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- Ben & Sebastian
The medical unit was as barren and unappealing as it had been the last time Clare had seen it. The nurse who had helped her customise the eye-patch winked in passing and directed her to an examination room cluttered with medical equipment – intimidating rather than comforting. A fat metal donut perched at one end of a couch, crowned with a briar-patch of slender instruments and flexible stalks – an evil stereotype.
A balding man with smooth, young skin and far older eyes was waiting for her. His forehead and scalp were decorated with a triangle of gleaming silver interface nodes.
“So...” Clare counted the nodes. “I got the boss this time...” Or at least someone more senior, and more heavily enhanced, than the medic who had been there when she woke up that morning.
"Good evening, Miss Farral," he said smoothly "Tobias Cranfield. I am in charge of your case."
Clare stepped back. "Did you do the implants?"
"Of course. I’m the senior surgeon here. If you’d just like to lie on the couch there we’ll run the scanner over and see how things are doing. Just stay as still as you can. Everything went very smoothly, but I like to check that there are no problems." He patted the back of the donut. "Can pick out the start of implant rejection very early on with this beastie. I know it looks a bit frightening, but trust me. It’s completely harmless."
Clare regarded it suspiciously, but Cranfield had a comfortable manner. "Then what?"
"Then we decide what to do next. If there are no rejection problems, we might do the rest of your surgery in two or three days." He gestured again. "Do make yourself comfortable."
"No sooner than that?" she asked, hitching herself onto the couch. "Phil thought…"
"Doctor Elsworth is not the most patient of men. He wanted to be here… for this... but I did not want him… pushing. I could probably do the surgery tonight, but I see no reason to rush. I prefer to take things steadily, especially when using implants which are still in the experimental stages."
Clare lay back and then twitched as the scanner moved, skeletal fingers flexing over her head. "But what I’m getting is nearly… standard equipment."
Cranfield absently picked up her wrist. "Pulse a bit fast. Just try to relax… looks good so far."
"The implants. Aren’t they standard?"
"What? Oh, no. We popped in the cortical interface when we did the eye. Very new. Supposed to be a vast improvement. It won’t do much until we put the fibre links in to the mammary processor arrays. All it’s really doing at the moment is monitoring the optical processor."
"And the rest of the job?"
"Prototype processor arrays – not a problem from the surgical point of view. Primary optical links to the cortical interface as I said – that’s standard of course." The scanner withdrew. "That looks fine. Surgery in two days, I think. We put in the rest of the main power cells, the processors and then just check its all wired properly."
"What about the subdermal mesh?"
"Very experimental," he said seriously. "Not really my field though. No real surgery involved. They inject the micro-fabricators and let them get on with it. After that, we periodically check the integration with the processors. Now, if you would just sit over here, I’ll run a few checks on that optical processor."
"Phil didn’t really make this clear." Except he had... but then swept her along with the thrill of it, so reality was only truly sinking in now. She still wanted the implants... Phil was the bastard who caused the injury in the first place... probably... no, definitely...
"Doctor Elsworth often doesn’t," Cranfield muttered. "The optical system is standard. The cortical interface is experimental and not guaranteed stable. It is the most sophisticated bio-digital bridge ever designed, but capable of initiating something we call disconnect fever all on its own. That is a genuine risk, and moderately unpleasant. Since all I’m going to do is connect a pair of processor arrays there shouldn’t be much of a problem."
"But it’s not perfect..." and it’s in my bloody head...
"Experimental," he clarified. "Push it to the limit and I wouldn’t trust it. The interface is designed to give full control over a head to toe submesh. Dr Elsworth is only planning a thoracic cavity mesh for you – well within the limits of your interface."
Clare weighed up the risks – Cranfield sounded like he had almost convinced himself. "So I should be fine."
"Minimal danger." But he didn’t specify how small minimal actually was. "Now, do sit down and let me look at your eye."
She sat and tried not to flinch as he arranged an intimidating array of probes around her eye – a dangling spider with legs reaching towards her. The best she could do was stare frantically ahead with her good eye... and note the tiny mechanical movements of his irises.
