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- Ben & Sebastian
Medway ran her checklist – everything known about Elsworth, everything to be tracked down, leads to follow. The sun had long since set and finally there was nothing more that could be done at Cyberline. The profile on Elsworth was as perfect as their records allowed and there were no obvious links with other staff who left at the same time. Nor was there anything exceptional about close colleagues who had stayed.
Once upon a time, coppers did all this stuff manually on computers and tablets. Or paper, in the ancient days...
<Medway: Hi Porson, here it is – rest of the information. // file transfer//>
<Porson: I wanted a report, not a fucking novel.>
<Medway: Just read the summary.>
"Dinner?" Francesca suggested hopefully.
Medway nodded. "Porson is sending a car round – they’ve stood your body-guard down, but you get a police driver until this is over. I need to drop into the station – report in, change clothes." Her hostess for the evening looked relieved, and barely registered above All Cool, but then a cybercop could lower the tone of the neighbourhood, even out of the armour,.
"Not Lameduck, I hope. No offence meant, but I never want to ride in that car again."
"It kept us alive." The sort of thing that could make a friend for life, if cars made friends. "I miss it. I only had it for a day, but I got fond of its funny little ways."
"Like the door."
"Like the door," Medway agreed. "Transport has arrived…"
Medway hesitated before stepping out of the building, and noticed Tarbuck pretending not to notice. I want my armour back. As a matter of reflex she had queried the status and got the hardware not present warning. That was another joke nightmare from her training. Turn up for work and everyone is staring – hardware not present was beyond mere naked.
The car was designed to be automatic, but there was a driver since not enough of the traffic management systems were running. He released the door latches and spared them each a brief glance. Medway expected the usual disdain of the cybercop for those who had chosen to take promotion out of the suit, but the man was an ordinary copper. His only enhancements were a pair of standard comms nodes on his forehead.
"To the station?" he asked for confirmation. "Then Ms Tarbuck’s private residence?"
"Yeah. Private residence." Don’t you get pissy with me about chauffeuring a civilian. <Medway: And show some respect. Important witness that someone might still try to kill.>
There was no reply so she sent her video records of the last seconds of the fight – helicopters rising out of the darkening horizon and the hail of bullets coming in. <Medway: Drive on.>
There was a heavy police presence on the streets, primarily to keep the traffic under control as the nets were brought back on line. The driver made no attempt at conversation – too concerned that an avenging squadron of aerial gunships might pop up at any moment.
“Feels tense out here...” Tarbuck couldn’t help staring at the cybercop patrols, the armoured carriers, the whole world-gone-to-shit vibe. “Not seen anything like since I was...”
“A kid?” Medway did her own staring – cybercops, armed and armoured, ready for action, not her patch but still her team. “I was seven when the xxxx riots kicked off. Three gangs trying to turn the enclave into their own fucking kingdom. Cops by the busload coming in to set them straight.” Scary enough until local officers came by and spread the word – keep your bloody heads down. “The good old days.” The best reason in the world to find a job inside the armour.
“Bad old days.” Tabuck hunched in the seat as they pulled into the secure inner yard at the police headquarters. “Thought that was over. For good.”
“So did I.” Medway stepped out and watched the car moved off to take Francesca Tarbuck home. Past the guard point, under the automated heavy-cal guns, through the armoured gates... crash bollards emerging from the ground immediately after. Those full crisis protocols were a routine just easing off when Medway first joined.
The police station was calmer, although still obviously overcrowded with the additional officers brought in, currently buzzing with shift-change activity. Crates and boxes were stacked haphazardly along corridors – stores cleared out to provide temporary accommodation.
“Medway! Here!” Porson forced his way through a group of officers gathering for the duty briefing. “Come through. Super’s waiting to see you."
“Evening, sarge...” Medway knew the way.
Porson walked stiffly. "Slow down. My battery charge is getting low." He struggled to fall into step beside her. "And stop pissing off the drivers. I don’t care if the poor bastard deserved it or not – scare the crap out of them when traffic control is down and they’ll run into something."
"Sorry Sarge. Time of the month."
Porson briefly accessed the station medical database. "What time would that be, Medway?"
"The day after I’ve been shot at."
