Clare drove the Panther back through Wellerbridge... turn right in three, two, one and on your left is Suzi’s Pizza’n’Porn, check out our specials... and turn right... three, two, one... you are now passing BeWell Pharmacy, serving Wellerbridge since Nineteen Twenty-Five...

Drop in to Happy Driver for affordable Fords brought her out of the far side of the town to where the Coriolis plant floated on marginal Yorkshire marshland, a concrete lily-pad with its own glass frog.

“Oh god...” Bob stared ahead. “There it is... doesn’t look safe...”

“An eye catching crystal confectionery, designed as a symbol of hope and progress...” Clare had been listening to too many traffic-net adverts. “I read about it at the hotel. Apparently the architect was killed during a break-in at his home.”

“Oh god...”

Clare slowed the Panther. “Perfectly safe... Look at the fence. A very good fence. And the gates...”

Coriolis used classic, layered, heavy security – double fence ring, separate freight and personnel gates, automated weapon arrays and heavily armed guards. Big signs, at regular intervals, warned in official phrases that intruders would not survive.

The outer main visitor gate was relatively lightly defended – a guard stepped out and checked their credentials, no weapon, no armour, just a uniform and a smile.

“See? Inside they have really good gates.” Clare rolled the Panther through to the car-park where a reception building butted up against the inner fence, and beside it a robust inner gate – a confection of fibresteel struts and monothread, bedecked with stark warnings of high voltage and automated pulser arrays. Beyond it, creating a final defensive airlock arrangement, was a matching gate. “Good fences, good gates...”

"Good security," Bob agreed finally.

"Couldn’t be better..." She made a small bet with herself that Kyla could have got through it. The technology was designed against ordinary people, not the sort of enhancements available to cybercops – or the gorewar specialists that every major player employed as insurance against another cyberwar. “Which way, boss?”

Clare let Bob lead the way into the reception centre, an open area monitored by armed guards lurking amid tropical trees, tumbling water and vivatronic animals. Clare watched one of the mechanical birds for a moment – just like Calder’s private jungle populated with live animals, except no bird shit, and probably a security feed from each one.

Along the far wall, a half-dozen glass-fronted offices looked out over the fake forest glade, and each was manned by patiently waiting staff, a further control and corralling of visitors. Two offices had shimmer patterns running over the glass, blurring the identities of the occupants – more to do with corporate image than real privacy. Coriolis wanted to show that they were serious about limiting who they let in.

Bob led the way to the nearest available office and dug his card out of a pocket, idly polishing it on his trousers. Clare followed suit, reading the text on the back of hers which told the bearer that the card was the property of Lilywhite Industries. It was hardly going to be a best-seller, but it deflected a sudden attack of nerves. A step behind Bob, she paused to run a finger over the glass door of the office, tracing etched icons: bullet-resistant, armour-piercing rated. Was that good, or bad?

“Welcome...” A pleasant young man greeted them. “If I could have your identities...” , His highly fashionable waxed goatee beard added an oddly distinguished air. “Ah... from Lilywhite... I hope you had a pleasant journey...” He waved their cards over the sensor buried in the desk. "Thank you, Director Critchley..."

He frowned as his terminal scanned Clare’s identity.

"Do you have any additional authorisation? This isn’t… that’s odd."

Clare was already leaning over to inspect the display, getting her head inside the viable viewing angle, just in time to see her duly authorised details replace warning bands of red and threatening words. It looked like the sort of stuff Kyla used to do – a hacked card carrying a very specialised set of trojans. The local net should have been proof against external assault, but something had picked up on the security alert on her fake identity, intruded and intervened.

The receptionist knew that there was something wrong. "Please take a seat.…" He gestured to chairs well away from his desk. "I need to confirm Miss Farral’s status."

Clare reached out and turned the screen to read more easily – there she was, ‘Executive Assistant’. A gloriously non-specific, wide-ranging status. "No problem."

