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Clare pressed her shoulders against the lift wall – it didn’t help with the pain. The script didn’t notice – go to Kernal Kombat. That was simple enough – dig into the local systems, add a few tweaks to the existing hack... the tiniest lurch as they moved.. and then the lift stopped. That was not supposed to happen.
“Get on with it.” Phil missed the point. “On a timetable. Move...”
“Can’t.” The script nagged in the background, falling, drowning, starving, freezing... and let her alone once she repeated the override of the lift, which again ignored her. “Fault. There’s a fault.”
“Fix... right...” The script found a generic what-if section, just do as you are told. An indifferent round of falling, drowning, starving, freezing... reinforced the point, but it felt like the script wasn’t really trying this time. “Give me a minute.”
There wasn’t a minute – the script was already behind schedule. Clare tried to breathe, but that wasn’t working so well either – ribs went one way, microfabricators the other, pulling on nerves in their own game of tug-o-war. Her processors could make contact with the lift and gather diagnostics, but her aggressive and efficient intrusion met a determined and agile defence.
“There...” Not perfect, but they were rising again, at a snail’s pace. “Countermeasures. Can’t really override.” Fire tightened around her ribs as the lift stopped again, one floor up.
How was a girl supposed to think with ants burrowing along her ribs? “Can’t tell...” And master hacker Phil could do this stuff himself. With both mechanical eyes shut. The malign code she’d introduced into the system gave him access... but he wouldn’t use it, for some reason. “I... trying again.”
Clare saw Miela glance at her without interest, and then look again, recognising familiar symptoms of suffering. Phil was the expert in inflicting pain, but Miela matched him for enduring it, and bending it to her own use. The look became a stare – that’s trouble, and Clare matched her – are you a going to rat me out?
"It shouldn’t be taking so long." Phil tested the doors – power-assist from his DerMesh warped the metal, but failed to get the doors to open again. "Clare, ask Madame about the delay."
Just do as you are told... "Madame?" Her voice was hoarse – surely those bastard micro-fabricators didn’t hurt so much last time... Shallow breaths. Slow breaths. Come on Madame... talk...
Miela was now staring intently.
"How may I help you, Clare?"
Help, help, it’s fucking Phil... No good.
Falling. Drowning Feet trapped. Hands tied. In the dark...
Ribs on fire... The real pain eroded the fake until it was as thin as porcelain, but still not enough. Help me now... can’t hold out until something breaks...
"Lift is slow. Is there a problem?" She stared up directly into a camera. Come on, see me, see something wrong.
"I am sorry Clare.” Madame sounded like a helpline. In fact, Clare had used that exact tone when talking to unhappy clients at Hunter’s Casino. “We have a security breach with indications of hostile incursion.” Good evening, sir, how may I help... I am so sorry to hear that your chosen companion has sunk her teeth into your cock... “All lifts which connect to sensitive floors have been immobilised." Can you get your fingers in and prise her jaw open... no...? Please hold whilst I transfer you to our medical advice team... Madame had the tone perfect. “Security teams are working to restore normal operations.” Please remain calm, sir, whilst our experts attempt to restore your normal blood-flow...
“How...” Clare swallowed – a line of fire was reaching up her spine, a fountain of hell spraying up beyond the reach of the numbvest. “How long?” That’s what they all asked on the casino helpline, one way or another.
"Clare looks ill," Miela said quietly but clearly, and Phil turned his full attention on her.
He moved with blinding speed, reflexes only possible with DerMesh implants and powerful processors. Clare was pinned against the wall and he inspected the controls of her numbvest.
The speed, the savagery... where did he hide the power-cells?
"I said get smart, not clever...” Phil got so far in her face that all she could see was his bug-eye glasses. “This is just desperate." He suddenly unleashed a digital onslaught against the lift and surrounding systems until he found a weakness. The doors opened hesitantly, fighting back, but once the gap was wide enough he shoved Clare out into an unlit corridor. "Suck on this, bitch...”
Phil forced a flood of instructions into Clare’s processors, new programs pouncing, gathering up existing routines and chewing... The carefully crafted fears were now jumbled with doubts. Burning.... really, where am I...? falling... you sure...? drowning... did I leave the door open...? starving... wait, just give me a moment...
Phil propelled her along the corridor and into another lift which was currently working. Clare slumped in the corner as it rose one level. She could barely concentrate and stared blankly... where am I...? what is that...? is that my hand?
Phil overrode door controls in spite of them having learned to fight back from his last victims.