Superintendent Varec looked more worn than the last time she had seen him. He gestured her to a seat and waited until Porson withdrew.
"A good piece of work, Medway," he said tiredly. "And valuable. The team looking at CyberLine in detail are interested, but we need to know more about this Elsworth character. Sergeant Porson has suggested sending you to Coriolis."
"Fine by me, sir."
He rested his hands on the desk to steady the nervous flutter that the medics couldn’t cure. "He suggested it was suitable for an officer on light duties. I am not so sure. The evidence is that Elsworth might be exceedingly dangerous and it is not feasible to provide you with armour."
Medway suppressed a shiver. "I know the risk, sir." And I want my armour back.
"There are two schools of thought on this, Medway. The approved procedure is to recommend a period of counselling before returning you to active duty. The traditional is to throw you back in and see how you cope." He pursed his lips. "If this is becoming a private vendetta against the killers of Kyla Chamile, then I want to know about it."
Medway opened her mouth to lie, but surely he would still have basic shit-sieve packages of his own. "I think it is, sir." No point trying to beat voice-stress analysis.
"Thank you, Medway. It’s been a long day and I suspect we are both too tired to lie convincingly. If you want Elsworth, then the assignment is yours. If the bastard is responsible for an attack on a police station, I want his hide nailed to the wall."
She slumped gratefully. "I’ll take it."
"Porson will see to the details. Be careful Medway, and bring Elsworth back well enough for proper questioning. If possible." He caught her eye, a nasty gleam lurking in his gaze. "The government has declared a state of emergency under the Protection of Commerce Act. This mess looks a lot worse than it is, so the emergency regs won’t last more than a few days, but they give us significantly wider powers. Porson will provide you with a coded message for the Commissioner. Any Commissioner or deputy. It should provide you with all the backup you need. Right… get gone."
She rose and walked to the door. "Thanks."
"That's premature, Medway. See what you find at the far end."
Porson was in the control centre, relaxing in a corner and charging the cells on his legs. She loosened her jacket and sat beside him, glancing at his charge-rate indicator – high but safe.
"In a hurry, Sarge?"
"Hate not having my legs working. Don’t get sassy on me this end of the day. You did well finding that information, but don’t push it."
"Sorry, Sarge. You sorted some clothes for me?"
"Officer Mary Steel..." He had a smirk that promised trouble. "Same body dimensions to within a centimetre or two – except for her legs which are a hell of a lot longer."
"About fifteen years. One of our new recruits. New body, new attitude and latest hardware."
Medway sniffed. "I’m not bothered about my age, and as for my legs – at least I’ve got them."
"You’ll still hate her. She’s just coming off shift. Had a small riot. Bunch of arseholes thought that we couldn’t respond to looters."
"She’ll be taking a shower, then." Medway stood up. "I could do with a rinse myself. Which way are the washrooms?"
Porson transmitted a set of directions. "You’ll find a bathrobe in the room you slept in. Towels as well. I’ll have someone pack a few things for you for tomorrow."
Medway found her way to the showers and hung her sensor net in one of the cleaning slots. The machine hummed for a moment and then commenced its cycle. After a cursory inspection of her nodes she checked her power socket was properly sealed before stepping gratefully under the hot water. The ration limit was set at four minutes – not enough but better than nothing.
When the water stopped, she stepped out to dry herself. Another two officers entered, shedding armour and sensornets. The taller of the pair, a heavily muscled, long-legged blonde stared at her, eyes tracking down to the fresh bullet scars on her belly.
“Officer Steel?” Oh yes, hate her already... Twenty-four hours and a shower had yet to take the edge off the fire-fight at CyberLine.
"You must be Medway." Steel had a high, thin voice, utterly out of keeping with her stature.
"Yeah.” Really hate your already... Mary Steel? When Porson said there was someone with my body dimensions I sort of expected to meet my kid sister."
Medway felt a brief alert from one of her emergency nodes as Steel ran a combined radar and sonar sweep with her sensornet. It was perfectly natural in the company of cybercops, but her powerful frame lent it an unfamiliar air of menace. "Close enough where it matters," she said offhandedly. "My trousers won’t fit, but I have a short skirt that would look OK. Perhaps a bit young for you…"
Bitch. “Thanks.” Play nice... she’s lending clothes. "I’ll make do. I can’t turn down a dinner invitation from someone who almost got killed beside me."