"Optical implants yourself?"
"Makes it easier to do microsurgery..." The mechanics span back and forth – a terribly senior medic showing off, and perhaps flirting with his patient. "Can even switch to direct input from the surgical optics. Now this is looking good as well. I see from your records that Miela is doing the calibration training. Seems to be going well – but then her students do."
"Did she teach you?"
Cranfield laughed. "No. Miela might be good, but I needed the best. An old friend of mine specialises in ocular replacement surgery. Eyes are tricky buggers to get exactly right."
"So how long have you known Doctor Elsworth?"
"Oh, two years. He persuaded me to come here. He needed a top-rate surgeon. Coriolis were doing things right on the edge of cyber interfaces."
One of Phil’s comments came back to her. "Have you done many like me?"
"Oh, plenty," he said easily. "More conventional systems, but same basic idea. Most of the security people are enhanced. All done in-house."
Except Phil had claimed otherwise. "I think I met one. Big girl – heavy build and enough room in her tits for her own, personal AI."
"And no sense of humour. She was one of the first ones. Carries a tenth of the processing power you’re getting, occupying five times the volume. Of course the advantage with Sheila was bulkThe tech guys made a lot of jokes about racks...” He sighed and shook his head. “But, as I said, Sheila has no sense of humour. Fortunately, she didn’t care too much about her waistline either, so we crammed a lot of power cells in. All-over subdermal mesh. Not as good as the latest stuff, but still impressive. It was an absolute bitch doing the surgery. Dreadfully time-consuming. We had to have three surgical teams working shifts."
Phil had said Sheila was not enhanced. He had lied. Really lied. "Sounds exciting work."
"Very. We have a rolling program. Guy called Mitch in at the moment." A smile crept onto his face. "Tough guy, but you should have seen him go pale when Doctor Elsworth suggested replacing his testicles with the processor array."
Clare blinked. "Did he mean it?"
"Probably… not." Cranfield turned serious. "Well, I think we’re done here. There’s an entry on your records which says you are due another training session with Miela… and she has gone back to Henwick Pond. Weather is getting cold. I can drive you over there."
"Thank you." Was that outside the bounds of the patient-doctor relationship? "Very kind of you. Wasn’t looking forward to the walk back." Or talking to rocks.
He waved his arms vaguely. "This was my last job for the day and I don’t live on site. No problem to take a slight detour."
"Where do you live?"
"Just over in Wellerbridge. Nice little village, and I also moonlight at the local hospital."
Wellerbridge and the King’s Arms. "Can you do me another favour, Doc?"
"Surgical or personal?"
She grinned briefly. "There was a kid called Jeremiah at the hotel. I think he tried to help me when…" She gestured to her eye. "He was hurt. Can you find out what happened to him?"
"I’ll make enquiries for you." He stared at her, the sort of look which usually preceded a sexual proposition. "Why do you want the implants?" he asked abruptly. "You don’t seem the type. Security people – easy to understand. Me – I had to have the eyes done to do the sort of surgery I was interested in. Most of the other volunteers, I can see the reasons. Why do you want it? I mean, I’m reasonably confident of the surgical side, and what I am going to give you should be fine…"
"But things go wrong," she finished. "How many have backed out?"
"Very few. The people who volunteer are very… driven."
"You think I’m not? Come on – who was your last volunteer to back out? What was his story?" It was a heaven sent opportunity. Perfectly out of the blue, she could find out what the hell Kyla had been doing.
"Barnaby Ashton-Wallace. Shuttle pilot on the Mars program – volunteered because he wanted to join the test pilots for the next generation of shuttles."
Shit. "Really? I didn’t know Coriolis or Lilywhite was involved."
Cranfield shrugged. "Elsworth found him. Come on, I’ll tell you about him on the drive over."
"Is it a long story? Not exactly a long drive."
"Then you can invite me in for a drink," he said, perfectly straight, looking her in the eye. "I can tell you about it while Miela does your next calibration run."
