Boy Meets Girl

The Panther rolled smoothly over the gravel at the King’s Arms. Bob got out at the front door; Clare drove on round to the car park. Jeremiah the porter was leaning against an elderly, degenerated oak tree, smoking a dubious hand-rolled item out of sight of the building. He threw it down, crushing it hastily with his foot and gave Clare a cheerful grin with a troubled quiver.

She picked up the stub and sniffed cautiously. "Smoking this’ll stunt your growth." To her uneducated palate it was straight home-grown tobacco.

"Really?" His eyes went round again.

"That’s what they told me," she said, straight-faced. "You want to talk cars in a while? When the boss has finished with me."

"Sure… if that’s OK… don’t want to be trouble."

Clare smiled encouragingly – his nervousness was a lack of confidence around women, his interest in cars quite genuine. He looked to be at the right sort of age – fascinated by women but utterly clueless, even though he worked in a place which employed prostitutes by the dozen.

"Fast cars and fast women. Dangerous combination."

Jeremiah swallowed hastily. "Really?"

"Just joking." It dawned on her that it wasn’t talking to a girl that was freaking him, but someone who had a car. "You want to go for a drive tomorrow? Feel what its like to hit two-forty?"

"You bet." Excitement blossomed and then faded. "If that’s OK."

"You got yourself a date, Jeremiah."

Bob was waiting for her in the bar, dithering over a choice of drink. She stood beside him and leant casually on the counter. "What’re we drinking then, boss?"

"I normally have a white wine," he replied cautiously. "But they don’t have any of the labels I recognise." He looked at her dubiously. "I don’t suppose you know anything about wine?"

Clare winked at the bartender who was maintaining a perfectly neutral expression. "No great expert." She ran her eye over the list of branded items, but there was a glorious anachronism on the wall: a chalkboard. "Ferret’s Elbow. Local brew?" she asked the barman quietly.

"Yes, ma’am. Fresh barrel in yesterday."

"Two pints."

Bob stared suspiciously at his beer, dark, still, hiding under a thick creamy head. He watched Clare take a generous swallow and scoop stray foam from her lips with a provocative tongue.

He sipped cautiously. "A little rich for my taste…"

"Just drink it. Now, who’s Octavia?"

He flinched and dipped his nose in. "It's a…" He looked around and laid a custom-built snooper-pooper on the bar, waiting until it registered green. "A back door in the software."

"Guessed that. Enough to sort out Una?"

"I think the system will be fine." Evasive devil. "Depending on Elsworth."

"I don’t think I like him." That truth came out, hard and flat. "Sexy, I suppose. In a scary way. He has a thing for Miela. Not a healthy interest." He had liked her bucking and twisting from the silver data scrambler.

"Not our problem." Bob couldn’t see beyond the technical problem of Una. "If Elsworth is unreliable, that’s a matter for our security people. He has made this project work."

"Until it all went wrong."

"Miss Farral…"

"… Clare…"

"Whatever. These advanced AIs… very complicated but they don't understand people. They have statistical models to help predict, but they don't understand…"

Clare had got used to machines that did appear to understand. "That's what DigiTart is about… understanding?"

"All of those projects… AngryMan and IScream where people can let off steam. The GoodGrief counselling app… PhobeFear… all the extremes…" Bob faded into silence. "Modelling rational behaviour is easy. Our extremes and passions… so complicated. Teaching these machines to understand… that's what it's all about."

The things these geeks got up to... "So that's how the computer is scared of him. Now tell me why?" She took another swallow of the beer – heavy for her taste but pleasant. The best she had had since leaving Hunter’s. "Perhaps we should tip off security to look at him more closely." How dense could he be? Wake up Bob! Haven’t you figured out that I’m here to investigate Phil Elsworth?

"Complex system. Bound to get the occasional instability. Phil must have said the wrong thing at the wrong moment."

She heard the lies and evasion. Bob knew more than he wanted to tell her. She struck out in a different direction. "He offered me an enhancement."

Bob turned his beer slowly and took another sip. "They do that sort of thing here."

"Yeah. Processor array in each tit and a subdermal mesh to hold my nipples up. Emily will be sick with envy."

Bob stared and blushed. "I… consulted on hers."