Steel unlatched her sensornet. "Yeah. I read the open report. Cracking stuff. I volunteered for the assault force but they wanted more experienced officers." She shrugged and stripped off the sensornet vest. "I wanted to see a bit of action. Perhaps next time."
And perhaps a Sergeant called Porson will remember an eager kid who helped out a has-been with clothes for the night. Kyla would have had a comment or two... and then a laugh for being so cynical. Mary Steel was just an ordinary girl who had chosen to be a copper. No need to…
Medway had to look twice. She had never seen a cybercop with a normal navel rather than a power connector. Embarrassed because she was staring, she forced herself to look up. "The action. Is that why you work out? I assume the muscles aren’t…"
"New ideas," Steel said cheerfully, pointing at her navel. "Connector is hidden. They built a few extra muscles…" She tensed her belly and what had appeared to be a perfectly ordinary navel opened a sphincter to extrude a slender power socket. "And they like to emphasise physical strength to ease power loads on the armour." Powerful shoulders flexed to show the muscles.
Steel’s colleague took pity on Medway. "Take no notice. She’s the only freak here so far." A resigned shrug. "But that’s the way it’s going. We’re being replaced with newer models."
"It’s the way its gonna be." Steel retracted her power socket and put out a smug smile instead. "Just give me a chance to shower and I’ll sort out those clothes for you."
The other officer leant close as Steel started to shower. "Younger, fitter, faster, better enhanced and a world class arrogant bitch."
Medway twisted her lips sourly. "And we know we’re getting old because we notice." Perhaps her earlier cynicism had been justified.
"Sad but true." The other cop shed her own sensor net, exposing faded scar tissue down the left side of her ribs. "But she’ll find out soon enough. The armour doesn’t stop everything."
Medway donned her cleaned sensornet, checking that all the latches were sealed properly and all of the node interfaces were aligned and active. The autoscrub was effective, but Jaz was better. Steel was out of the shower and dressing before Medway was done, waiting with an air of physical and technological superiority.
"How did you get shot?" Steel was positively insolent – silently commenting on the carelessness.
Fuck you. Smile sweetly. "Someone cared enough to crash security at Peel House to take me out.” Stick that in your fancy power socket. "It’s a matter of age and experience, Steel. You have to have worn the suit long enough to make serious enemies – the sort that will break into a cybercop barracks to top you."
Snappy answers were clearly dancing on Steel’s tongue, tangled in the scary knowledge that even off duty she might not be safe. There was a moment of silence, the sort that told of processor arrays assessing a whole gamut of permutations. Medway nodded, lips pursed. "We all have to relax sometime."
"It was linked with the showdown at CyberLine." Steel had a hint of respect in her tone. It wasn’t clear whether it was for Medway or those who had dared take on cybercops.
"Full marks..." So Steel had some brains in there... unless it was just a wild guess. "Keep that up and you might live long enough to be superseded by a younger, fitter model."
Steel snorted. "My room is this way."
It was smaller than Medway was used to, but then rookies didn’t rate fancy treatment. It was a sad statistic that the first two years of a cybercop’s career were the prime time for a medical retirement – or worse.
"Try this," Steel said, visibly trying to be amiable and holding out a brilliant lemon and pink tunic vest. "And this… and the skirt."
Medway managed not to wince. It was another indication of her age – fashion had left her behind. Her off-duty wardrobe was primarily in soft pastel shades and simple floral prints rather than the current fad for gaudy colours which was supposed to represent a revival of tastes from the previous century. According to Ralson – and his info came second-hand from some over-paid accountant he was planning to marry.
The jacket was deep orange, the only saving grace was the lack of the brilliant polka dots currently in fashion amongst the street-girls hanging around places like Old Heathy Susbsitence. The skirt boasted incandescent pink and vivid blue heliotrope. Put it all together and the result was a psychedelic vomit.
"I usually take my leggings off." Steel waved casually at the mid-thigh length of the skirt which would have barely covered her own buttocks.
"Thanks." Medway decided to keep the sensornet leggings on.
"Have a nice evening," Steel told her with perfect sincerity. Medway ran it through the shit-sieve several times – All Cool every time. Smug bitch.
