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Bob returned to the Una enclave where Miela was still immersed in connection, apparently oblivious to his absence. All the displays cleared abruptly as he settled in front of the terminal.
"There has been a change in the medical status of Clare Farral," Una announced. "Commencing disconnect of operator Miela."
The umbilical tangle disengaged, thread by thread. Miela slumped a fraction when the last connection was lost, and turned her head wearily to stare at Bob.
"What change?" Bob asked.
"Instability has been corrected. Clare Farral will be transferred back to the accommodation facilities."
Miela stood up and lurched away from her terminal before finding her balance properly. She cleared her throat, just to remember how to speak.
"We should go there. I can arrange a channel for Una to contact us if the analysis produces results."
"Good idea." Bob tapped at the keyboard to avoid looking at her. "But I thought comms in and out of the enclave were not possible."
"Direct personal channels exist for emergency use only. They can only be configured by one of the operators."
Una had already hacked those channels. "You should go and get some rest. Go on ahead. I want to talk to her doctor before I see her."
Miela hesitated, clinging to her mantra of safety. "We’re supposed to stay together."
"Clare will require your assistance, Miela," Una prompted. "The optical processor is not yet fully online."
Bob was a schoolboy on the verge of being caught out in a misdemeanour. Miela was almost convinced... "Arrange a security escort." Lots and lots of security escort... "I will do the same." As much security escort as Coriolis had - Phil couldn't be as dangerous as Clare claimed, but there were definitely people out there trying to kill Bob.
"Be careful..." Miela was still reluctant to go. Frowning, she turned away and waited until Una opened the door for her.
Bob waited until he was alone again. "Una? Where is Phil hiding?"
"Unknown," the machine said flatly. "He was lost from the security monitors at approximately the time that Doctor Cranfield disconnected Clare from the medical supervisor."
Bob sat at Miela’s terminal. "Lost? How?"
"Direct interference with the camera net." Una brought up an image of Phil in his office. One moment he was talking to someone via his desk terminal, the next the office was empty. The moiré swirls of his privacy screens jumped a fraction in the moment he vanished.
"Is he supplying false images, or did he just suspend the camera for a few seconds?"
"Analysis suggests false images to cover a brief gap." Una redisplayed the sequence, slowing the action as the moment of disappearance occurred. "The transition is very sharp."
Bob peered closely at the screen as Una moved the frames backwards and forwards. "Where did he go next? There must be other cameras with small discontinuities."
"I have searched. I have found none. I offer the conjecture that Doctor Elsworth had a number of escape routes prepared with false images for the security monitors. I offer the conjecture that the images have been merged sufficiently smoothly to defy detection."
“Except for this one glitch?”
“I offer two conjectures. Doctor Elsworth made an error. Doctor Elsworth intended this to be found.”
“And no way to choose... He knew he might have to run. If we assume that his mission here is incomplete... it doesn’t matter whether the glitch was a mistake, he would still want somewhere to hide where there are no cameras. Even sophisticated interference would show up." Bob relaxed and he applied himself to the sort of puzzle that had taken him into the intricacies of cyberwar "Where are the places with no cameras?"
"The cameras in here are solely mine. Some service tunnels and spaces within the building have no cameras. They are deemed unnecessary since access requires passing other cameras."
"What about your own internal spaces?" Bob felt the visceral certainty he got from unravelling a well-designed cyber-assault – the scent of a hot trail.
"Only accessible through here," Una replied. "I am able to grant you access if you wish to search, but the cameras here are solely under my control. He has not passed through."
"So, somewhere else."
"The primary environmental conditioning plant has an access point on every floor. Opening any of the hatches will sound an alarm but Doctor Elsworth clearly has the skill to override that."
"I’ll go and look." Bob was on a roll, caught up in the puzzle. "Can you create orders for a security team to join me?"
"I have sent a suitable message to security under your signature."
In a temporary rush of excitement, Bob forgot his last terrifying touch of action.
# # #
Cranfield shook his head, partially in denial and partially in disbelief.
"Miss Farral… I assumed it was a misunderstanding when I heard that you wanted to leave…"
"No…" Clare was standing in the doorway of the treatment room, hugging the frame. "Ready to go."
"It would be best if you stayed here. Where we can keep an eye on you. You are not strong enough for this."
"I want to be somewhere less medical."
"At least wait while I make sure there is nothing immediately… troublesome."
He guided her away from the doorway and over to the bed. "Sit. Most of the surgery is very straightforward, but the new power connections can cause problems in the first few days. All a bit… fragile for a while."
She sat and he carefully unclipped the control belt of the numbvest. Clare looked at her own navel, expecting to see a power connector, something more than deep red skin to show the aftermath of surgery. Kyla had this big...