"So what do you think?"

"Not a good idea." Bob clearly had reasons he was embarrassed to give. "Takes too long."

"I accepted – if Calder Lilywhite agrees."

"And too expensive." He looked away.

"Why am I here, Bob? There are plenty of people to unpack your bags. If you want a shag, there’s more talent here than you could shake your stick at. Why me? Calder must have had a reason to send me."

"He didn't say," he mumbled and hid his confusion in a mouthful of beer, and then another.

“Come on, Bob...” Clare sipped and then laughed suddenly. "You don’t get it, do you? People don't understand people so how is your computer ever going to figure it out?"

"I don't know."

"So why am I here? I know what I’m supposed to do, but why did Calder send me?"

"Don't know…"

"Neither do I," she growled back. There was an annoying symmetry – Calder had not told her about Bob and had not told Bob about her. She could share everything… or not. "I’m grabbing every opportunity that comes. I’m bound to hit on what Calder wants eventually, and Phil Elsworth is top of my list. Sexy, seductive, creepy and offering me the sort of enhancements I would sell my soul for." She leant closer. He was not good with people, but surprisingly hard to goad into revealing secrets. "Just imagine me with interface nodes all over my body."

He took another defensive drink. "Like that hideous woman today? Enough to make me sick."

"Nothing wrong with a little enhancement. Kind of sexy. Always wondered what it feels like to have your nodes polished." She leant back and gave him an appraising look. He really ought to get out more. "Surprised you don’t have a few. High-powered Director. Got to be an advantage."

"Fine as I am," he muttered.

Clare savoured her drink – he was spooky about enhancements, but was not going to say why. It was interesting, but not useful.

A movement caught her eye – Lesley weaving through the bar.

"Mr Critchely? Sorry to trouble you, sir. There has been a problem with your room. We’ve had to upgrade you. May I show you your new room?"

Clare drained her glass. "I’ve got a few calls to make anyway." She stood and whispered, "Is this genuine?"

"I was talking to the manager... got your boss upgraded to one of the honeymoon suites," Lesley hissed back. "Only the best for Lilywhite staff. Seemed like a good idea."

"Good. He’s slightly pissed, but not much. Needs to be back for dinner by seven."

Clare watched Bob depart, flustered by the close attention of the house girl. Once they were out of sight, she went up to her own room and used the terminal to route a call to Madame. There was an immediate warning of an incoming package and she gave permission to do whatever it wanted. There was a tiniest of electronic squeals of dismay as the rogue code took over. The King’s Arms logo vanished from the screen, replaced by Lilywhite glyphs.

"Calder will be with you shortly." Madame’s voice, synchronised with a face based loosely on Emily. "Estimated decryption time of this channel is eleven days. Remember to restrict your conversation to information which will have no commercial or security implications for a longer period."

Clare blinked. No one had mentioned Madame’s comm ident causing this sort of trouble. The hotel were bound to be offended by having a guest let a commercial squint into their comms.

The screen cleared to reveal a flushed and sweating Calder in a loose robe. She almost laughed at her first conclusion, and then saw his private gym blurred in the background.

"Clare. You have something already?"

"An offer from Phil." She matched his abrupt tone. "Dual mammary processor arrays and sub-skin mesh. I agreed, providing he confirms the expense and time with you. Oh, and I’m sure he’s the bastard who kept calling. I don’t think I like him very much. Certainly don't trust him."

"Keep your dislike under control." Calder reached out and pulled a towel close to wipe his face. "Serious set of implants. Interesting proposition – expensive as well. Did he give a reason?"

"He wanted another test subject. He should contact you soon. I was promised an answer over dinner this evening."

"Do it regardless. I will leave a message for you if Elsworth clears it with me." He paused in thought. "Need something simple and… the message will read proceed with Emily."

Clare shook her head. "Phil already referred to the enhancement as an ‘Emily’. Leave a message giving me permission to use the Panther to impress a lad called Jeremiah. Permission to ride."

Calder nodded. "Very wise. Anything else?"

Was that a hint of approval? Clare hesitated. She didn’t know enough about the relationship between Calder and Coriolis – the latter might be a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lilywhite, but that didn’t necessarily mean a lot.