Dressed to distress anyone with taste or colour sense, Medway stepped out into the secure yard where her car waited – Wes Bainbridge driving, with Sophie riding shot-gun. They both gave her a look...
“Is that some sort of under-cover... disguise?” Bainbridge shook his head. “I’m no expert, but it looks...”
“It ought to be under cover.” Sophie wasn’t an expert either, just more observant. “Looks like the things that new kid wears. Officer Steel. You know the one – all legs and attitude, and looking for a fight.”
“Right. OK, Medway. Strap in and we’ll take you to dinner. Shout if the dessert turns nasty...”
“Yeah, yeah... I’m not expecting trouble...” And she hadn’t expected it the day before. “But.. you know...”
Wes wove the car through Oxford, and Medway saw no sign of the brief surge of violence which had erupted in the wake of the cyberwar.
“Hardly think it happened,” she said quietly.
“This is Oxford,” Bainbridge said. “History, tradition and corporate affluence. We get the best kit – some sort of back-door deal. That’s normal. For this, we called in heavy support, and old Hopalong kept a fucking lid on it. Covert ops, riot-control, sudden cyber-war... sergeant Porson is the man for the job.”
“Yeah. I got that.”
The car swept past the CyberLine site, out beyond Oxford proper and down to Nuneham – a village clinging to heritage and image from a time centuries past. Elsewhere in the country it would have been erased, absorbed, consolidated and left with a façade of antiquity. The preserving power of the dons and their commercial counterparts had kept it quiet and safe.
Bainbridge pulled up on a gravelled drive outside a small mock Elizabethan mansion – part of the discreet development and extension of the village.
“You did a good job at CyberLine.” Bainbridge told Medway as Sophie got out and did a threat survey. “We ran background on this Francesca Tarbuck... but if anything goes weird, you call. No telling what’s good here, and what isn’t.”
“No need to thank me, Medway. Just bring a doggy-bag. According to the background checks, the sister can really cook...”
Sophie gave the all-clear and Medway stepped out of the car. The front door of house opened at the same time, framing a younger, taller version of Francesca Tarbuck.
"Lianne Medway," she announced by way of introduction.
"I know." The girl answered blankly - like a yob in one of the enclaves responding to door-to-door enquiries, didn’t see, didn’t hear, don’t know, don’t care, we done?
“Jane? Wait a moment...” Francesca Tarbuck called from inside the house; Jane kept her stare going.
Medway stepped closer and saw her face, the right side littered with scars as if it had been torn apart.
“A pleasure to meet you... Jane.” She had seen wounds like that before – rarely so well repaired. The AW4 rocket propelled concussion grenade had been a vicious thing and the engine burn was devastating.
"You have a strange taste in clothes," Jane said distantly, and then Francesca appeared behind her and gently moved her sister aside. "No taste." Jane still stared at Medway.
"Lianne, please come in." Francesca hovered uncomfortably until Medway entered. "You’ve met Jane... Come and meet my father."
“Yes. Lovely.” Medway eased past Jane, and that unforgiving stare never let up. Forget yobs and bricks – Jane was like some of the scary bastards from the sniper squad.
Medway followed Tarbuck, down a generous hallway panelled in pine, faked to resemble oak, floor thickly carpeted in dull blue. Half way down Francesca opened a door into a lounge with a view out over extensive lawns, neatly kept, other than the scatter of children’s toys, bright under floodlights.
Perfect – out of line of sight from Jane. But no... she had followed them.
“Dad...” A short, greying man was sitting in one of the bay windows, watching two children play a combat-pilot game. “This is Lianne...”
He looked up and smiled, teeth perfect and white, eyes bright and alive. "Greg’s winning again, Fran. Beat me. Now he’s beating Gilly. It’s amazing." He stared at Medway. "Have you come to play too?"
Medway glanced at Francesca for support and guidance only to catch a smile of malicious contentment from Jane. "What’s the game?"
"Death Pilot." He giggled delightedly, walking over to inspect her closely. "With the latest Martian missions. Very confusing." He knelt to inspect the sensornet leggings, testing her thigh with casual familiarity. "Is that the new fashion?" He stood unsteadily, and then found his balance. "Are you coming to play?"