"What’s going on?" Bob was not used to being kept waiting by receptionists. His life had been well ordered and highly privileged for the last ten years.

"Security glitch," she murmured in his ear and flashed her card at him briefly. "Some sort of rogue code built into it. Probably guarantees access to any Lilywhite-owned place."

"Back door," Bob muttered guiltily. He glanced at the receptionist and moved far enough away to assure himself that the man couldn't overhear. "They’ll compare the current security database with the last archived copy. There will be an anomaly… mismatched logs or whatever."

"Hadn’t though of that." How incredibly stupid. All that amazing effort to provide the rogue code only to be defeated by a mundane precaution. So much ingenuity overcome so easily... no way either Calder or Emily were that careless... "It’ll still work."

"I can't waste time. You’ll just have to wait here. Catch up later."

"Relax, Bob. Mr Lilywhite wouldn’t have sent me if I couldn’t get in. Pass the time and think of Lesley – those legs, the enhanced breasts, the years of experience."

Bob blushed frantically. "I wasn’t going to engage her services."

"Don't sweat it... and I think the tits are real..." Clare was going to tease him further, but the terminal chimed, repainting the receptionist’s bland face with a startled expression. "There. It just got sorted," she whispered, watching the receptionist repeatedly check the information on his screen.

"An escort is on the way, Director Critchley." His voice had a bewildered whine. "You have access to all areas below grade two. An escort will be required in the more secure areas." He stared at the screen again, seeking reassurance. "Miss Farral has unlimited access… to all areas."

Bob stared at her. Clare winked back at him.

This was a serious make-over. The clothes looked good on her – she knew that from the initial reaction of the receptionist before her identity-glitch upset his terminal. Now she had a more extensive security clearance than Director Critchley.

"Dummy entry," he muttered. She stared at him, one eyebrow raised, prompting him to continue. "A restricted security record. Only becomes accessible when the owner tries to use it. Calder probably has a handful of blank ones hidden on every system."

"Told you it would work."

"How did you know? I only just… bloody hell." His eyes went wide at something behind her.

Clare glanced round – their escort was there: tall, solid, shapely legs, thickish sort of waist, topped with broad shoulders and generous breasts. The resemblance was minimal, but she immediately thought of Emily.

"Down boy," she whispered. "Bet my salary against yours that she’s enhanced. Those tits are probably crammed with hardware, and I reckon DerMesh from top to toe. Be criminal to let all that body volume go spare. Probably lose inches off her waist if you took the batteries out of her belly."

Bob stared again. There were no obvious signs, but the deductions were reasonable.

"No sense in wasting all that body volume…" he echoed faintly.

"Please follow me." Their escort had a pleasant contralto voice. Clare watched her throat as she spoke, catching the minute, tell-tale ripple of DerMesh in passive mode – just like Emily.

Bob saw it too. "You win."

The escort took them through the inner fence and drove them to the crystal frog – the Panther was left isolated in the visitor car-park. She showed them into the main entrance, a glass cage of tangled refractions, housing a riot of tropical greenery. The high ceilings and a naturally convective air circulation kept the atrium cool, pleasant breezes sucked in and drawn up to the heights. The buxom armoured escort walked away.

"Impressive," Clare decided. "Prettier than DigiTart."

"Tasteless," Bob grumbled, uncomfortable with the illusion of vast open spaces. After ten years bounded by his luxurious apartment, Calder's rather better tropical paradise and the control room of Kernel Kombat, he was unprepared for the space.

"Now what?"

"We wait for Phil. Then we go and watch them reconnect UltraNet to the outside world." He shivered, staring at the maze of offices, distorted through the complex of glass partitions. "Horrible place."

Clare stared at the psychedelic wilderness, strangely pleasant, almost hypnotic. She could find patterns, underlying harmonies supporting the chaotic flow of people, amplified and redirected by the multiple panes of glass. There was a powerful truth encoded in the fractured views, a higher order to the way the optical splinters recombined. The jumble was a hologram, a complete image of something special, needing only the right light to make it clear.

