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- Ben & Sebastian
The morning that Medway started her post-combat hunt at CyberLine, Clare rose early and tried to open a channel to Madame. Her card squint jemmied the local terminal with commendable efficiency, punched through the Coriolis comms net and out into the world beyond...
Local services only. And those that were available were patchy.
The autochef delivered breakfast with coffee, leaving plenty of time to catch the employee shuttle to the main building. Clare intended to arrive well before her medical appointment and have time to visit Una and finish their aborted conversation. Instead, she found Bob there, ragged and in need of a shower.
"Up early or late?" She meant it as a hint for him to go to bed.
"Not sure," he muttered. "Doesn’t matter. Una has identified a target in the cyberwar."
He shrugged. "At first it looked like they were going after Lilywhite."
"Shit … but they’re not…" It was old news of a sort, but something she was hoping would turn out to be unfounded.
"They are trying to target the whole Mars program. Probably."
Clare stared at him. "You’re joking. That’s crazy. Why would anyone want to destroy that?" Her dream.
"Not destroy – just devalue and acquire. This is a hostile business takeover. The sort of madness that Una is designed to counter. The collateral damage in these commercial disputes can take down the economy of entire continents."
Clare took a couple of deep breaths. The information clicked into place, and the likely role of Phil Elsworth lit up like a magnesium flare. "And Lilywhite is a big player in the Mars programme. Not necessarily the ultimate target, but something that has to be… taken out?"
"I need to work on this some more." Bob was achingly tired, but this was his job. "An hour or two. The last time I spoke to Calder he said he was sending transport for me."
"I know. I’m to stay behind."
"Yes… Wait... You managed to talk to him?"
"Enough to know what’s going on. He had got as far as the theory that Lilywhite might be a target. You’d better finish and try to get the message through yourself. Just in case the transport fails."
Bob shuffled uneasily – he knew that the assault at the King’s Arms had been targeted at him. "Not easy… but I can do it."
"I’m due to have my eye fitted." That should have been delivered with bright enthusiasm, but she still had doubts. Anything involving Phil had to have doubts. "I’ll drop back in when they finish."
He yawned. "I might have gone to bed by then."
"That’s OK." And perfect. "Just keep the information to yourself… they had one go. If the wrong people find out that you know what’s going on…"
Bob swallowed and nodded – a satisfactory reaction. A small panic to deter him from saying too much to Phil, without being so twitchy he gave himself away. Clare waved and left the Una suite. Her new eye was waiting. A good thing. Really.
# # #
It was a different nurse – young and in a hurry. She was laying out items on a mobile work unit, checking each piece of medical arcana against the display on a pocket-pad.
"Just lie down." She waved Clare towards a couch already fitted with a disposable cover. "I’ll take your eye-patch off in a moment."
Clare complied gingerly, still tender in places from her encounter with Muscles and Niels. The couch was reasonably comfortable, but the padding could have been softer. She lay back and watched the girl working – her best guess was that there was no more than a few years difference in their ages. The nurse looked as if she had been with the company for years, trying to claw her way up through the system without ever knowing the true depths of deprivation that existed outside the fence, in the real world.
"You’re lucky, you know." The nurse removed the eye patch with quick skill, lips faintly pursed in disapproval of the black paint-job. "Not many people get a digital eye just like that."
A wash of cold air replaced the burst of light Clare had intuitively expected – not yet accustomed to the loss. "I don’t call having my eye ripped out lucky."
The nurse shrugged. "I suppose it must have hurt a bit." That was an extreme bit of professional detachment. "But it must be worth it. Not even a senior nurse rates an implant to monitor the medical systems. Only the doctors get them."
There was a significant pause, a chance for the implications to sink in. Time to make it clear that the girl was envious and proving herself professional enough not to show it – at least not directly.
"You’re very lucky," she repeated. "Just hold still while I pop this in place."
Clare abandoned the argument. "What?" The nurse picked up a chunky band of white material, a small electronic insert set into one side. "What is that?"