"Where is it?" She watched as he examined the skin with his finger tips. “Hey... shit....” A sharp pain accompanied each touch. "That hurts."
"Newest techniques. Concealed connectors. We have to rebuild a lot of the muscle structure to make it work. I’ll teach you how to use it in a few days – the surgery leaves everything fragile. You need to be careful. The initial charge in the power cells will be enough for now. Staying here would be best."
"I don’t feel safe here." She was muttering, sulky, afraid of... everything. "I’ll go back to my room."
"The accommodation complex is hardly safer," he countered. "The security systems here are far more sophisticated. There are emergency teams on hand – medical and the gun-waving sort."
"I’ll walk if I have to." That worked out so well last time...
"You are not strong enough."
There was one trump card left. "So drive me over there. It’ll save you having to work out where I fell over." She rustled up a weary smile. "I still haven’t told you what motivates me."
"Sheer bloody-mindedness," he growled. "OK. I’ll take you. Tomorrow we can start bringing your systems online. Elsworth will be captured by then and life can get back to normal."
She yawned and then fought to speak through it. "Won’t catch him."
"Security are very good at what they do."
"So is he." The thoughts slotted together in a sloppy structure – enough to power her intuition onwards. "He’s been planning this for a long time – and security haven’t noticed a thing."
"Expand on your wild theories in the car." He gestured to the door. "If it keeps you awake then I won’t have to carry you at the far end." He walked out into the corridor.
She followed, just to keep him in earshot. "You have access to medical records..." She was thinking aloud. "I wonder... how many security officers have died in the last… six months? Twelve months?"
"I don't believe that Elsworth has gone around murdering security staff to hide his crimes."
"How much are you prepared to bet that the early eye replacement volunteers like Miela were blinded by accident? My money says it was deliberate."
Another fit of yawning silenced her. Cranfield entered her query into the medical records system. "If it will shut you up…"
"And the eyes?"
"Preposterous. The ethical implications…"
"Ethics?" Clare spat the word. "This is Phil Elsworth… turned my fucking loopy-juice off to torture me…"
"Perhaps… damn…" He steadied her arm as they stepped outside. The wind was cold, harsh gusts wrapping around the glass frog. "Five dead in the last four months." His voice went distant as he recited the answers coming back. "All off duty." He sent follow-up queries. "It has to be just coincidence."
"Hah." She waited for him to release the car doors. "How many before that?"
He helped her into the car as the rest of the search unfolded in his head. "Previous death was two years ago. Cancer. Another eighteen months before that, killed pursuing intruders."
Clare settled in as the car moved off, mulling over the news. "Not exactly a common occurrence until recently."
"Statistical blip," Cranfield countered. "Causes of death are all different."
"Good." Who needed sleep anyway? This was better stimulation than real coffee. "Someone as clever as Phil wouldn’t leave a pattern. I bet they were all accidents – no surprise heart-attacks."
"Hit-and-run car accident, a fall causing fatal head injury, boating accident, shot during a break-in at home residence, bitten by pet snake." He parked outside the Henwick Pond residences. "All perfectly ordinary – apart from the snake, I suppose."
"All look like accidents." Clare found her theory falling apart. "Not easy to fake. Especially the snake – the poor sod would have to be brain dead to let someone do that. I suppose the boating accident would be hard to fake."
"Not brain dead," Cranfield said quietly, the relevant medical documents unfolding in his head. "Too many coincidences… The fall victim and the snake owner had significant implants. If Elsworth could interfere with them…"
“And I’m bloody sure he can... What’s wrong Doc?”
“Nothing... just thinking... my own implants... But Elsworth had nothing to do with putting those in.”
"So these security guys... It’s possible that they had noticed something odd and had to be disposed of." Clare climbed out of the car as fast as the numbvest allowed. "They see something worrying and mention it to Elsworth... and poof! he messes with their heads."
"Or it might just be coincidence." Cranfield sounded unconvinced by his own argument.
"Don’t spoil a perfectly good conspiracy theory. It all fits. Phil is a ruthless bastard…" For a moment she was back in the King’s Arms – and Phil having to take a call whilst she went up to her room into the arms of Niels and Muscles. "Everything planned and prepared," she continued grimly. "No surprises. No mistakes."
"Not true," Cranfield said as they reached her door. "He failed with whatever he was trying to do to you – didn’t he?"
"Yeah. He wanted to know what I was doing." Doubts festered – uncertain memories clouded by the pain. "I don’t think I told him. If I had, he would have killed me." But hadn’t he implied that he had found out some other way? "Come in. I’m sure that the auto-chef can produce something decent to drink."
"Delighted." A tiny smile slipped through. "Then I can keep an eye on you."
Clare was too bound up in the Phil conspiracy to respond. "What do you drink?"
"Stick to coffee," he told her. "Certainly nothing stronger for you. Decaf would be best. Those numbvests can be funny things if you start to screw up your blood chemistry."