Clare shook her head. She was there to do a job, not drift off into romantic bullshit. It was just a pretty optical jungle created by multiple, partial reflections and odd refractions.

"Someone’s coming." She settled back into the complexity, learning the patterns as if trying to see through pebble glass.

A door opened, a glass panel retracting, driven by elegant maglev strips, a polished mechanism displayed in the glass wall.

"I am Miela..." She was tall, almost a double for a subdued Kyla, Stellex leggings flickering as she walked, and above her waist a power connection nestled in her navel. Her dainty breasts were covered by a skimpy Stellex halter, revealing a pattern of connection nodes along her ribs and down her belly. "Welcome, Director Critchley, Miss Farral. Dr Elsworth is waiting for you. Please follow me."

Her voice was soft and cold, uninterested in the rest of the world.

When she turned, more nodes glinted on her shaven skull, down her neck, down her back. Long evenings nursemaiding Jaz, whilst Kyla was out doing something dangerous, had given Clare an eclectic education in node technology and care. He had had a small number of clients on a strictly professional basis, giving Clare the opportunity to learn the practicalities, but this was new...

Miela was studded with golden disks, a living sequinned-dress, tiny dimples showing fibre ports – expensive, extravagant, crammed with bandwidth – the latest, most sophisticated technology. Each of the dozens of nodes on her body could support the total data traffic for every implant a cybercop used.

Clare hurried after her. "How many processors?” New and wild... “I’ve never heard of so much bandwidth on a body." The sexiest thing Clare had ever seen.

"Hundred and twelve. One for each node. In addition to my central cluster." Miela was utterly disinterested.​

"Why?" It was an unbelievable level of enhancement. The volume of the processors alone would demand a dangerous fraction of body volume in such a slender body. "Where are they all hidden?"

"All of the UltraNet developers require this level of augmentation. Tenth-generation processor beads occupy little space. Coriolis is at the forefront of the development. Total volume, a litre at the most."

Clare shivered – that was still a lot of body volume for woman with skin so tight over her bones. "So who polishes your nodes?"

That made Miela blush, so there was something human in there. "I have an understanding with one of the other developers."

"Sorry. Just curious." That was a lie. Fascinated would have been closer, burning with salacious interest.

Miela led them a meandering course through the glass maze, deeper into the heart of the crystal frog, until glass gave way to polished metal walls and carpeted floors.

"That’s better." Bob sighed as the confusing multiple images were reduced to more manageable reflections.

"Better than what?" Miela asked and got no reply.

They stopped at a security door and Miela lit up like a Christmas tree as the security systems interrogated her identity, activating the fibre channels which winked from her nodes. Clare bent forwards to peer at the tiny twinkling points of light, multiple channels in each tiny gold disc, adrift in a pale, delicate skin.

"Not very efficient." She inspected the walls and found the tiny sensors which were picking up the signals. "Not a lot of bandwidth without the direct fibre connection…"

"But very secure." Miela drew back, uncomfortable, embarrassed and trying to ignore the close scrutiny. "Unenhanced staff require a more time-consuming process to be cleared past this point."

Two more barriers relying on voice recognition for security brought them to the heart of UltraNet.

“Wow.” Clare turned on the spot. “It’s like the bridge on Battlecruiser Mars.” And Clare had only seen that on a raggedy pirated copy. “Great visual design.”

“It is designed to be efficient.”

“Right.” That was crap. The room had been designed to impress. Six terminals, each with a tangle of silver cords suspended above like metallic men-o-war, arranged in a shallow curve facing three columns of metal and glass. The abstract sculptures flickered with internal lights, gathered in a close triangle and flanked by displays screens strung from light scaffolding. “Really efficient...” And obviously just for show. “And what about...” Clare pointed up at the dark glazed front of an observation gallery.

Miela ignored her. "This is Doctor Elsworth..." Phil Elsworth stood just off the centre, staring at his creation – a deliberately theatrical pose, perfect for the bling backdrop. “Director Critchley and Miss Farral are here, sir...”