Medway shrugged. "Sure," and tried another enquiring look at Francesca.
There was a delay whilst Gilly rallied and defeated her brother. Francesca gave a quick explanation. "Don’t mind father. He is really very bright." She bit her lip to crush a smile. "Lecherous devil was probably taking a good look at your legs, although he won’t remember a thing."
Medway resigned herself to asking, "What happened?"
"No money, no job and only subsistence to raise two children." Francesca shrugged to show that it was another life, long forgotten and forever haunting. "Remember I told you he volunteered as an experimental subject. Micro-fabricators. CyberLine were paying good money for volunteers. We still do, of course, although the controls are stricter. Father has a prototype of the third generation cortical interfaces. It eventually destroyed his memory."
"The CyberLine LLR CortiFlex..." Medway dredged up old memories from her training lectures. For some reason, the history of enhancement technology was deemed important. "Brain chemistry instabilities. Short term psychological disturbance, long term brain damage."
"Irreversible. Micro-fabricators made the integration so good that removal was impossible."
"Your turn..." the old man thrust the control surfaces into Medway’s hands and then settling the optic feed over her head. "Good flying."
"Memory package on a repeating cycle keeps him functioning," Francesca told her before the roar of the DeathFighter was simulated in her ears and she was in the air, fighting for her life.
The kid was good. Gilly was familiar with the system and accustomed to the performance differences caused by the simulation of Martian atmosphere. Medway decided that it was largely fake and then applied the processing power of a couple of nodes to keep out of range of her opponent.
"You got her, Gilly. You got her." The old man got worked up as he watched through one of the spectator ports. "Shoot. Now. Now. Kill her now."
Gilly wisely held off as Medway jinked out of the firing line. "Too clever, granddad," the girl said softly and then slid close enough to disable one of Medway’s engines.
"Go for it," he cried.
Medway brought additional processors on line and then left them to make the necessary corrections. This was no different from wearing the suit and walking the streets. She settled into the aptitudes and reflexes which kept her alive out there. Where her enhancements had been struggling, her survival instincts simply took over.
It was short and brutal. With a crippled craft and impossible odds, she latched onto Gilly and kept the targeting tight, fingers hovering over the virtual firing button.
"Surrender," she offered, suddenly unwilling to fire.
Gilly laughed and the game ended. "Thought I got you," she said. "Amazing. Really wild. How d’you do that?"
“Gilly... how did you do that...”
Medway smiled at Tarbuck correcting her daughter. "I hope you never find out." She lifted the optic off her head and flicked a glance at the impassive Jane, who turned and walk away.
"Time to get ready for dinner," Francesca said.
Medway watched as the two children dutifully trotted out, their Grandfather close behind. Tarbuck waited until they were gone. "The programming is very good. He is an excellent companion, and as happy as he can ever be. There are occasional lucid moments. The processor memory ought to allow him to be totally normal but he can no longer decide which memories to retain."
"And your sister was shot by a cybercop?" Those scars were unique and unmistakable. The AW4 rocket grenade had only been withdrawn because of the number of officers injured by them – and following the development of something more effective.
"He killed our mother. Shot her at close range."
"The impact fuse…” Medway shook her head – the good old early days of the Enhanced Divison... keep the yobs inside the enclaves . "What happened to him?" Any means necessary, all means available.
"Before the modern evidence logs. Nothing happened. There was no proof."
"It wouldn’t happen today." Medway tired not to think of the enthusiastic Mary Steel, eager for her first proper fight.
"He took medical retirement. Trapped and petrol-bombed a few months later." Tarbuck looked her in the eye, defying her to ask who had thrown the bottles. "I’m part of the Oxfordshire Police Commission. I was able to look it up."
"Risen from nowhere to pillar of the community," Medway commented uneasily.
"And all because of CyberLine. They paid father more than just cash – a place in the company sponsored school because I was bright enough. That was a miracle after three years in subsistence."
"Which is probably why they looked there for volunteers?"
"They wanted volunteers, we wanted... something. Hope, I suppose. Father knew it was dangerous and he thought it was worth the risk. He got his head scrambled. I got an education and a career. Enough that I could start to pay for Jane’s face to be repaired. Get her a new pair of eyes so she could see again. Enough to get father the best care possible for his condition."