"Out." He hauled her to her feet and pushed her forward out of the lift. "And stay put." That command gathered the conditioning around itself. Stay, or fall. Stay, or burn. Stay, or drown. The doors closed behind her. Stay, or... what was that again?
The pain was becoming a match for the previous time, when Phil had disconnected the anaesthetic. Can do this, can do this... can’t I? Way back then... yesterday...? she had endured the agony and defused a bomb. It was appalling now, severe enough to make it difficult to think and the only escape was activity, which Phil had denied her. Feet trapped. Hands tied. And the boys are coming, big, bad, brutal boys, coming to play... Seconds crawled by like hours. Choking. Drowning. Hands pressing down. Twist and squeeze. Pull and tear. Burn... The pain in her ribs grew beyond any endurance. Can't move. Can't breathe. Can't speak. Need to move. Need it. Need it to make the pain stop. Please let me scream...
The tipping point, pain so deep and all-encompassing that she had to move. Choking. No. Breathing. Moving. Hands tied. Not tied. Got to move. Drowning. No, swimming free... Nothing that the software hinted at could be any worse that what she had. Afraid of moving. Need to move. The tooth-grinding balance tipped in her favour.
If only she could...
Her scream was swallowed by the corridor, too much space for so little noise, but it was out. So, so out, and so much better... And again, just because it felt so good.
Clare moved, a random crawling along the floor as the evenly matched torments fought for supremacy. Foot stuck – hands move. Can't breathe – can cough... shit, that hurts. Hands tied – feet are free. Phil’s generalised terror drove her back, flesh-gnawing robots around her ribs drove her forwards. The conflict turned steadily in favour of the microfabricators, uncaringly churning her flesh. It was the greater pain. Moving made it bearable. The worse it got... move now...
Just scream again... so, so good...
She found a wall and pressed herself against it. There were no lights and few heat sources, so even her infra-red capability offered almost nothing to navigate by. She dragged herself upright, pressed against the wall, fingers clawing upwards, every movement was pain, and exactly what she needed. Finally standing, she tried to walk, lurching and stumbling from one wall to another, each impact offering another useful source of discomfort, a distraction from the burning, burrowing around her ribs, another competing torment to confound the script. She kept going – there had to be another lift.
Wait. Stand still a moment. Shallow breaths, one, two, three, then deep breath, all the way, pushing against the pain until it was the whole world and scream... damn that was good... and hear the echo. A real echo, from the far end of the corridor. A proper scream at last.
The infra-red still showed nothing – the signature was too diffuse – but the sophisticated optics of her new eye found something... so, so faint... right on the edge... enhancement modes switched in and out...
Fuzzy infra-red was overlaid with sharp images in false colour – clean lines of light, bright and straight, painting the form of the corridor, offices, a stack of chairs pinning the door open on an empty room... and there, something caught her attention, a pattern that meant something important. Enhancement routines searched through their options, seeking a match for her intuition – a jumble of possibilities that meant nothing until she saw the edges of a door. More than that, she saw double doors, but narrow... another lift, a way out.
Closer to, the infra-red smudge was a comms terminal and lift call button. The panel lit up, a sharp moment of pain in her right eye – just a whimper this time, not enough to need a scream – until the optics adjusted from low-light enhancement. The lift display offered a standard error message – <Unit not functioning correctly. Please try another.>
Clare tripped the lift-call.
A perky chime announced the lift, but the doors stayed shut. The steady churning of her nerve-endings by the micro-fabricators stopped coherent thought. She talked herself through the logic with painful slowness.
"There are no lights in the corridor… there are no people… the lift does not open… the comms do not work." Need to scream... She took a deep breath and let rip with everything she had. The area is sealed off. Disused.
Clare thumped the lift-call in frustration and the doors opened. That was wrong... she fell to her knees, and crawled in anyway. The controls were labelled for operational areas, not floor levels. The Kernel Kombat suite was not listed. The one sure destination in mind, not there, not mentioned... just think a minute... but pain and coherent thought did not go together. She picked a floor at random.
The doors closed but the lift refused to move and the small display above the controls showed an error message. Clare hit it twice with no effect. She was now trapped in a malfunctioning lift. It was as if a cloud of entropy was following her, corrupting every system she came close to.
“Oh...” She slumped to the floor. “Fuck.” Chaos and failure. Everywhere she went. A cloud of confusion... “Bastard Phil...” He had packed her with a new load of hostile code as he pushed her out of the lift, something that now leveraged her processors to hack into local systems and corrupt them indiscriminately, leaving a glaring trail of damage. Clare Farral, Executive Diversion.
"What’s my status?" she whispered as the lights went out in the lift.