Phil turned with a smile, tall, handsome, hair greying slightly and nascent lines on his face enhancing an air of authority.

"Phil Elsworth," he introduced himself, hand outstretched. "Director Critchley, it was kind of you to come, but there is little to see." He waved his hand at the fake machinery. "Our most promising project until recently. Just at the moment, Una is dead."

Clare puzzled for a moment. "Una? Is that what you call it?"

He smiled, taking her hand. "A whim." He stepped close. "The feminine name appeals to me." He stared into her eyes. "I have a certain… enthusiasm for women."

"Understandable." Clare laughed to cover unease – no doubts now that this was the bastard who had assaulted her rep.

He stepped back, clearly deciding whether he should be talking to Bob or herself.

"Una, UltraNet, call her what you like. Not really dead, just not talking to us. Miela has brought Una back on line, but she refuses to cooperate." He patted one of the chairs and Mieala sat down. "These advance machine intellects are... complex to understand. Miela really is the best and she says the situation is beyond hope, so I’m afraid that’s it. The operators have a very close relationship with the system."

Clare moved closer to watch as the dangling metal cords above the terminal developed a life of their own, writhing around each other, an inverted Medusa sniffing at Miela, bobbing heads tracing digital scent trails over her body – so not all of the bling in the room was just for show. One by one, the questing tips found matching nodes and latched on with a delicate kiss. Jaz would wet himself. On the monitor, icons transformed as the connections built up, integrating her with the system.

Clare stopped, barely an arms-length away, just staring – so much processing power, such excessive bandwidth, what was it like? Jaz had occasionally introduced her to the fetishists who decorated their skin with fake nodes, but this was the real thing, a delicious fantasy she wanted to join, to be allowed to play, to be a fully connected part...

"Impressive, isn’t she," Phil murmured in her ear. "If we get Una up and running properly, Miela will need another set of nodes, if we can find enough free space. Can’t put them too close together. It upsets local skin respiration."

"Amazing." Can I just touch?

"Running out of body volume as well. If she had a pair of breasts like yours we could cram more in there. Hell, if she’d only let us we could give her a decent pair of tits and have all the processors pre-assembled in the padding."

"I’m sure you’ll think of something." Clare pulled back – forget the fantasy, forget touching – the proposed enhancement sounded like deliberate, premeditated violence. "Convince her of the advantages."

"She knows the advantages." Phil waved his hands towards Miela; Clare saw the smears of brutal colour on her own rep. “But she won’t do it.”

"Some people would leap at the chance."

"Ever considered it yourself? Rising star… could do a lot with a little augmentation."

Rising star? What did her personnel record show to make him think that... or was it simply being an Executive Assistant at such a young age?

"Can’t justify it to Lilywhite," she answered. "Too expensive."

"A significant consideration." He walked behind her. "Coriolis has many enhanced employees, but each case is assessed on the basis of value to the business. There are other ways, of course. A means of balancing the business case."

"Other ways?" Was he suggesting… offering…

"Ways around the cost angle." His fingers curled around her shoulders. "Ways of reducing the cost to near zero."

Please don’t hurt me... "Are you offering a free sample?"

Phil withdrew his hands and stepped round to face her. "In a manner of speaking, and of course not truly free. Nothing ever is."

Like a free ticket to Mars that was starting to feel expensive. "So what are you suggesting?"

"We have some experimental systems we want to try out. Next generation of nodes. Latest in processor bead arrays." He shrugged. "There are minor risks. If they were ready for commercial release then I wouldn’t be offering them. The cost is borne by the trials program."

His manner was joking, almost flirtatious, but she knew that he was serious. And he knew she was serious. All she had to do was say yes, but say it to the man who had left trails of red destruction over her digital self.

Miela spoke suddenly, distant and hesitant. "Access is still refused. Standard warning for Dr Elsworth to leave."

