped the diagrams which instantly zoomed in on the small workshop. "And the shaft was here."

"Supposed to be part of the fire suppression system." Tiggles read the information. "Directly under Special Projects – that is Doctor Elsworth’s area." He paused to access the company net. "No security cameras in there – or none accessible from here. All completely isolated."

"So how do we get in?"

Tiggles stared at her and then hurriedly accessed the company net. "We can’t. The doors are sealed. Director Critchley is in there with a team… here…" He tapped the schematic. "Damn. Intervening doors have sealed. Only Doctor Elsworth has access rights. Damn… someone just rewrote all the security protocols."

The pain was making it difficult to think. "What are the walls made of? More glass?"

"Steel and concrete."

"The area was designed to be impenetrable," Una clarified. "The access point here is relatively fragile."

"But Elsworth may have left a booby trap," Tiggles warned.

Clare saw another possibility. "If you blow the door – could you damage Una?"

"The blast will be well contained. Any damage would be localised." Tiggles was entirely confident in the skills of his team.

"I advise against that course of action," Una announced, distinctly jolly as she delivered her warning. "A conjecture is offered: Assuming that there is an access through the Special Projects area, there are two points of entry. One is strong, one is weak. It would be consistent with Doctor Elsworth’s behaviour to set a major hazard to protect the weak point of entry. Therefore, it is also highly likely that…" Una definitely laughed, and finished with the gusto of a joke punchline, "Forced entry through the official access will result in activation of a major hazard."

Una's jumbled model for emotional simulation was increasingly confusing. Clare tried to follow the argument, nodding her head vigorously, more to combat the burrowing needles in her chest than actual agreement. The security team were looking serious and Tiggles clearly accepted the argument. Clare had her doubts but wasn’t sure enough.

"We will have to wait," Tiggles decided. "There are low levels of organic volatiles in the air – characteristic of Maldex."

"What?"

"Maldex. It’s a common military explosive…"

"I know what it is," Clare snarled. It was so hard to breath, so hard to think. Her personal fuse had burned down, but her explosion was no more than a puff of mental smoke as she fought to keep the screams in. "But…"

"Very reliable," Tiggles continued over her interruption. "Usually colour-coded pink." Tiggles shrugged. "We wait."

"No time," Clare gasped, meaning her own ability to function, not a deadline on action. "Una’s got it wrong. Double bluff. Phil would have put the bomb – or whatever – on the Special Projects area. He expected this. We spend…" She stopped and wrapped her arms around her ribs to contain a sudden surge of pain which slowly subsided. "We spend forever breaking the door up there and then it blows up in our faces."

"Just had an update… your anaesthetic cartridge will be delayed." Tiggles reached out and steadied her shoulder. "The security locks on the pharmacy have been disrupted and will not respond."

Clare took a couple of gasping breaths. "I told you he’s a clever bastard. Now blow that fucking door open." She paused to brace herself against another wave. "Trust me, Una."

"All essential system backup and preservation measures have been completed and engaged," the computer announced. "The conjecture is offered that this system will be non-functional for eleven days until repairs are completed."

Clare laughed but it came out more as a series of whimpers. "The conjecture is wrong," she whispered.

Tiggles dithered for a moment and then sent the command to one of his team. An armoured figure approached the access hatch whilst everyone else pulled back. Clare was too disorientated to resist when Tiggles pulled her to the door and out into the relative safety of the corridor.

There was a sharp crack followed by silence. Clare was almost dancing on the spot, consumed by pain and frustration while Tiggles blocked the door.

"All clear," he told her eventually. "Looks like you were right...”

“Yes.” Of course I’m fucking right... shit this hurts...

“No sign of any explosive devices inside. They’re checking the processor arrays, but the equipment is so sensitive that… they’ve found something."

Arsehole. Of course they fucking found...

Very carefully and deliberately she asked, "Where?"

"Not localised." He frowned as information came in from his team. "Very low levels of atmospheric contamination, again consistent with Maldex. It could be that Elsworth prepared devices in there and then planted them elsewhere. My team have found the access point. They have entered the Special Projects area."

Una’s voice drifted through the door. "The conjecture is offered that Doctor Elsworth does not wish serious damage to my systems. He has not tried hard enough."

Clare shuffled through the door. It made sense – if Phil had wanted to destroy Una he could have done it long ago. It would have been no problem to have planted his bombs during the cyberwar Everything he had done had been odd – creating the illusion that he was bent on destruction yet always falling short.

"How’s the pain?" Tiggles asked.