"Nothing to worry about," the nurse assured her, slipping Clare's hand through and pushing it up her forearm.
"What’s it for?" Something cold gripped her. It didn’t hurt, but the sudden chill was startling. "Giving me the shivers."
"Just feels cold for a moment," the nurse said brightly, a false cheer which contained no concern for her patient. "Just relax."
"More than just a moment," Clare complained. "Whole fucking arm is freezing."
"It’s not that bad."
Clare raised her arm to inspect the white band – a lot heavier than she expected. The weight was too much and she needed to support it with the other hand.
"It’s too tight," she complained. "I’m losing feeling in my…" She struggled with a moment of uncertainty. "Arm."
Clare tried to sit up but couldn’t. She moved her head enough to track the nurse who was already busy with something on the far side of the room.
"Wass happen?" she asked distantly.
"Just relax," the nurse told her again. "The pre-med takes a few minutes. Doctor Cranfield will be here shortly." She looked away as someone else entered the room, a distantly blurred figure on the edge of Clare’s line of sight. "Good morning Doctor Elsworth."
Clare felt a chill. Not just the cold grip on her forearm. Something was wrong.
"Thank you, nurse." Phil, all charm and smarm, and sugar-coated mischief. "Can I have a few moments with Miss Farral? It can be an unnerving time."
"Of course, sir."
Clare managed to focus on Phil as he came closer, a huge effort that wavered as he moved. He smiled down at her, waving a small sheaf of papers.
"Authorisation for your implants." Lies slid off his lips like buttered evil. "And an instruction to proceed as soon as possible. Toby was reluctant, but the signatures from Calder are fully authenticated. The operation will take about five hours. You should be up and about tomorrow morning."
Clare couldn’t fight the anaesthetic any longer. Those instructions were faked: Calder would have found a way to tell her that ‘Jeremiah had permission to ride’, but there was nothing she could do. The spreading cold dragged her down.
Fuck you, Phil... The words were there but her lips wouldn’t move.
Phil stayed there, talking urbanely until Cranfield arrived. The surgeon inspected his patient, tutting angrily to himself. "I planned to do the eye first. It makes it much more difficult with the patient under pre-med." He muttered under his breath for a moment. "It can take a while for the imaging optics to settle down."
"You will manage." Phil twisted his lies into a knot, squeezing the truth, making them one and the same. "Have the system inform me when she recovers."
"Of course," Cranfield replied curtly and then leant over Clare to look into her face. "Can you hear me Clare?"
Yes. Help me. Don’t do… it.
Mustn’t relax. Got to do something… Can’t remember what. Stop something…
"Everything seems fine…"
Fine? No. Everything’s wrong. Phil’s wrong. Not sure what. Something… just fucking shut up and listen…
"This should be very straightforward…"
"Be awake in no time…"
No! Don’t. This is all… Phil is… I…
The pre-med anaesthetic took away every scrap of will short of unconsciousness. Clare needed to scream, but she had no voice and no concentration.
# # #
Bob leant closer as the display he was staring at faded away.
“What happened?” Had another stray piece of hostile code slipped in? “Where did it go?”
The analysis of the attack and the projected next stages were replaced with the comms failure cascade and the rate of recovery. It was dull stuff by comparison – Una had refined it since he last looked, but they were supposed to be looking at the new stuff.
"The other analysis is secret," Una announced. "Clare said so."
"Clare said so? What do you mean by…" and he stopped as the door opened to admit Miela.
"Good morning, Director Critchley." She was bright and false, a radical transformation from the last time he had seen her. A woman hiding something. "How is Una this morning?"
Miela was fully dressed for a change. Garish Stellex leggings and shocking pink jacket were preferable to her skeletal body and bejewelled skin.
"Uh, refining the comms status analysis." Was he supposed to comment? Looking better, Miela? Would that be right? I don't want to vomit at the sight of you. No. Not that. She was a malicious demon brought out to subtly torment him. "Sort of done. I was going to go and get some sleep."