“Nothing new.” Phil's expression changed. “That’s it Director Critchley. Nothing we can do.” He forgot his offer – now she would have to ask about the enhancements, or wait for Phil to repeat it.

"Una is demanding that Dr Elsworth leaves," Miela told them. "Una has initiated total shutdown. One minute seven…"

Clare turned her head a fraction to watch Phil, outwardly calm and disinterested in the fate of Una, but there were tells – the machine disliked him, and that really pissed him off. "How long does it take to restart?"

"A day. Maybe two." Phil was good, but not quite good enough. This mattered to him. "Depends on how tidily she does it. First time round took three days. She managed to corrupt so many of her files."

Like a suicide. And Phil doesn’t care. Or cares for the wrong reasons...

"Is voice access available?" Bob had been hanging back, but now he came close, staring at the pretty lights in the fake machinery, avoiding Miela festooned with data links. "Can I talk to Una?"

Miela turned her head. "Voice access is available. No responses given."

"Refused to speak ever since it accused me of trying to kill her," Phil added.

Clare flicked her attention back and forth between Una and Phil. The man who had talked of killing his boss and misusing the UltraNet. No detail, no proof, but such an obvious conclusion to jump to. Kyla always had things to say about obvious conclusions.

Bob cleared his throat and addressed the three decorative glass columns.

"Una. My name is Bob Critchely." Clare finally heard the real Director, in his element, doing his job, utterly assured in himself. "Will you talk to me? I have a message from Octavia." He held his breath, so perhaps not quite so assured after all.

Clare stepped up behind him, the dutiful assistant. "Just talking to a machine," she whispered in his ear. "It's not your first date with the blond waitress."

"No. It's not." Bob turned and stared at her, the most confident thing he had done. "I talk to machines every day. But... if I get this wrong… It could be the end of Lilywhite."

“So, no pressure then...” Clare saw the steel behind the social neuroses. "You think Una will talk?" There had been no reply. "Is… Octavia another…"

"Quiet. Wait."

It was another back door, a guaranteed access… or as guaranteed as was possible with whatever AI system they were building here. Una the UltraNet was not a dumb mechanism with a secret key to give instant access.

"Your show, boss…"

"Trust must be earned," Bob told her and turned back to Una. "We can speak alone, if you prefer."

Bob waited calmly and Phil matched him. Clare got bored and circled the three glittering columns. The silence stretched out as she stared through the transparent sections – polished steel, glass and flashing lights to impress visitors. Only the cyber-terminals were real.

"Shutdown has been aborted," Miela announced, but no one else spoke.

Clare watched Phil, looking for some sign of tension. There was nothing she could pin down, but he was unhappy.

The connections to Miela withdrew abruptly. The links to her nodes released in a hurried rattle of clicks and the cables gathered into a tangled bunch as if Una were clenching a fist. Miela screamed like the card-counter as Hunter’s when the guys broke both his arms at the table. She stumbled away from the terminal after the abrupt disconnect; Clare caught her before she fell.

"I will talk to Bob Critchley alone." Una used a voice modelled on Miela, adding a warmth absent in the original.

"We will leave," Phil said eventually. Definitely unhappy. Incredulous, even. Someone else had cracked the recalcitrant Una. Clare was too busy supporting Miela to take proper notice.

She spared a glance for Bob. He looked like he had booked his night with the waitress and unexpectedly knew what to do.

"Miela needs help," she grunted – the operator was not easy to carry.

"She’ll be fine." Phil was still watching Bob. "Leave her alone."

Clare slackened her grip for a moment and then caught Miela again before she hit the floor. "She can barely stand."

"Time to go." No care, no feeling. "What do you plan to do next, Miss Farral?"

He stood at the entrance and waited whilst Clare carried Miela out.

"You can give me the guided tour.” Miela was heavy for such a skinny woman. “Tell me about...” Really, really heavy.... “The latest developments in enhancements." Need to put her down.

"My pleasure." Sudden warmth.

Bastard. She kept her opinions to herself.





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