What a time to start experimenting with my limits. "Could Madame contact a cybercop for me? Officer Medway. She was investigating the murder of a friend of mine, an ex-cybercop called Kyla Chamile. I don’t know what she did, but I think Kyla was retained by Coriolis."

Calder sat up straighter. "A cybercop… I will have the message passed on. Officer Medway will be given your current gips and comm-tag. I have dropped you into the middle of things."

"Looks like." It was clear she was in more trouble than Calder had anticipated. "There’s a woman called Miela. One of the UltraNet operators. Can I have everything you know about her? She might be another line into Phil."

Calder nodded. "Operator, as in heavily enhanced?"

"Enough gold nodes to be worth mining."

"Should have extensive records. They will be locked for your access only. Madame will attend to it." He gave her a curious look. "Fortuitous, I know, but I think you were a good choice. Good luck."

It was approval – in a backhanded sort of way.

The channel vanished. The Lilywhite squint flickered for a moment and then vanished so cleanly that the native commsware reasserted itself as if the mask had never been in place. She flipped it to standby, dumped her jacket and skirt on the bed and padded around the room with her blouse rippling around her thighs.

"Fortuitous? Think I’m a good choice?" She muttered angrily to herself. "What the fuck does that mean?" She hauled out one of the modest evening dresses. "In the wrong place at the wrong time? Expendable? Bastard." She kicked the wardrobe door and then hauled out the scantiest underwear she could find. "I’ll show you fucking fortuitous. Even if I have to screw Phil senseless." She slammed the door. "Your lucky night, Doctor Elsworth."

There was a polite tap at the door. The terminal lit up with an image of Jeremiah, hand raised for another tentative knock.

"Shit." Clare dithered about grabbing her skirt and then decided he had seen it all before, and probably far better. She opened the door. Jeremiah blushed.

"Come in and ask away," she waved expansively at the room. "I drove a Panther for the first time today, but what the hell – it’s experience."

Jeremiah sat nervously on a fake antique chair, eyes flicking between Clare and the underwear on the bed. She shut the door firmly and rested her fists on her hips in mock anger.

"What’s up with you kid? You act like you never saw a woman before, and this place is crawling with them." She eased off as his expression shifted from embarrassment to panic. "Don’t tell me you work in this sex shop and never get a taste?" Mustn't laugh. Poor sod’s got a fragile ego in that department. Probably been told I want some rough young talent and hasn’t got a clue where to start. "I’d take you for a ride myself, but I sort of gave it up, and there’s a fella I may have to shag senseless tonight to get what I want." She shrugged. "Sorry. You want to talk about cars?"

"What’s the acceleration like?" he managed to whisper.

Clare laughed like a maniac for a moment. "Better than sex." So far as I can remember.

Jeremiah picked up the joke – more or less. She decided, rather sadly, that this was probably the reason for his deprived puberty. As the technical discussion lurched painfully onwards she dumped any thought of offering him a quick guided tour of anatomy by dressing for dinner in front of him. Sympathy had its limits.

# # #

When Clare’s card beeped to remind her of the dinner date she apologised to Jeremiah and ushered him out of the room. Once into the technicalities of cars, and his ambition to drive one day, he was easier to talk to. His nervousness faded and hints of a vestigial sense of humour emerged. He knew about power-to-weight, reactive suspension, optimising hybrid balance, knew about torque, just not how to talk – cars great; girls mystery.

She turned the terminal on to call Bob and then stopped since she had no idea which room he was in now. According to the directory, Bob hadn’t moved and calling each of the honeymoon suites in turn was unwise. With a flash of inspiration, she pulled up the room service menu and selected the personal services listing. It offered a complex interface to define the customer’s requirement but in one corner was an icon to request a named member of staff.

The directory was simple, a long list, personnel by name, further highlighted by availability. The small search option narrowed it to seven Lesleys, two of whom were listed as currently working and three were male – none was tagged as available for the evening. Clare picked one at random and tapped the icon. Lesley’s face appeared: confirmation which she hadn’t anticipated.

"I’m currently engaged," the recording said. "If you leave a message I will contact you as soon as I am free. Select the autoroute option to direct the message to the nearest terminal to my location."