"Bearable." Arsehole! Just want to scream... "Una? How long can you function without the environmental controls running?" How long can I function without losing it?

"There is no fixed time," Una replied. "The design gives a minimum of eight minutes which is sufficient to complete all essential backup functions and reduce my operations to a minimum."

"So damage there would shut Una down without doing any long-term damage."

"Sounds unlikely," Tiggles objected.

"I was right last time." Arsehole, arsehole, arsehole... Clare shuffled into Una’s innards. Phil was relentless, ruthless and everything he did had a purpose. Gut instinct said Una was the target. Her ribs said scream now.

She heard Tiggles following close behind and ignored him. Time was running out in every sense that mattered – uncontrollable screaming was a minute or two away and Phil would not have left much time to run on his bomb fuses.

There would be bombs. She was certain about that.

The environmental support systems were just as she remembered, cramped and noisy but pleasantly cool. A small piece of red plastic lay on the floor beside the main fan assembly. It might have been there the last time she was poking around but looking closely at the machinery she saw faint smudges on the latches over the motor housing.

"Traces are stronger in here," Tiggles said behind her as she snapped the catches open.

The casing was too heavy for her. Just trying to lift it fanned the fire wrapped around her chest. She slumped against the machinery.

"Move this," she whispered hoarsely and Tiggles opened the casing.

"Shit. Come on, out of here."

Clare forced herself to stand and stare into the guts of the machinery. There was a heavy motor inside driving the main air circulating fan, and on top, a bundle of pink sausages with a small package of electronics. There was no visible indication of time left.

"Minute and a half to go," Tiggles said urgently, accessing the controls on the bomb with his own processors.

"Looks simple enough," Clare grumbled. "Just pull the detonator off."

"Can’t do that. There are interlocks on the underside. Move it too much and it will go off."

Clare reached in and pulled the package of sausages out. Tiggles took two hurried steps back. <Tiggles: Ohshitfuck...>

"How stable is it?" She held the bomb carefully, ignoring the wide-eyed horror on his face. "It feels quite soft. Can we cut it down to size?" She staggered away without waiting for an answer.

"Be careful with that." His voice was low and tight, as if someone wrapped fire around his ribs.. "Those interlocks on the detonator are very sensitive."

"How long?" She shuffled into the workshop and storage area.

"A minute and five..."

She put it on the first work surface she came to and hauled open the cupboards. The pain was still getting worse, fire and nails tight around her chest, but strangely more manageable as terror and adrenaline combined to suppress it. None of the tools were designed for something as simple as cutting up high explosives. There were all manner of devices for checking processor arrays, removing access hatches or inspecting power conduits.

“Knife. Need a fucking knife...”

"Here." She looked round. Tiggles was by one of the benches, a short-bladed knife in his hand. "Someone had their lunch down here." There was a smear of butter along the edge.

Clare took it, lined it up against one edge of the detonator assembly and pressed into the soft pink Maldex. "Time?" She cut with a careful sawing motion. Every push and pull sent waves of sharp surprise down the right side of her ribs, emanating from a focal point in her shoulder.

"Forty-three seconds."

She completed the first cut and handed the section to him. The pain faded to a distant irritation as she started on the next, working faster this time. Sweat rolled down her nose, another reminder of the world outside the confines of the task – no worse than the gnawing at her chest. The pink material was alternately sticky and slick, depending on the sweat on her fingers.

"Slow down," he whispered as she handed him the second piece. "One of the interlocks just armed itself. Thirty-one seconds."

Clare cut again, working more carefully this time. If only those processors of hers were available she could monitor the device herself, rather than relying on the occasional warning from Tiggles. The sweat on her fingers got worse, slick, weakening her hold.

"Twenty seconds." She gave him the third section. "Another interlock just armed."

The final cut was the worst. The easiest way to steady the thing was to hold the detonator – a short-cut to dead. Instead, she had to hold the soft, cut edges and saw at the remaining chunk. It was slower work, made tense by the simple arithmetic of twenty seconds to go and a record of roughly ten seconds per cut.

"Careful. Another armed," Tiggles whispered. "One more and… eleven seconds."

She cut through and held up the last pink lump of Maldex, staring at it in triumph. Done. All over. Nothing to do except stand and scream. Or maybe lie down and scream. Or...

Someone took the remains of the bomb from her fingers. There was pressure and movement - Tiggles picked her up and ran.

Not even had a first date yet...

Clare heard the explosion. A roar and rattle that meant nothing because the fire under her skin melted everything. Nothing left to do except scream, if only she could draw enough breath.

A cold wave doused the fire and Clare closed her eyes.

Nice...

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