New and Improved

Clare stopped screaming as a spreading calm wiped the pain away. The screen in her head was blank, but she could still hear Phil, urging her to cooperate. The words were indistinct, the voice blurred, but she knew what was being said. Very slowly the garble sharpened until she could make out the details.

"Open your eyes, Clare."

That was not Phil’s voice. She was sure... but not quite sure enough.

"This is Doctor Cranfield, Clare. Please open your eyes."

The name meant something, but the memory was buried in a distant past. The Time Before Pain Began. There was an association with eyes but that was so ephemeral it eluded her entirely. Safety lay in remaining still, eyes shut, scarcely daring to breathe.

"Just open your eyes. It’s all over."

What exactly was all over? The very phrasing made her suspicious, more determined than ever to be inconspicuous. Perhaps Phil had lost her. This was a ruse. Make her step out into the open. A betraying movement. What did he expect her to see if she opened her eyes, apart from renewed horror? Besides, she only had one eye until they installed the imaging optics…

"Open your eyes, Clare," the voice that wasn’t Phil repeated softly.

It was definitely a trap. Of course he had lost track of her, but if those imaging systems were there then he could track her that way. The moment she opened her eyes there would be data – a view of where she was. That would be enough information...

"Why won’t she open her eyes?" Another man – another faintly familiar voice.

"Probably afraid." That was the voice she was mixing up with Phil. "So much pain. And now dosed with painkillers up to her… eyeball."

"So just force her eyes open."

The not-Phil voice became angry. "She needs to do this in her own time."

Cranfield now made sense as a name. There were associations and memories. He was the one installing her imaging systems. He had seemed friendly, enough that she was tempted to open her eyes, but not the one which might give her away to Phil.

Which eye was safe? One was her own, the other an implant – so which one would give her position away? Cranfield could have told her, assuming she could trust him, assuming that the voice was really Cranfield.

The memory was jumbled – confused by looking in mirrors and seeing that black patch. Which side had it been on? Did the reflection have her left eye concealed, or was she mentally transposing because it was her own left eye which had gone? Even the memory of pain was uncertain. Niels had ripped her eye out, an unbelievable horror burned into her soul, but the only recollection was of agony. She had no idea which side. From her memory, she couldn’t even place the pain any more specifically than in her head.

"So how long?" That was Bob. She only had a name for that voice, without any knowledge of who or what he was. Arsehole sprang to mind.

"No way to tell."

Clare hesitated and then opened her left eye a fraction, just enough to get an image of three people fuzzed by a tangle of eyelashes. One was a woman in a nurse’s uniform – something about black paint sprang to mind. There was a doctor – presumably Cranfield – silver nodes gleaming on his forehead. The other man had to be the one she identified as Bob and his face did look familiar. My arsehole. But not literally...

None of them was Phil... what did Phil look like?

She closed her eye again.

A woman’s voice. "Perhaps if we left her alone for a while. She needs time to recover. It’s been a bad experience."

"Good idea." Cranfield-not-Phil.

Clare waited, fire around her ribs fading fast but still hot and tight, a memory of pain burned in to her head and now worse that the reality. Wish I could stop breathing entirely. She tried counting breaths, picking off the seconds... Give it a minute before I look... only to lost track as the effort made her tense, hurrying her until she was almost gasping. In desperation she opened her left eye a fraction once more and, at first hazy glimpse, decided that she was alone.

She opened her eye wider and inspected the room without moving her head. In one corner a medical supervisor lurked with its tubes and wires dangling forlornly, fluids still dripping from torn connections. Two chairs occupied the other visible corner. Above them, flush with the ceiling was a surveillance camera...

Clare stared at the small white box with its cluster of lenses no more than an inch across. They were directed at her and sensitive enough to have caught her eye opening. A flicker of light reflected across the black specks.

"The immediate danger is over."

Clare moved her head a fraction, just enough to see the terminal out of the corner of her eye. The face on the screen was so gloriously familiar that she cried out... hush, hush... no noise... Phil might hear. She was back in London, safe in the secure enclave of Lilywhite but he might still get to her.