Miela walked over to study the display. "What about the attack profile?"
Una obligingly brought up the details. Bob glanced at it... but that time stamp – if he hadn’t been there for the previous few hours he would never have guessed that Una had faked it. "Stalled." Una distrusted Miela. That was fantastic – an evolving AI. And frightening, if Miela was truly dangerous.
"What will you do next?"
"Sleep." It was a joke and fell flat. He scratched at well developed stubble on his cheek. "I’ll think of something. The comms analysis was clutching at straws. Perhaps Una would be able to pick something out if you interfaced."
"Do you think it will help?"
He stared at her. "Not really." Skin and bone and golden nodes. Eager, like one of his assistants back at the Kernel Kombat centre. Great, except for the look. "I suppose..." Look away. That was it. "Worth trying." Yes. Let Una keep the demon busy. "If you have some ideas..."
"No. If you’re going back to Henwick Pond, I can come with you."
"I can find my own way…" This was one of those moments when he needed Clare – dealing with people.
Miela rested her fists on her hips, angling her body forward aggressively. "You don’t like me, Director Critchely. That’s fine. You’re an arrogant bastard. Doesn't matter. Things are not right at Coriolis. You know it, Clare knows it and now I know."
"You do?" Miela was a mystery, flipping between colder than a machine and borderline hysterical. "They are? What rubbish has Clare been saying?"
"That I should stay close to you." The demon Miela laughed. "She didn’t say whether it was for my protection or yours. She helped me with my disconnect fever yesterday, so if it’s you she’s worried about then I owe her."
Miela gathered up his coat and held it out for him. "Very. I would say ask Clare but I checked and she’s in medical having her enhancements put in. Just you and me, Director Critchley."
She thrust the coat closer and he took it uncomfortably. "Call me Bob." No, don’t say that. Don’t tell her that. No names. Wasn't that the thing with demons? Never tell them your name...
# # #
Bob held on to the door of his room – a barrier, a means to block unwanted visitors. Or demons. Miela sailed past as if invited.
As if she owned the place. "Coffee?"
"I..." Wasn't that supposed to be his question? "Yes." He shrugged his coat off and let it lie where it fell. Clare would have known how to tell her to go away.
"You need a shower."
"Right..." Lesley had mentioned the possibilities of a shower for two but they had never got that far. Miela was giving him unnervingly meaningful looks. He needed a way out, an escape to peace and quiet. This would never happen at the Lilywhite offices. "I suppose so." He tapped the comms terminal, pretending to check for messages. Miela waited patiently. "I should..."
The screen cleared. "A long night, Director Critchely." Rea the housekeeper smiled at him. "Is there anything you need?"
"A shower." It was the same conversation all over again. "Sleep."
She nodded. "Of course. I will come and make sure everything is as you require."
"No need." Miela called out from across the room. "I can manage."
Rea winked. Bob stared at Miela and she returned the look, both waiting for the next move. Miela pursed her lips as the door chimed.
Rea glided in, legs concealed in fragile folds of a wild orange Stellex skirt and body-hugging top in vertical stripes, tracing tight contours around her curves.
"Kind of you to escort Director Critchley back, Miela." She turned dismissively and focused on Bob, in control, an illusion of compliance. "A shower, you said, Director Critchley? Will you be eating before you sleep?"
"Uh. Maybe a small snack…"
"Of course." She turned back to Miela. "Is there anything I can help you with?"
"Director Critchley needs to rest." Miela was stiff, outmatched. "I have things to attend to. Call me when he is awake..."
Bob watched Miela depart – the demon was gone. Skin and bone and golden implants... Rea checked that the door was latched properly – unnecessary, but very reassuring.
She took his arm and guided him to the bathroom. "I’m sorry, Director Critchley. There hasn’t been much opportunity for me to become familiar with your preferences. Do you shower alone?"
"How else?" Although Lesley had said...
Rea released the ties on her skirt, letting it settle around her ankles in a glittering orange heap. "You look like you need some help."