"You’re on, Doc..." He was a little distant, but on balance she liked him. Older than he looked, very much bound up with his bedside manner and concerned over the welfare – mental and physical – of his patient.
"Then you can tell me what drives you."
Clare tipped her head to one side. "OK Doc..." Spin you a yarn, the usual story... "Perhaps I will.” Or maybe something closer to the truth.... “Not a pretty story. Sure you’re up to it?"
"I can’t wait to find out."
# # #
Clare set the auto-chef to producing coffee and called Miela. Cranfield was discreetly nosy, wandering around the suite and then inspected the paper-wrapped clothes laid out on the dining table.
"Didn’t take you for a Thilk girl..." Now that rattled his bedside manner. "I suppose it suits you…"
"Doctor Elsworth suggested it."
"Is he paying?"
"I think so." He is so paying for every damned thing he’s done. "And with an offer like that, how’s a girl supposed to say no?"
Cranfield shrugged. "No idea. Never been in that position. Anyway, Ashton-Wallace. One of the best volunteers we have ever had. The enhancements we…" he paused to take a cup of coffee. "Where was I? Oh, yes, such a scope for new ideas. It’s rather like the operators for these advanced AI systems. The pilots need significant enhancement to…"
The door chimed.
"Open," Clare called out and rose to welcome Miela. The operator had changed into a Thilk bodysuit, darkly tinted with fine, brown lines apart from a deep valley of transparency to accentuate her negligible cleavage. The heavy colour faded gracefully at ankles, wrists and throat to avoid a sharp contrast with her pale skin, all transparent enough to reveal trails of golden interface nodes. A cream cotton drape hung from her shoulders, a rare touch of modesty for a dedicated Thilk wearer. Clare was positively scruffy in her Stellex leggings and fraying jumper. "Feeling better?"
Miela stared at Cranfield for a moment. "Much." Her aloofness melted away and she lightly embraced Clare. "Thank you. I am grateful." She stepped back and adjusted the cotton drape, every action awkward, as if she rehearsed it in front of a mirror, and still needed more work. "Time to try again?" She proffered the headband, root of pain the last time.
"Yeah. Coffee? The Doc was just trying to talk me out of having the enhancements."
"Miela...” Cranfield stood and gave her a professional stare, the coffee cup in his hand the only thing stopping him from checking her pulse. “I heard you had another bad disconnect. Doctor Elsworth tried to find you. He was worried."
"I’m fine, Toby." Miela was in charge, nothing like the quivering wreck in the Una suite. "Clare found me and… sorted everything out." She smiled grimly at Clare, but then the air of in charge wavered... "Toby has been trying to talk me out of my next enhancements." She shucked off the cotton drape, emphasising the lines of nodes. "I have no regrets." She folded the cloth and put it to one side.
Clare smiled warmly, but that no regrets sounded full of them. Either the girl trying to become like a machine was having a human moment, or remembering the downside of her pain-and-reward relationship with Phil.
"Coffee…" She exchanged the cup for the headband. "I’ve been deflecting him..." Clare nodded towards Cranfield. "He’s been telling me about some test pilot who… backed out."
Miela laughed distantly as Clare dropped into her own chair. "No great mystery."
"It isn’t?" Cranfield was surprised. "I never got a good explanation."
"You never asked the right people," she retorted. "It was kept very quiet, but if you have the right connections…" Miela giggled and tapped her forehead, next to one of her nodes. "No idea how Phil got hold of our man, but DataConex Medical were doing something similar and there are only so many shuttle pilots to choose from. Their guinea pig was a complete disaster. Fried his brain or something. Basket case. He was also a close friend of our Ashton-Wallace. When our guy found out, he ran so fast the ground was smoking."
"But DataConex haven’t got their system as far as clinical trials," Cranfield protested.
"That’s the official story," Miela pointed out. "Phil nearly got his fingers burnt over Wallace. That’s why he started looking for less conventional subjects."
"Ashton-Wallace was the last one," Cranfield said.