"The camera is disabled," her rep informed her. "The medical staff will not be aware of your movements until you are ready."

Perhaps not London. "Madame?" Almost, but not quite... Clare turned her head further for a proper look.

"Una," her rep replied. "You are in the medical centre at Coriolis."

Definitely not safe.

Clare froze again. "Phil?" Oh shit that hurts please make it stop and leave me alone... Take a breath. That hardly hurt at all...

Una smiled. And winked. "Current location is undetermined. Doctor Elsworth remains a threat. There is no immediate danger to you." Una offered a saucy flick of the tongue. "You will recall that there were aspects of Doctor Elsworth we were going to discuss."

"Now?" What was that conversation supposed to have been about?

"The situation has changed. I prefer to discuss it where I have full control over the security systems. I am not certain of my control here. Doctor Elsworth has proven adept at manipulation."

"Fine."

Clare sat up awkwardly, ridiculously happy to trust Una. A thick, close-fitting vest stretched from her throat to just above her navel, so tight that it restricted her breathing and stiff enough that it was almost a rigid shell. Around her waist was a broad belt carrying small blocky modules, bound to the vest by wires and tubes...

"Do not remove it," Una said abruptly as she explored the latches. "I have reviewed the logs. The numbvest is maintaining skin anaesthesia."

Maintaining it... yes, oh yes... so much pain gone...

“Right.” Clare stopped fiddling... there was all that stuff about micro-fabricators burrowing and building and... “Bastard. Absolute fucking bastard. Phil turned my loopy juice off...” Forget his crap about playing with the balance of medication. “Bastard turned it off...” And he said so clearly that the pain was real, that her body was truly being harmed. Not real harm. Medical harm. Still hurt... “Bastard.”

Clare swung her legs off the bed and stood up. That was a mistake. Her balance was poor, knees weak and co-ordination vague. She rested the backs of her legs against the bed, almost tumbling, waiting for equilibrium. The numbvest restricted her movements, exacerbating her problems. She took a few determined steps. The wall was closer than she thought – only having one eye ruined her depth perception. She had begun to cope – before – but that new skill was gone again.

"Is it safe to open my eye?" She hovered uncertainly over the terminal. "Will Phil be able to track me?"

"Unknown. I have isolated all data interfaces at your current location. That should be sufficient."

Clare opened her right eye and found that it made no difference. The imaging system was not active and the virtual screen in her head was no longer there.

"It doesn’t work."

Una smiled again and Clare frowned in irritation at the limited, inappropriate range of expressions built into the rep. "Your processors were interfaced to the medical supervisor. I offer the conjecture that Doctor Elsworth used that as the access point. You will need Doctor Cranfield to properly initialise your systems."

"Later." Clare decided on reflex. "I need some clothes." The numbvest was all she was wearing. "I can’t walk around like this."

"Analysis of skin coverage indicates that you are within the bounds of Thilk fashions."

"That’s different. Besides, the Thilk keeps you warm. My arse is getting cold."

There was a small drawer unit beside the bed. It hadn’t been within her range of vision until she was standing. The pain was now gone... really... just a bad memory digging its claws in, so she could bend, and crouch, within the limits of the numbvest and wobbly knees – it made no difference, the drawers were empty. They had put her clothes somewhere else. Clare sat down on the edge of the bed, lost for a way forward.

She remembered Cranfield, after a fashion. He had seemed like a friend. Bob now had a context – her boss, a hopeless case who hadn’t seen the real world in ten years. So, the arsehole she worked for. Not so bad. She had nothing to fear from either of them, so all she had to do was use the terminal to call them. It was safe and easy, but the terror and pain still lurked. It might all start again. That was nuts. Irrational. But if it did...

"Una, can you contact Doctor Cranfield directly for me? Through his nodes. Just tell him to bring me some clothes. I don’t want to see anyone else."

The bimbo on the screen smiled again. "Done."