"Autoroute." The display cleared and asked for her message. "Hi. Bob needs to be ready for dinner in…" The display shifted to live and Lesley beamed back at her, buoyant and buxom, draped with a large fluffy towel.

"Hi. He’s soaking in the bath. He’ll be there on time."

"Thanks. Was he any trouble?"

Lesley laughed, a casual good humour. "Like a baby. Well, not quite like a baby. Took a while to get the hang of things." She tilted her head to one side. "He really doesn't get the contractual nature of our relationship."

"Like I said. Don't tell him."

"OK. Sure you don’t want company tonight? Gregor said you expressed some interest…"

Was Gregor the waiter? "No. I’m already set for the night."

"Business or pleasure?"

"Business…" Clare answered grimly. "But you never know."

Clare ended the link and stared at the clothes on the bed. The utterly shameless dress still hanging in the wardrobe might make a better impact.

Don’t want to encourage him too much…

She changed into the more respectable item. Restrained, serious executive on the outside, hungry sex machine a layer below: whatever was needed to deal with Phil.

Such a simple proposition, but there were so many subtle colours and diffuse shades. Phil must have guessed her identity, but he was concealing that. The word must have reached him that something strange happened to the security system when she arrived, but she suspected that whatever it was it was so deeply buried that their systems experts would never trace it. On the face of it, she was an accredited senior Lilywhite executive but Phil must know it was a lie.

They were both playing a game and she was afraid that he knew more of the moves than she did. If anything, the bastard was writing the game as he went along.

"He doesn't know who I am," she told the room. "I am a nobody…" Clare Farral, an anonymous face lost in the complexities of dataspace. "Total bollocks. Bastard knows I’m his DigiTart confessor. Can feel it. He just knows…" And she was an applicant to join the Martian colonies, already proven to have a wide range of aptitudes from basic data skills to driving heavy machinery – every exam and qualification recorded. Her name was spread across countless databases and, somewhere, there was bound to be a record of her accepting employment with DigiTart. He would hardly have to work to find her. There might even be references into the murk which enveloped employment at Hunter’s Casino.

"Shit."

The display on her card was too small and fiddly – she hitched it to the terminal for ease of use. It was time to start organising her information properly. One by one, she wrote her known facts into a simple document.

1: Phil is working against Lilywhite – assumption but very probable.

2: Phil knows I am here to investigate him – almost certain.

3: Phil is connected to the hostiles in the cyberwar – possibility.

4: Coriolis are doing some very sophisticated enhancements – fact

5: Phil is deeply involved with Coriolis enhancement technology – assumption, almost fact, according to Phil, who is a lying bastard.

6: Phil is dangerous. Fucking obvious.

7: The offer of enhancement is to damage my investigation – possibly.

8: The enhancements will hurt me – possibly.

9: The enhancements will help solve this mystery – possibly.

Clare sat back and considered her list – there were many more side-thoughts and odd bits of information. Her card began building a probability network based on the information but it was slow. The card processor had never been intended to attempt anything like this. When the data sifting was complete, the conclusions were so vague that she might not have bothered. There were too many unknown or uncertain statements.

Clare shut down the terminal and tapped the card to file the work. The only thing left was to follow through on the evening and try to figure out Phil. If that meant bringing him back to the room and seducing him, then so be it. The chances of him exhausting her repertoire were small.

"Bastard." Calder as much as Phil. "Might as well just take this up professionally again. Fuck and tell. Probably pays better."

But I really do want to go to Mars.

Perhaps Phil might admit to knowing that she was the entity ‘Clare’ from DigiTart, but it was unlikely. At no time when talking to her over the network had he indicated any interest in sex, but his manner in person had orbited around an obvious attraction to her, sullied with an undertone of violence. He was a worrying contradiction – a nasty bastard playing a devious game.

It was crazy. In person, Phil appeared driven by his libido, but when talking to his DigiTart everything had revolved about his need to talk of his plans to murder his boss – clearly a woman. That made no sense in terms of the hierarchy at Coriolis. On the other hand, in more metaphorical terms, that could be UltraNet feminised by the name Una.

"I want a pay rise." No one was listening; she finished dressing for dinner.

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