"Perhaps you should have gone into politics?"
Francesca laughed with genuine amusement, wrapping her arms around to contain her ribs. "I did. The corporate route – more power, more influence."
"And change is slow."
"As it should be," Tarbuck said, suddenly sharp and defensive, and then relaxed. "I’ve climbed to somewhere near the top of the heap, Lianne. Now I look down on people who live where I started. My first reaction is to call the cops at the first sign of trouble. Trying to improve their lot is politics. Way down the list. Protecting my family is at the top."
"We all look after our own." The words sounded trite, but still true. The yobs watched out for each other, likewise the cybercops, with the corporate executives keeping a close eye on two dangerous factions. "Perhaps that’s where we go wrong."
"It takes a lot more courage than I have to look after anyone else. I scarcely see the ones living on subsistence – or worse."
Medway laughed bitterly. "And I walk amongst them every day. I see them and…"
"Suppress them?" She stepped closer. "But you joined to make things better. You said so."
Medway pursed her lips. She remembered the words, and the lie. "I joined to escape."
"And all the escape routes carry a price. No point in being ashamed, Lianne. We live in a shitty world. Survive it as well as you can. Help someone else when you can, but remember that the teeth are always waiting for you."
"The teeth..." What teeth? Medway had never heard that one but... Mary Steel would have torn Jaz apart for the information she wanted – and found a way to conceal it from her evidence logs. "They came damn close." Everything and everyone had teeth...
There was a brief flurry of comms traffic and Francesca smiled. "Jane says dinner is ready and Jeorg will be here in a few minutes."
"Yes.” The smile was confirmation enough. “We met when he was installing a system at CyberLine. I was in charge of the project." She giggled. "I hope your clothes don’t overexcite him."
Medway blushed. "It was the best I could manage – apart from the uniform."
"That would have been too much for Jane." She was serious for a moment, and then grinned. "Come and see the dining room. Ridiculously grand. The most tasteless extravagance money can buy. I saw it and couldn't resist..."
# # #
Jeorg was tall and thin with a string of five commercial-grade nodes across his forehead, framed by carefully trimmed pale hair. His eyes were sharp blue, so startling that Medway had to stare closely to convince herself that they were real. The attention shocked him enough to take a step back.
"First thing I noticed," Tarbuck whispered. "Amazing eyes." She raised her voice. "This is Lianne Medway."
"I guessed as much," he said dryly, recovering from the surprise. "Never been inspected so closely by a police officer." He extended his hand. "Thanks."
"Thanks?" Medway shook hands cautiously.
"For keeping Fran alive." Sharp blue locked on, almost as if his eyes would burrow into her head. "I’m grateful." The intensity snapped off. "So, what’s for dinner? Where’s my favourite sister-in-law?"
"I’ll go and see." Tarbuck slipped away.
"I suggested inviting you," he said quickly when they were alone. "Mostly so that I could say thanks. It doesn’t take much analysis to see that they were going to kill her anyway."
"So Sergeant Porson keeps telling me."
Jeorg shrugged. "It all worked out. She was worried about you coming here – you know about Jane?"
"I felt some hostility." The understatement rolled off her tongue more easily than she expected.
"The mental scars are far worse than the physical. I know she wants a family of her own, but she finds it difficult to meet people. She spent too many years blind with a face that set children screaming."
"All that is behind me," Jane said crisply, walking in with silent feet. An auto-waiter followed her with the faintest of hums. There was an uncomfortable moment, rescued by two excitable children rushing in, their grandfather puffing along behind.
"Scars don’t matter," Medway said deliberately – softly enough for the children to miss, loud enough for Jane and Jeorg. She ran her hand self-consciously over her belly. "I have a few." She looked Jane in the eye. "I ought to tell you how I came to be here."
"I’d rather you didn’t upset the children," Jeorg said sharply.
Medway raised her voice. "Greg? Gilly? You want to hear about a crippled cybercop, chases and gun battles?"
"Yeah." Enthusiasm lit Greg’s face. "Lots of guns?"
"How crippled?" Gilly wanted to know. "Really bad?"
Medway winked at Jeorg and glanced briefly at Jane, who was paralysed with dread and fascination. She beamed at the two children. "You know how a cybercop is packed with electronics and computers?"