Clare shuffled awkwardly around the room – movement was good, and made her feel better. The pain was gone – really great - but the absence was like an elusively peripatetic itch. Her body knew that there were things wrong; the blocked nerve impulses were a gap that her mind tried to fill in.

Cranfield walked through the door.

"Shit..." Clare froze, her heart-beat thundered and the constriction of the numbvest was suddenly unbearable. "I... " He paused in the door and silently offered her a pair of brilliant orange Stellex leggings and clashing jacket, bulky enough to fit over the numbvest. "Thanks."

"Feeling better?"

She took the clothing. "Better than what? I feel like shit. How should I feel?" Except numb in all the right places...

Cranfield judged her mental state and retreated to the corner to sit in a chair, a non-threatening pose. "There will be a certain degree of physical exhaustion. It’s likely that the emotional strain will be the greatest. I imagine that the pain would have been quite severe."

She sat down, trying to pull the leggings on. "It fucking hurt. " That was the best she had. It was as bad as... felt like... I thought I was going to... the rest of the words were missing in her head.

She held the leggings, seeking help, hands shaking too much to dress herself. Too afraid to ask.

"Yes, I suppose it did." Cranfield scratched his ear. "I would recommend counselling in a few days." He scratched again, a silly mannerism. "It will help."

"If I live that long." She concentrated on getting one foot through the concertinaed Stellex leggings. The constriction of the numbvest made it difficult. "Shit..."

"Do you need a hand?"

Clare shook her head vigorously. "I’m fine." He was probably a friend, but the endless pain had left her in need of certainty, not probability.

"Fine. No rush."

With a determined contortion, she forced her foot through. She relaxed after the exertion. "What happened?" She wanted to know. Maybe. Knowing was scary... "What went wrong?" She shut her eyes tight, squeezing out the world. She knew the answer. Couldn't ask the real question. How could you let him? "How was he... able to do it?" Her fingers were buried in the mattress.

Cranfield folded his hands carefully together and sent a cautionary message to the nurse waiting in the corridor with a tranquilliser. "I don’t know."

I do. Bastard. Have to ask... "How could you let him do it?" She twisted her fingers into the bed sheet. "How?"

"Because he outwitted us, Clare." Cranfield struggled for explanations. "More than that. Because we had no idea... no idea. We had no reason to suspect anything."

"You should have." Crazy. Nuts. Irrational... no... She had known that there was something wrong with Phil.

"You want help with that?" he asked again, pointing to the dangling Stellex.

"I can fucking manage," she growled and determinedly proved she couldn’t.

"Try not to strain too much," he advised once it was obvious she couldn’t bend far enough.

"Well fucking help then."

"Of course." He kept his face straight as he guided her foot through the other side of the leggings and then steadied her as she stood up. "The best thing to do now is rest."

She glowered at him. "The best thing to do now is find Phil and...” There was an answer... she had it not so long ago... in the pain place... “Rip his balls off." She hitched the leggings up to her waist and pushed his hands away.

"Psychologically, it might help..." He sounded doubtful. "Physically, you’re not up to it. Even without the pain, the work that the microfabricators are doing is placing a significant strain on your body. They derive the raw materials from you. The numbvest has been set up to provide some of those resources – and the ones not normally available from human tissue. There will still be a significant drain. Eating for two as the obstetrics folks say."

She sat down again. The pain was over. Never coming back. Honest. Not just wishful thinking. There were more important things to worry about – such as getting to Mars.

"And what about Phil?"

"Security are looking for him. It's their job."

"They won’t find him." She had no evidence to back that up, just intuitive certainty. Phil had been underestimated at every step. "I need to talk to Bob." Her ticket off Earth was under threat. She could face Critchley now. Look the arsehole in the face... OK, that wasn’t fair, but the thought felt good.

Cranfield grimaced and scratched his ear again. "He is eager to talk to you. I would advise against it until tomorrow. You really do need to rest at the moment."

"Sorry, Doc. It has to be Bob." Bob was safe. No threat. Had to talk to him. No reason for her belly to be churning. "And soon."