The virtual screen popped up, countdown still running, more than eighteen minutes since her anaesthetic had run out. She didn’t care enough to cancel it. The familiar list of processors and connections scrolled up, followed by a new list – hazard alerts and general warnings, frantic countermeasures dying as soon as they emerged. The cortical interface was picking up on the pain reports from her ribs and the ongoing disturbance of brain chemistry. The nascent subdermal mesh was supposed to protect her and signals were being sent to the processors to identify the problem.
What would Kyla say? You’re fucking screwed, girl.
"Shut everything down," she muttered and saw the words echoed. That’s what Kyla would say next. Switch it off and on again. See if that fixes it.
<System: Insufficient authority.> The lift lights came back on – that was just random, right? Not her processors waving a digital finger?.
"Bastard machine…" <You know there’s something wrong. Just shut down.>
<System: Insufficient authority.> Another dozen kamikaze countermeasures went screaming into the digital night, icons blossoming in her head like popped corn. Bastard processors knew there was a problem and just kept throwing the same inadequate responses at it.
"Not enough pain." Kyla would have called that a good thing. I can still feel it burning, Clare. Kyla’s flash-over burns went deep in places, with all sorts of wacky nerve damage. I’d do almost anything to make it stop. "And too much. Bet this bastard thing in my head would shut down if I was in real shit..." Phantom pain. Can’t stop it... I just get Jaz to waggle my power connector when it gets bad... fucking stings, but the phantom shit goes away...
Clare fumbled with the control belt for the numbvest, disconnecting the tubes and fibres from the vest itself. Get a grip, get a grip... push there... unlock you piece of crap... There was no need for any of it at the moment, but she left the vest on – the building was too chilly. The control belt had to go, that was in the way, and... There... gotcha... ohhh... The skin around her navel was pink, shading to bruised where the power socket had been installed. No one had mentioned how to gain access to it yet – Cranfield had promised to tell her later and now he was dead.
Promises, promises... Kyla, tell me this is going to work.
Clare probed carefully with her fingers. Need steady hands for this... Deep, aching pain gouged like bad burger and flies when she poked too hard. Piece of piss, hardly feel a thing... Then she placed a finger either side and pressed. Give me a blue-bottle bap...
Suck deep, scream loud, no build up or countdown. Suck in, scream again, clench teeth and..
A gut-wrenching cramp tore through her, triggering an involuntary tensing of her muscles. Her new navel sphincter opened a fraction in response, a moist pink orifice winked and vanished.
Scream, and scream again.
Harry’s Kebab Van, an E. coli and salmonella wrap, the two-for-one special, a hot knife cutting deep into her guts. The orifice opened again and the power connector eased out, the sharp tearing pain ramping up, blossoming into the rough scouring of grit against delicate flesh. A tiny trickle of blood welled out to run down to the waistband of her leggings. Nothing had prepared her for this – nothing she had experienced had been so personal and intense.
Not even Harry’s Van.
Clare gripped the power connector with her fingertips. The script didn’t care – so much to do, no time left, and every what-if branch led nowhere. Do what you want. Just do as you’re told, or else there will be...
"Just… pull it out," she whispered. "Just do it."
Five deep breaths, quick and desperate, before she closed her eyes and... failed to do anything. It should have been so simple, twist and pull. Easy. No different from not replacing an anaesthetic cartridge, right? Just a bit of pain. Nothing new.
"You can do it. Twist and pull. Easy. Can do this. Nothing they can’t fix later…"
She opened her eyes again, focusing on her escape plan – tearing out that connector would either panic the system into shutting down, or the pain would allow her to override the insidious constraints Phil had imposed.
Or I bleed to death before help arrives...
Just twist and pull, almost no effort required… but it’s so going to... sting a bit... hold on to Kyla’s words... just sting a bit... so pull... just twist... can't...
Teeth clenched. Just twist. More... more.. snatch a breath... keep going... don't scream... yet... tearing... burning... ohshitfuck... twist...
<System: Power system integrity threatened. Level one warning.>
"One of my programs is causing it." Clare huffed desperately, watching the words echo on the screen. The power connector was slippery in her fingers. Don’t scream yet, need to breathe and talk... "Shut everything down. Emergency reboot. Whatever."
<System: Verifying analysis… not confirmed. Reboot is not authorised.>
Clare sucked a gulp of air. Twist again. And go. Just do it. Twist. Scream a bit. Not too much... And pull. Ohshitfuck. Twist...