"Cheers." She went to the auto-chef, dithering over the decaf option. "So Phil has been playing all sorts of funny games – maybe."
"He has just been lucky." Cranfield was certain, but failed to convince her. "Security are after him so his luck is about to run out. Now... do you want your eye on line?"
"No. Yes." She still wanted to put it off. "I suppose..." Having it working would be good... or dangerous. "Do it."
He pulled a small, flat device from his pocket. There were no visible controls or displays – just an innocuous silvery lozenge. The same as Phil’s data-scrambler.
"Nothing to be scared of. Just a remote interface. The transceiver channels on the optical processors have a tiny range. This acts as a booster – a halfway stage between my nodes and your eye."
"Are they common?"
"Very specialised. Rare, I suppose. Medical staff only."
"OK." She braced herself as he brought the device close. "Oh shit…"
"It will take time to get used to it."
Clare stood very still as two distinct and overlapping images vied for supremacy. The nauseating jig played out; the need to vomit escalated fast, and then her vision abruptly settled, the one-eyed view returning.
"It shut down." She held a hand alternately in front of her eyes. "Dead."
"Safety. It will try again in a while. The processor is calibrated to give an image you can interpret. Now it needs to match it with your other eye. That takes time and the process can be unsettling."
"Yeah. Tell me about it." She found a feeble smile. "Thanks Doc."
"No problem. It is actually easier to have both eyes done at once." He turned the device over in his hands a few times. "Won’t be long before you’re back to normal. Once you get used to the new eye, you’ll hardly miss the old one."
Niels’ thumb grinding down onto her eye, crushing and then tearing. This time she could recall which eye – pain and location in vivid detail. She gagged for a moment at the awful scraping of his finger in the socket. She might have lost both if…
"Did you find out about Jeremiah?" Cranfield hesitated too long – bad news. "Tell me."
"According to the preliminary examination, he was killed instantly. A broken neck." He reached out and held her hand, hovering on the edge of his seat. "I’m sorry. I had the information logged to remind me to tell you in a few days."
Clare closed her eyes – the tear ducts still worked both sides. She had scarcely been close to Jeremiah, barely knew him, but a lurking sense of responsibility made it her fault. He had just been unlucky. That was it. Bad luck.
"I thought so." Her fault. "I just hoped…" She pulled out of his grasp. "I think he saved me.” The common and variable currency of subsistence living – a gift of food, a place to hide, a warning of cops or gangs. “Bought time..."
"It was a miracle that there were only two fatalities."
"Just because I wanted to go to Mars." There were things she might have done differently, but none of the possible alternatives would have saved Jeremiah.
"Get some sleep," Cranfield told her firmly and stood up. "I will see you again tomorrow morning. Just a routine check to make sure the eye is functioning perfectly. Then you can tell me about your motivations…"
"It’s a date." She mustered a hint of enthusiasm. "You will get my life story."
Clare waited until he was gone before requesting another coffee from the auto-chef – not decaf. The system objected for a moment, citing the health hazards and finally acquiesced with a warning that it would be logged on her medical records. Clare raised a silent finger to the machine and took her coffee.
She brought her terminal online and used her card to introduce the Lilywhite squint. The code jemmied the network and after a short delay the message came back, ‘Local net only.’
In one corner of the screen was an icon which gave her access to the Coriolis company records. Whatever electronic fiend she had let loose into the system promptly dragged up an employee list. Within seconds, she had Phil Elsworth’s file in front of her.
"Boring." She skimmed the details. "Never even farted in an environmentally sensitive area. Probably faked anyway." She stared at the screen, wishing for more aggressive utilities for checking files – she had once been quite good at this but her skills were rusty. It didn’t matter: after a little searching, the help system enthusiastically conspired to point her in the right direction.
# # #
Cranfield walked along the broad corridor, dictating notes to his internal storage – some patients did better than others, and Clare had drive... need to monitor and curb a tendency to push too soon... What did Phil actually do? Run a full biological and electronic examination. Have security inspect medical facilities of possible interference.
He added another note. Too many unreasonable coincidences.
He ran more sophisticated enquiries through the company network, appending the results to his notes under unreasonable coincidences. The initial searches which Clare had asked for had been simple, generic questions. He applied his professional experience of posing more lateral queries, scattering the formal parameters with meta-search criteria to look for oddities in the data – not just peculiar deaths, but all and any oddities, such as minor inconsistencies between one routine medical check-up and the next.
Cranfield opened a new file – personnel inconsistencies. The medical records were laced with odd and inexplicable data.