She started on his clothes. Bob let her do what she wanted, suddenly embarrassed but too tired to object.
"Perhaps I can do something for that later." A brief explanatory touch stirred a comfortable warmth low in his belly. "You need some sleep first."
Rea kept the rest of her clothes on as she led him under the water spray and scrubbed his skin with a gentle but firm touch. His initial arousal subsided, taking his panic along with it, in spite of the way her Stellex body-suit turned almost transparent in the water.
"Shower for two." Bob mumbled dreamily. "Two. Two. Two is nice. Two, two..."
She dried him with soft towels and then quickly wiped over her Stellex top which shed its moisture instantaneously. With innocent curiosity, Bob reached out and stroked the line of her waist.
"Of course, Director Critchley. Water-repellent Stellex. So practical." She helped him into a soft robe. "Now, what would you like to eat?"
She settled him at the small dining table and set the auto-chef. Bob idly wondered whether she could be transferred to London, or perhaps Lesley might? They both made everything so easy. That reminded him…
"There was a girl at the King’s Arms… got hurt. Lesley."
"And you want to know how she is?" Rea recovered her skirt. "I can try to make enquiries. Some of the local comms are working."
The auto-chef chimed and she laid out a platter of lightly grilled chicken, garnished with a mustard sauce. Bob had not actually chosen the meal, and this wouldn’t have been it, but he was content to go with her selection. Tired, and focused on eating, he was barely aware of her working at the comms terminal.
The plate was empty. How did that happen? When did that happen? Shower for two. Good food... he sipped a glass of fruit juice. There was Rea... shower for two... sitting quietly at the terminal... sitting pretty... sitting sexy... and watching him.
"Lesley was seriously injured." She spoke softly. Softly like the shower. Softly like...
"Stable now. Recovering well."
"Lesley?" The name meant something. Recollections of a wildly passionate blonde girl. Yes, Lesley. Someone special, the previous evening... a jumbled time. "Lesley... is OK." He knew who she meant. Almost. There ought to be more detail. "Good." Who was that? "Yes. Good." He really meant it.
"Time for bed, Director Critchley."
# # #
Bob slept soundly, unaware that Rea checked on him periodically. He finally woke when the room comms chimed urgently for attention, an annoyingly chirpy melody repeating endlessly.
Bob rolled out of bed – it was just after noon. He took the time to find a bathrobe before answering the call. The screen cleared and Una’s face appeared, blandly smiling, a pretty, sexy blonde... like Emily. Just like Emily. But not so scary.
Una only ever called to give him bad news.
Una smiled reassuringly – the inappropriate expression confused him for a moment. "Clare is out of surgery and listed as critical. Her processor arrays are interacting badly."
He sat down and took a few calming breaths. Clare was a nuisance, a pain, an aggravation... She got things done. "How bad?"
"The diagnostics are uncertain. There are indications of cortical instability – problems with the interface. The medical systems are keeping her sedated to minimise the harm."
Bob was lost. Calder was supposed to be sending transport so that he could get safely away, but until that arrived he was totally dependent on Coriolis.
Coriolis couldn't be trusted. There was something odd about Phil Elsworth, and even Una didn’t trust Miela. No one to trust except Clare. Annoying, impudent, aggravating... reliable...
"Is there anything we can do? I thought they were only fixing her eye. The rest of the enhancements are not supposed to happen yet."
Una pouted and then winked but he was too confused to comment. Clare’s net rep had never been designed for anything other than a cheerful or sexy expression. "I will monitor. The records show authorisation came from Calder Lilywhite. Instructions to expedite the procedure are also logged."
The door chimed; Una signed off immediately. The terminal switched to showing Miela at his door. Where was Rea?
He reluctantly told it to open.
"I had the system monitor your terminal for comms traffic." She was bright, cheerful... false. "You feeling better?"
"Yeah." Better, but not good.
"Clare isn’t well." She turned serious. Not so false. "Problems with the implants."