"Sure," Greg said dismissively. "Everyone knows that. Nodes and plugs and processors. Old stuff."
"The cybercop was called Kyla, and she got shot which burnt out all her nodes." She lowered her voice. "You know cybercops have a node right here?" She pointed to the base of her spine. "Well Kyla had a tail screwed into that one."
"Like a cat?" Greg wondered, wide eyed.
"Of course not, silly," his sister corrected.
"Like a horse."
Two pairs of incredulous eyes waited for a spokesperson to emerge. "You’re making this up," Greg finally accused.
Medway smiled and ran a brief scan of the room, a low-power sweep that only another cybercop ought to notice. It was enough to map the major data access points. Having found what she was looking for, it was a trivial matter to tap into the house comms loop. A wall panel lit up and she sent images of Kyla to the screen, chains, leathers and fake tail. She summoned images of Jaz and placed them alongside.
"Kyla and her friend Jaz who did all the chains for her."
Gilly stepped closer. "Just like Helldegard the Pirate from Deep Pitz." Her eyes glinted brightly, a reminder of the little girl who had blasted her brother out of the sky in the fighter-pilot game, and almost roasted a cybercop.
"Time to eat." Tarbuck used the same tone as when she corrected Gilly’s grammar.
Gilly offered Medway a sneaky smile. "We’re not supposed to talk with our mouths full," she confided. "You could tell the story in between…"
Medway winked in return. She wanted to tell the story, and was ready for it now.
"Nothing too… bad," Tarbuck muttered grimly.
Medway nodded and settled at the table, hiding her amazement at the food. The presence of real bacon in the canteen had been a luxury, now fading into triviality compared to the spread of meat and vegetables which Francesca’s sister had prepared. Was this normal, or something for a special occasion?
"Tell us about Kyla?" Gilly prompted.
Medway nodded and accessed the display again, bringing up an old image of Kyla in her armour, helmet hanging casually from one hand. At the same time she heaped a modest pile of carrots onto her plate, curious to know what they would taste like. From the way the children were behaving, there was nothing unusual about this meal – just how the other half lived. Or the other tenth.
“So, Kyla...” Forget social iniquity, enjoy the food and remember an old friend. “We met when I started work. Kyla was a few years older than me...” hazing and saving the rookie simultaneously, according to long-established tradition... but perhaps some of those stories were not suitable for children, or dinner... “So, we started working together...”
The children slowed the tale, frequently interrupting for clarification on various gory details, pouncing on the bland gaps where Medway glossed over the really dicey parts. Medway kept at it because it made her feel better – a way of coming to terms with some of the things which had happened recently. She had stepped over the fine line from a world of petty urban violence into the brutality and betrayal of commercial disputes. Simple rules and codes dissolved in that corrosive vat.
“She died?” Gilly was upset that her Pirate Cybercop was killed. “Not fair. Not fair.”
“No.” But Kyla never had patience with people who expected a fair life. “Not fair at all.”
"You didn’t arrest Jaz?" Jane asked quietly, surprising everyone except the children.
"Probably tortured him," Greg decided. "Yeah? To get the truth."
"Then killed him," Gilly added.
"I took him home..." Medway stumbled over that, a new fact of her life that she’d not really questioned. Her first deviation from the simple directness of being a police officer at the hard end of enforcement. "Jaz is a very skilled technician." Jane was staring at her. "He polishes my nodes for me."
"Can’t you polish your own?" Gilly wondered innocently.
"Jaz does it better."
Jane was blushing, whilst Francesca exchanged arch glances with her husband. "An odd arrangement. A cybercop and a low-life hacker’s assistant."
"It just worked out that way." And it was totally nuts. Kyla did things like that, but Lianne Medway... never. "But whoever killed Kyla came after me…" and the children perked up when she described the fight.
"And Jaz?" Jane demanded.
"Hurt. Recovering when I last saw him." Hips pumping as he relived that last... no, not in front of the children. Medway smiled – their hunting instincts for gaps in the story were more attuned to violence. "Then I came up here and met Francesca – although I don’t suppose children ought to hear about another fight."
Jane remained awkward and reserved as the children demanded another bloodthirsty story. Medway held out for a while and then gave a very carefully edited account, sending brief images to the wall display to punctuate the tale, emphasising action and noise, skipping over personal terror.