"The last one to get close enough to sign consent disclaimers. There have been others who never got that far."
"How do you know?" Clare heard the unspoken hints of medical ethics violations. Miela was suggesting offences which could have Elsworth imprisoned and Coriolis destroyed. That would be bad for Lilywhite...
"You do not search for volunteers through conventional channels."
Cranfield shook his head. "Incredible."
"Worried, Doctor?" Clare probed because this was bad all round, but perhaps the sort of bad that could be fixed with Phil taking the richly-deserved fall.
"Disturbed." Cranfield hugged his coffee like it was a much-needed whiskey. "If Elsworth has been… skirting the regulations then I have an obligation to… make enquiries." He looked Clare in the eye. "You sure you want to go through with this?"
"I do. Yes." And there would definitely be enquiries.
"The cortical interface is already installed – an experimental model." He looked at Miela for support but she simply sipped her coffee and smoothed Thilk over the nodes along her ribs. "If Elsworth is prepared to engage in…" He waved his hand as if trying to snatch inspiration from the air. "I don’t know… Questionable experiments. Your implants may not be as stable as I originally believed."
Clare knew her answer to the implants was yes – even if there was a possibility that Phil planned for it to go horribly wrong. That was a worry... obviously... just not enough to make her back down. Her job was to find out what he was up to, and the reward was the coveted ticket to Mars. If she could get a working set of processor implants into the bargain, all the better.
"I’ll risk it." If only she could ask Miela about all of the recent, unofficial volunteers, which presumably included Kyla, but the moment was wrong, and casual enquiries might get back to Phil as equally casual gossip. "You already warned me that there might be difficulties." She smiled at Miela, following the trail of nodes from neck to beneath her breasts. But worth it for the benefits, and that will look so good on me... "Time for the next lesson, Miela?"
"Something different this time," Miela warned as Clare adjusted the headband. "Close your eyes and tell me what you see."
The chequerboard was back, fuzzy in places but overall a comfortable pattern of strong black and clean white. Clare described it as well as she could and Miela demanded to know exactly where the edges were poorly defined. By a process of trial and error, the image became precise.
"The next step can be startling," Miela warned.
“What the...” Clare lurched out of the chair. “Fah.... fah... oh...” She sat back and held on. The chequer pattern had abruptly divided itself – four squares for every one. It was as if the pattern had fled into the distance, fooling her into the momentary certainty that she was thrown backwards.
"Shit. That was…"
"Startling," Miela repeated. "Now, are the edges sharp?"
"Yeah. Looks like it. Glad I was sitting down." Clare recovered her poise. "So, is that good… Shit." The pattern doubled again. "How many more times?"
"Until it becomes fuzzy," Miela said and doubled it again.
Clare held the arms of the chair firmly as each change rolled over. By the fifth one she had her doubts and the sixth was a blur of white flecks in a grey background.
"About what I would expect," Miela told her calmly. "You should be able to resolve that one eventually. A few weeks, maybe. What do you see now?"
Clare swallowed. "Myself. I see me. I've lost weight... Shit, this is making me feel dizzy. Keeps moving."
"Is it clear?"
"Yeah… just… moving." She paused to stare at the image of herself, instinctively moving her head for a better view which made no difference. Tentatively, she brought her hand up to her face and saw the image do the same. "How? This is… what you are seeing?"
"Direct feed from my optical processors," Miela agreed and blanked out the image. "Now relax. Tell me if any of this hurts…"
There was no real pain, just involuntary cries of surprise as images shifted and tumbled unexpectedly. Her own face filled her vision, sharp and focused, enhanced as if brightly lit. A shimmer brought new features to the image, hints of movement following the flow of blood, tiny muscular movements amplified to make them stand out.
"Oh my…" and the view drew back abruptly to encompass the whole room, then dove towards her chest until the weave of her pullover was all she could see. The individual strands melted away until the plane of focus fell beyond the coarse knitting. Swirls of fine lace appeared, poorly resolved into distinct threads, a hint of skin beneath the fabric of her bra.