He almost said the wrong thing – he shouldn’t know yet. "How bad?" He tried to sound detached but just came out as tired. "I don’t want to... break in a new assistant so soon."
"Phil didn’t tell me. There is some sort of instability. It doesn’t happen often. Just bad luck."
"Could it have been deliberate?" He lowered his voice and tightened the belt on his bathrobe. "Part of…" He waved toward the ill-defined crisis outside.
She walked across the room and rested her hand on his shoulder. "I didn’t think of that. What’s happening?"
"If I knew that, I could do something about it." Go away, go away, go away... don't touch me. His stomach rumbled abruptly. "I’ll think about it over breakfast… I mean lunch."
His finger skittered over the terminal... medical... maintenance... mail... chat groups... housekeeper! Rea appeared in seconds, smiling as brightly as ever. An honest smile. A beautiful absence of deceit.
"Feeling better, Director Critchley? I have some excellent poached salmon available from the kitchens, or perhaps some lamb?"
"Uh… salmon would be fine."
She leant closer to the camera, her face filling the display. "You still look tired, Director Critchley. I’ll arrange the salmon and then perhaps another shower?"
Miela glowered at the terminal; Bob only saw her grim reflection when the screen blanked. What did that mean?
"We just have to wait. It will be fine. No need to worry..." His mouth ran on in a panic – no plan or sense, just words. “For Clare. I should get dressed."
"You were about to have a shower..." The door chime cut her off, and Bob called out to admit Rea.
He blinked. Her body-hugging top had been replaced with a blouse of tiered lace Thilk – transparent but tangled in so many layers it was like looking though frosted glass, a parody of the crystal monstrosity of the Coriolis building. The skirt was plain silver Stellex and reached her knees. It was...
"I’ll prepare the bathroom, Director." She nodded politely at Miela. Bob followed without a second thought. "Does she ever leave you alone?"
"Can’t seem to lose her..."
"No problem." She sighed theatrically. "None of this is water repellent… This shower might take longer than the last."
Rea shed her clothes and proved to Bob beyond all doubt that a shower is a game for two people. When he had had enough, she arranged the delivery of his salmon.
"Good clean fun," Bob joked languorously.
Rea smiled politely at the bad joke and opened the bathroom door. Miela was still there.
"Do you have plans for the rest of the day, Director Critchley?"
"Back to work, Rea." He glanced at Miela. The demon was harmless. Just skin and bone and vile bio-electronics colonising her like a fungus... "Duty calls."
# # #
Clare woke up because she was in pain. A crawling fire was wrapped around her ribs, gouging and searing, clawing its way inwards to consume her. She tried to cry out but firm pressure encompassed and locked her throat – a ghostly hand around her vocal cords. She couldn’t feel the fingers, just the constriction. It was like the last moments before the anaesthetic claimed her – paralysed, except that this time she was fully awake.
<Elsworth: How is the pain?>
She tried to answer but her throat was still unresponsive. In front of her eyes a black screen unrolled, a line of text glaring at the top: <System: Enter responses here.>
The pain gripped tighter and she screamed in her head. Once the spasm eased, the screen had changed, adding a new line: <Farral: PISS OFF!!!!!!!!!!>.
<Elsworth: Very good. Now, how are you?>
Clare wanted to blink, or wriggle – anything to move the pain. <Farral: It… ohshitfuck… hurts.>
The screen blinked: <MedSupv: //summary// Extreme cortical instability. Brain chemistry aberration – class extreme hazard. Status – Cont. Anaesth.>
Clare read the information and digested it. <Farral: Bollocks. Unless I’m dreaming.>
<Elsworth: Why are you here, Clare?>
<Elsworth: Don’t mess me about. The medical systems will tell the world that you are in a critical condition and require constant sedation. We know different. I can make the pain so bad that you will go insane – or you can tell me what I want to know.> His face filled the screen, laughing wildly. <The pain is real. Everything you feel is the damage happening. These medical systems are so versatile.>
<Farral: Piss off.>
The pain started again.
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