A door opened, surprising him and he looked up to acknowledge the person stepping into the corridor. Phil Elsworth. In Miela's doorway. Abruptly, all of his carefully constructed data queries were filed and locked and mandatory medical practitioner monitoring cut in, recording everything in response to sudden emotional stress. His processors cleared all of his comms channels in an attempt to hook up to the nearest medical system – internal recording capacity was finite, and there was a legal requirement to record everything...
Cranfield was rooted to the spot, too shocked to try to reset his processors or alert the security nets. Every channel he had was open, seeking a suitable match with medical diagnostics.
“Clare was right...” He frantically launched an alert into the company network. It was already too late. Phil tore through the safety systems and there was nothing but <connection not available>.
Cranfield turned and ran. Medical practitioner monitoring flagged twenty percent of storage used, and his internal systems kept pushing for a connection, any connection... because that was the law.
His interfaces went wild, an explosion of bewildering data, impossible to assimilate. A hundred surgical procedures from his own archives on the company system played themselves out across his processor network. He staggered, scrabbling at the fake wood panelling of the walls; the chaos grew inexorably into pain. His hands lunged and twitched as his body tried to relive the conflicting and overlapping memories. Muscles flexed, driven by the control nodes which helped to maintain steady hands. His legs buckled as the relentless weight of incompatible memories bore down on him. When he could no longer walk, he sank to the floor.
It stopped. His system instantly fell into its fail-safe mode and ignored his urgent request for a restart. Phil loomed over him, holding a medical signal booster. Cranfield stared at the instrument – Clare had been interested in those…
Medical practitioner monitoring flagged forty percent storage used. An external repository was needed urgently.
"You had all your implants done elsewhere," Phil observed curiously. "Pity that. We never had the chance to get acquainted. Stand up. You know what the data-scrambler can do."
Cranfield stayed where he was, relieved that all of his systems were down except for medical practitioner monitoring. Whatever the booster was designed for, there would be no active receivers. He managed a hint of defiance, staring up at Phil.
His right arm spasmed in the most terrible cramp he had ever known, muscles pinching tight, pulling against each other in a violent tug of war. It was not possible. There was no way that Phil could be influencing his system, yet the muscular interface nodes were behaving wildly.
"Emergency reboot signal," Phil told him. "Quite convenient. Very few systems can ignore it." He waved the booster, side-to-side. "This is not quite the standard unit that you are accustomed to." A burning cloud of white fire blossomed briefly in Cranfield’s head and Phil’s voice hardened. "Now. Stand up. You are going to drive me out of here."
Cranfield stood, struggling for balance. He focused on the necessary things. Phil was every bit as dangerous as Clare had suggested but the human guards on the outer gates would recognise him. If Cranfield co-operated, he might survive and help capture a dangerous criminal. Medical practitioner monitoring issued a warning – <No approved medical procedure in progress. Provide commentary to prevent automatic system shutdown.>
I’m being kidnapped by Philip Elsworth...
<Accepted. Maintain commentary.>
"If I was staying, we would have to have an education session," Phil said seriously. "Miss Farral will be an interesting puppet. Can’t have you interfering. There are simply so many surprises to come."
"Tell you in the car," Phil promised as they reached the entrance. "Now, this thing is tuned specially for you at the moment, automatically routing through the company nets. The range is up to half a kilometre beyond the outer fence." He waved the booster as a reminder. "There are too many cameras out the front, so you will drive around the block to the service entrance. If you have not arrived within a minute, I will fry your cortex. I imagine that you will die in the car crash. Understand?"
Cranfield walked out to his car and then drove round the building as quickly as he could. The company net was still denied to him.
Still under duress. Fetching my car to drive Elsworth off-site.
The service entrance was under the building, a steep ramp diving into the ground. Cranfield slowed down as he approached, more afraid of having an accident due to nerves rather than anything Phil might do. He negotiated the gap safely and descended into the service areas beneath the building.
As he headed down the ramp, the pain exploded again. His arms locked rigid, his sight clouded and his legs tensed against the surprise. He gasped for breath and his foot crushed the regulator to the floor, dumping the full current into the electric motors.
Oh God... something horrible... going to die...
Medical practitioner monitoring queried a major legal issue. <Confirm imminent projected death of patient.>
The car accelerated, moving too fast and under full manual control. The agony was beyond anything he could fight and only stopped when he failed to turn at the bottom of the ramp and ploughed into the wall.
The airbags failed to deploy appropriately, just a tenth of a second too late. A freak event in a freak accident.
# # #
Phil watched the crash from Miela’s rooms, tapping into the security cameras from her terminal. She watched him tensely, perched on the edge of the bed.
"Still alive...Badly injured…" he accessed Cranfield’s systems, pulling out the basic biomonitoring data. "Blood pressure dropping. Major trauma… ah… good... a skull fracture. Doctor Cranfield is now out of the equation.”
Miela stood and moved towards the door.
“Sit. No rush. I want to watch the doctor die.”
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