"False images," Miela assured her. "Your imaging processors are building the information by adding infra-red input and applying standard enhancement algorithms."
"Amazing…" Clare whispered and then clutched the chair again as the world lurched violently to one side. Her sight drew back again and lurched towards her mouth before shifting to pure infra-red, resolving the minute variations of skin temperature.
"With practice, you can tell when people are lying." Miela switched it off and the world turned black. "It will take time to get used to and several weeks work to get the calibration settled properly, but I think Toby can fit the imaging optics tomorrow."
Cranfield nodded. "Not a problem."
Clare opened her eyes. From the tone of his voice, she knew that he was about to leave, learning her life story deferred until another time. That was fine with her on a personal level, but Miela was hiding stuff, and an hour or two of sharing stories might bring things out. It would be a delicate business, weaving truth and lie, never sure how well Miela's optical processor would detect the latter. A carefully edited selection of her recent life, a bit of name-dropping, perhaps a mention of Kyla to see if it got a reaction.
"I thought you wanted to hear about what drives me?"
"Very much so," he said, standing up. "It will probably take an hour or more to fit the imaging system and make sure it tracks properly with your own eye. Plenty of time, then."
Miela also rose. "You should rest now. The processor will be going through the calibration algorithms again. There should be no distressing effects, but I can not guarantee that."
"I will see you in the morning," Cranfield promised, heading for the door. "Good night, Miela."
Miela hesitated before leaving too. "You should think very carefully before accepting the implants. There are drawbacks."
Miela let the door swing shut. "Even if the system performs perfectly, there are problems." She pulled the Thilk down off her shoulders. "Look here," she offered, exposing her breasts and pointing to her left. "Look at the skin."
Clare looked. "You lost some weight?" There were fine wrinkles and thin white cording of mild scar tissue.
"This node here," Miela pointed at her ribs. "Unexpected reaction." She sighed ruefully. "For a week I had one breast larger than yours before they finally suppressed the immune response."
"Ouch." Clare stroked the lightly puckered skin. "Is that the worst?"
Miela tugged the Thilk bodysuit further down. "See the appendix scar?"
"I didn’t think people had them any more…" Clare looked closely at flesh that had been churned up like a ploughed field. "Looks bad."
"Experimental processor module. I have a whole stack of them laced around my intestines. One refused to properly integrate. Three months of surgical intervention before they got all of the connections stabilised. There was so much scarring that this was the best they could do."
Clare stroked two nearby nodes. "Sounds bad."
"It was," Miela assured her, gently pushing her hand aside and pulling the Thilk back into place. "Think carefully before you let them finish."
Clare helped her straighten her clothing until the Thilk clung smoothly. "If you were in my place, would you do it? Knowing what you know?"
Miela gathered her cotton drape. "Yes. I would. Good night..."
Clare was tempted to ask her to stay. Miela was loosening up, and there was so much she could learn from the enhanced operator, but it still felt forced, a performance needing even more rehearsal.
"Good night," Clare conceded – she was not at her best and there was something not quite right about Miela.
# # #
Just after midnight, Clare's terminal chimed with an incoming message. She woke up, briefly disoriented, and then pulled on a light robe before answering. She had no desire to look stupid again in front of Calder. She tapped the accept and her own net rep appeared, blond, perky and awake – bitch.
"We should talk again." The machine ran the rep perfectly.
"In the morning?"
Una hesitated. "There is urgency… but on your timescales... that will suffice."
"And you want to talk in private?" Clare guessed.
"It is advisable. We must discuss the other calls which I monitored."
"I’ll come after my new eye has been fitted."
"I will be waiting. I will find the means to ensure that we are alone."
The screen blanked and Clare stared at it for several minutes. If she had understood correctly, there had been other calls that Phil had made, yet Una had seen fit to lie about it in front of Miela. If the computer distrusted its operator to that extent, then why did it permit her to link to its interfaces? Was that just digital paranoia?
Too many ifs, and not enough answers.
Clare lay down and tried to sleep. The pillow was no help at all this time.
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