<System: Power system integrity threatened. Hazard repeat within short interval. Level two warning.>
"Program causing it," Clare hissed. "Reboot now." She kept a light grip on the connector. Breathe. Again. Breathe. Answer you bastard.
<System: Analysis not confirmed. Reboot is not authorised. Anomalous performance detected. Level two warning.>
"Fucking virus in the system," she screamed and twisted again.
<System: Power system integrity threatened. Hazard repeat within short interval. Level two warning.>
"Virus in the system." Twist. Can't. Pull. Can't. Scream. Too tired.
<System: Analysis confirmed. High probability of hostile code. Attempting to isolate. Level four warning.>
"Fucking reboot you bastard." Twist. No. Hurts. Twist. Scream. Ohshitfuck...
She lost her grip.
<System: Power system integrity threatened. Hostile code present. Emergency reboot instruction accepted.>
Clare lifted her fingers carefully away from the power connector. She was so focused on the shaking of her hand that she missed the hardware easing back into its hiding place. The sharp agony faded to a steady burning irritation. The virtual screen in her head vanished, like a background noise suddenly gone silent, and the world shifted as her digital eye stopped.
She raised her hand unsteadily to wipe away the smear of tears decorating her cheeks. Every breath was ragged with the effort. She curled up, wrapping herself tightly around the focus of her power connector.
<Core system restart...> Released from her interference, the lift started moving upwards. <Errors found...> When the doors opened she was on an unfamiliar floor, brightly lit and full of activity. <System intrusion identified...> People stared at the wild apparition; Clare moved her head enough to stare back. <Erasing suspect files....>
“Why don’t you all go fuck off...?” No! Don’t say that... please, someone, help me... But they were backing away, there were emergency announcements in the background...
She uncurled enough to reach out, and their backing away became desperate retreat, with urgent voices, call security, but all too busy saving themselves to actually call. Clare rolled over, looked up, and reached for the lift controls... too high, too far... but push, reach, claw upwards... until she was on her knees, nose pressed against the display... select destination.
<Reboot complete.> And her digital eye started its calibration cycle from the beginning. Clare tumbled backwards, right eye filled with hot, white pain, fizzing on top of the fire around her ribs, echoing down to a wrenching ache in her belly.
The lift chimed for attention. Select destination.
Nothing to see, nothing to select, just white flare and tears. Nothing to do except wait for it to stop... and there it was, two images, a return to nausea... and then perfect. The interface and processors had to start from scratch, but her head remembered how to talk to the hardware.
She clawed herself upright and stared at the lift controls again, tears clouding both eyes as the tearing in her belly renewed itself. Select destination. If only the choices on the list meant something. Kernal Kombat was the place to be, or maybe DigiTart. Something familiar.
“Operations. Take me to fucking Operations.” That had to be important. Something central. Probably full of twitchy and aggressive security teams... that would do. “Now. Go.”
"Where is Philip Elsworth?" Madame demanded as the doors closed.
# # #
“Madame? How the hell could you lose her?” Medway flicked through the security video feeds – the ones that mattered were dead. “She was in a bloody lift.”
“The building is experiencing multiple failures. I am able to prevent contamination spreading to adjacent systems.”
“Right. Show me...” No need to even ask what Kyla would say... “Not the pictures – just the location of the interference.” Pay attention, Medway. Senior officers talk crap about the big picture. Forget it. Look for the outline, not the picture. “There. Map that disruption. Like a worm...” Look at the street, Medway. A shed-load of people, good, bad, ordinary... now look at the bastards moving together. See the dippers working. And that bastard leaning out that window... “See that... crawling along... down that shaft... along that corridor. You’re patching up behind it... so look where the head’s going. A little worm of chaos. Let’s call it Clare. Or Phil.”
“Target is now stationary.” Madame played the sequence, a wire grid of the building plagued by a drifting chaos worm – a fuzzy blob marking failed systems, leading a fading trail as self-repair and recovery systems patched up the damage. “Best estimate locates the source in this service space.” The building plan zoomed in, gaining detail, filling the display with a tangle of service ducts and maintenance spaces. “All points of access register as sealed, but my data is not reliable.”
Medway stroked and pinched, turning the display, exploring the virtual crime scene. Big picture, small picture or outline, none of it helped.
“Unless... here.” The building moved sideways. “There’s a lift shaft... lots of connected devices back here in the service spaces, very little in every other direction. If the source was in the lift... the apparent centre of disruption might well be that service space... We just need to see what’s happening.”
“Dispatching security personnel.”