"Your decision," he grumbled, standing up. "I’ll tell him. Do you want your new eye switched on first?"

"Later." She wasn’t ready for that yet.

# # #

Clare had regained composure by the time Bob walked in. The memory of pain was becoming less immediate; the feeling of helplessness fading. Except... Every unexpected noise was a jolt, the surprise of being woken from a doze.

"You OK?" Bob was awkward.

"Good enough." A sharper reply was on her tongue. "The doc says I’m knackered for anything physical so you have to track Phil."

His eyes went wide; his voice tight. "Not really my... my... expertise."

Arsehole. She closed her eyes for a count of five. "Assume he is linked to the cyberwar. Assume he really was trying to destroy Una – and is probably still trying. Go and talk to Una. Figure out what he’s doing and how he’s going to do it. Nail the bastard."

"There are too many uncertainties," he complained. "Too much I don’t know about Phil."

"Ask Una. I imagine she knows. Or Miela."

Bob wavered. "And then?"

"Depends if we find him." She shook her head to clear a nagging sense of overlooking the obvious. "Until we know where Phil is then neither of us is safe."

"I’ll go back to Una…" his voice trailed away.

"Bob? What’s wrong?"

He was up and already out of the door. "I left Miela with Una," he called back. "Una doesn't trust her…"

Clare shook her head. "Una? You still there?"

"I have been observing," the terminal announced and the familiar DigiTart rep appeared. "I have failed to understand Bob’s motivations."

"Ask Madame," Clare suggested with a spark of inspiration. "That’s what they designed her for."

"I have not fully decided to trust Madame."

A bitter laugh. "Probably wise. Well, I don’t fully understand him but... He’s a little boy who likes puzzles. He doesn’t understand the real world." She giggled abruptly. "I think I introduced him to sex. That’s hasn’t helped much..."

"He shows an unstable nature."

"One way of putting it... Slightly nuts, unlike Phil who is seriously and nastily nuts. Who sent the authorisation for my surgery?"

"A fully authenticated package was sent by Calder Lilywhite."

"Fake."

Jeremiah still didn’t have permission to ride. If Calder had given the go-ahead then at the very least he would have sent that message along with the authentication – unless Phil had deliberately suppressed it, fearing a hidden message for Clare. The possible irony failed to be amusing.

"What was the server ident?" Clare asked, sure that any message from Calder would be routed through Madame. The Jeremiah code might be buried in the meta-data.

"There was no server identification offered."

"That doesn’t sound right." Clare tried to concentrate but exhaustion and medication were catching up with her. The numbvest was getting heavier and tighter, crushing her into slumber. "Calder would tell Madame to send it. So... the document had to have been faked. Somehow, Phil can fake security seals and authentication codes, but not Madame’s idents."

"Unlikely," Una countered. "The required processing power would be enormous. I am the only system available here which could perform the task. I can offer no certainty that I could do it. Furthermore, the conjecture is offered that the capability to falsify the seals and codes would also allow the server ident to be falsified. This is not consistent."

Clare persisted. "But if I told you how to do it? What if I did have access to the Lilywhite cypher keys?"

"Then it would be possible to falsify the message, but insufficient to falsify the server ident. I offer the conjecture that you believe Doctor Elsworth had access to the cypher keys."

"You bet." She rubbed her eyes in an increasingly futile attempt to stay awake. "Now how the hell did he get hold of that sort of information? He must have had a very competent spy working for him. Someone who could break in without being noticed and steal some of the most closely guarded data."

"I will analyse the possibilities," Una offered. "I still require time for a truly private discussion with you. At present, access of your medical file shows that sleep is urgently recommended."

Clare could have lain down on the bed where she was, but there were too many unfortunate associations. Regardless of the long walk, she decided to go back to the room in the accommodation complex.

"Wake me when you have something." She settled her Stellex jacket more comfortably over the numbvest. "I’ll be back in my room."

"Doctor Cranfield will escort you," Una replied.

"Kind of him."

"I have not informed him yet."

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