"Will Lameduck get better?" Gilly asked eventually.
"I hope so." Medway ignored Tarbuck’s whisper – heap of junk. The car had been a dependable thing, easily imbued with an identity. It even had a name...
"Pretty girl," Tarbuck’s father said abruptly. "Trouble and triumph. What will you do from the turning point?"
"Was that one of his lucid moments?" Medway stared at the old man with a certainty that his senses were nowhere near as scrambled as his family thought.
"Who knows?" Jane shrugged and gave her father a fond smile... perhaps even a sly smile. Did she share the suspicion that the old man was more aware than he seemed?
"So now you go after the people who tried to… hurt Fran?" Jeorg dragged the conversation back into safe territory.
"Yeah, go get 'em," Greg cheered.
"I’m after the people who killed Kyla," Medway corrected. "They may be the ones behind the trouble at CyberLine."
"Looking after your own," Tarbuck teased, a sharp edge behind a smile.
"Looking after the memory of someone who went beyond that. Kyla would never have got herself injured if she had only looked after herself." Medway glanced at Jane, picking up the nagging curiosity. It would have been easy to have told her what happened to Kyla, perhaps even help to ease her hostility. "That’s definitely a story for another day."
The children protested – all of Medway’s stories were so good. Tarbuck overrode their protests and sent them off to fight another round of Death Pilot under the supervision of their grandfather. He winked at Medway and then scurried after the children.
Jane glowered at Medway, but wouldn’t ask to hear the story of Kyla’s injury. "Thank you for the meal," Medway offered sincerely. "I don’t often eat this well."
Awkward looks skipped around the table until Jeorg stood up. "Why don’t we retreat to the conservatory?"
The tension eased and the evening relaxed into life histories which carefully skirted around the uncomfortable topics. Mundane and agreeable themes - music and food, friends and light stories – accompanied coffee and fine liqueurs. Jane mostly listened, her hostile resentment still bubbling gently. Medway ignored it – the girl would need more than an evening of carefully chosen anecdotes to iron out the creases in her head.
The evening drew to a close and Medway sent a brief message to Bainbridge – dessert proven non-hostile, drive me home? Jeorg dozed off, coffee-cup balanced precariously on his knee until Francesca carefully rescued it without waking him.
"Getting the nets back up is keeping him busy," she said softly. "Thank you for coming. When you know the rest of the story, come back and tell us." Her eyes flickered towards Jane.
"Kyla’s, or my own?" The old man had asked what she would do from this turning point, and it didn’t matter if that was just random junk from a glitchy cortical interface. "Things will never be the same again. I’ve seen things which shouldn’t be and Jaz will never really fit in. His tech skills have allowed him to be accepted – but that can only go so far."
Tarbuck stood up, easing the stiffness in her joints, more of the legacy of the flight for safety. "I’ve never heard of a cybercop resigning."
"We die or retire." Medway stroked her belly again, finding the scars by instinct. "But there are other things. I’ve never thought of giving up the suit. It's part of me. I have skills... I can... investigations branch. Maybe."
"Some of the stuff that comes to the Police Commissioners...” Tarbuck was suddenly serious. “Cases I get to see... the suit marks you. Like another scar."
Medway glanced down uneasily, missing the familiar confines of her armour. "Yeah. I suppose. I know."
"You said that the scars don’t matter." Tarbuck gave her a sly smile. "So... that leaves the person underneath to matter..."
Medway ducked her head a fraction. "I suppose..." She was caught on her own outburst of pomposity. "The suit is my CyberLine – escape from the past. Protection from the present. Not easy to give up."
"Time of change. For both of us." Medway gave her a quizzical look, prompting an explanation. "CyberLine is going to have to work hard to rebuild its reputation. I have come out of the disaster well enough. I was offered a new position. It came through just before you arrived this evening. The new Deputy-Director Military Applications."
"Someone clean to tidy the mess?"
"Exactly. The final step towards a full directorship." She grinned suddenly. "If you do decide to resign, I could use a security advisor."
"I’ll bear it in mind." A message logged in her processor – <Bainbridge: Don’t forget my doggy-bag.> "And I will come back to tell you the rest of the story."
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