Medway flicked through more video feeds – a team of three, lightly armed, coming down the western lift shaft; two heavily armoured troops jogging up the emergency stairs from three levels below; a lone officer harrying a maintenance tech to open a disabled door mere meters from where the trouble lay.
“The lift is in motion,” Madame said, and the graphics showed the disruption evaporating. “Communications not yet available.”
“Clare or Phil?” Medway cycled through the camera feeds again, one blank screen after another. “Which one? Come on... There!” A corridor, people moving, heading for a bunker room in the building core. “Lift door open... That’s Clare, right? How does this thing zoom? How about sound?” The sounds of panic, and then... Why don’t you all go fuck off... “That’s Clare...”
Clare, on the floor, struggling, floundering...
“Is she hurt...?”
On her knees. Reaching for the buttons...
“No... Clare... don’t do that...”
And the doors closing.
“Officer Medway...” Madame cleared the screens to show a single image, Clare in the lift, hanging on. “I have communications...”
# # #
Hurts... Clare wrapped her arms around her chest, squeezing the numbvest – the gnawing pain remained constant. Really fucking hurts.
"Where is Philip Elsworth?" Madame repeated and Clare looked round, for a moment expecting to find someone else in the lift.
Madame... Oh, to be able to hug a digital voice... "Don’t know." Help me. Hurts. Really hurts. "He dumped me.” Bound to happen. Always going to break up... just want to break him a bit more... “I think he went back down."
"Systems failures were noted," Madame continued. "Can you explain?"
"Yeah… Later.” Don’t want to talk about it. “Much later. After I... Later. What’s Phil after?" Help me.
A new voice joined in. "That’s what I want to know."
"Wake up, woman. You seem to know this bastard better than anyone. What’s he after? Current best guess is that he’s going to blast Madame and then drop down to take out Kernel Kombat. Probably after Critchley as well."
Leave me alone. "Uh… trying to… think…" Really hurts. Wasn’t this bad last time. Couldn’t have been.
The lift stopped and the doors opened on the familiar foyer of the DigiTart offices. Home... Clare stared for a moment and then stumbled out. A nearby pillar provided some support. She was recovering but not nearly fast enough. The damage to her power connector was no more than a sharp ache, swamped by the fire wrapped around her ribs. The anaesthetic had to be long since exhausted – surely that pain couldn’t get any worse?
Maybe there’s time to get back down to the medical suite...
"Please proceed to the restricted lift," Madame instructed, but Clare remained clinging to her pillar.
What the hell is Phil after?
"He wanted me...” Breathe, not too deep... “Wanted. Get him to...to...” She hammered her knee against the pillar... imagine that’s Phil... “Kernel Kombat suite…" The things he did. The things he said. There was a pattern. "He isn’t after...” Knee to pillar, smack, smack, smack... a new pain to distract from incendiary ribs... “Not Madame or Kombat. What matters... winning the war... win... but no damage... right...? No damage. He... ohshitfuck...” Her eye went crazy, flicking through options, infra-red, ultra-violet, extreme zoom... and suddenly blank whilst that eight percent of sub-dermal mesh did a radio-frequency mapping of the corridor. “What was I saying...? Phil... never wanted this... not a fire-fight. Whoever picks up the pieces... wants everything working. But I screwed it up for him and now... he’s winging it."
"So he only needs to hit Critchley," Medway said with satisfaction.
"No." That broke the pattern. "Probably wants him...” This was supposed to have been Bob all along... “Wants alive as well." What’s the target? Something important, something that doesn't need to be replaced... "Shit... if Calder is killed and Kombat… just disabled..." She lurched away from the pillar. "Get me to Calder."
She wove her way to the restricted lift. Just want to scream... now...
The doors opened. Clare was already moving forwards, too wrapped up in holding on to register the other occupants.
Phil punched her, just over her heart, slightly to the left of her sternum. "Full of surprises." The numbvest, otherwise useless without the control belt, absorbed some of the impact but didn’t dull the sound of cracking ribs. The pain rose another notch and she slammed into the doors behind her. "Move her out of the way."
Miela did as she was told, now wearing the gloves and helmet with her Coriolis security body armour, utterly incongruous under her medical smock. Clare would have screamed, but the grinding of her broken ribs reduced it to a whimper. Phil ignored her.
"Accept it," Miela whispered. "I will help you adjust. It can be good if you let it."
"No." She meant to shout, but it came out as a whisper. Can’t even scream any more...
"Phil is all that matters." Miela stood up.
He’s here, Clare screamed in her head and the words hauled the virtual screen into being to write themselves in a bold font. <HE’S HERE.> She shouted some more. <STOP THE LIFT.>
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