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Alice Swann walked through the security gates at London Central Airport and into the sprawling arrivals lobby. The sleek black monolith winked a green light at her as she passed. No matter how many times she flew into the city, she still half expected the gates to wink red. If the gates winked red, you didn’t leave Central Airport. She knew her fear was irrational, but she was in an irrational mood. Travelling from the African slums to the hyper-gloss of London in one day would do that to you.
She walked away from the gates and stood a short way inside the lobby. The scale of the building always made her a little dizzy. Central Airport looked more like an abstract sculpture than a functional building, all sharp jutting angles bisecting fluted curves. In fact, the airport’s unique appearance was designed specifically to aid the funnelling of human traffic through the arrival and departure procedures, designed by an army of architects and mathematicians to be the perfect fusion of form and functionality. Spiralling glass corridors guided people towards the check-in stations, and huge angular waiting rooms speared out from the central expanse. The great glass ceiling far above stretched away into the distance to either side of Alice, and she couldn’t see either wall for the tides of people crowding the lobby. She wondered how many thousands of people were making their way through the airport right now.
She felt a little queasy thinking about it. Air-travel always left her feeling like that. She didn’t know why. A doctor she’d met in Africa whose name she couldn’t recall had told her that it was her nanites reconfiguring to the local climate. That sounded improbable, and besides, everyone else exiting the gates seemed perfectly perky. They probably hadn’t spent the last three weeks in the slums of Dibaya. Or the previous weeks in a different slum halfway across the continent.
Alice pushed thoughts of Africa out of her head before they could overwhelm her. Now was not the time to deal with that. She had a week in London, a week where she could see her friends and pretend that everything was fine. Her hand unconsciously stroked her cell, and she forced it to stop. Now was not the time. What it was time for was for her to go to her hotel, have a long bath and a longer drink, then order the most ludicrously opulent ball gown she could find and charge it to the KineSys Corporation. The thought cheered her slightly, and she decisively put all thoughts of Africa out of her head.
She crossed the lobby, past giant pillars with five-metre high adverts for discounted Intercontinental flights, Rolex watches and a new Früti yoghurt shake. An adboard drifted next to her advertising the latest ball gowns by Lipsen, as if the bloody thing was reading her mind, but she dismissed it with a wave. She’d forgotten how much she hated London’s almost militant advertising.
As she crossed the lobby, a sharply-suited tower of a man detached himself from the throng of people near the exit and strode purposefully towards her. She half hoped he was going to walk past her, but her heart was already sinking before she saw the KineSys logo embroidered discretely on his lapel. When he finally stopped politely in front of her, he loomed over her, staring expressionlessly down through a reflective sun-visor that hid his eyes.
“Alice Swann?” he asked, holding out a meaty hand. She toyed with the idea of claiming to be someone else just to see the look on his face. He knew exactly who she was; KineSys agents had their audiobuds tuned to a Network Administrator, who would be able to check the identities of every person in the airport. The pointless formality of the question irked her, and she considered a suitably acerbic response, before deciding it simply wasn’t worth the effort.
“Yes,” she replied, taking his hand and turning down her own audiobuds. The pleasant ambience in her ears diminished and was replaced by the drone of human bustle. He shook her hand once, formally. His hand swallowed hers whole.
“On behalf of the KineSys Corporation, I would like to welcome you back to the United Kingdom.” He spoke like a well oiled machine. “Director Dresden wishes to convey his thanks for your valuable work, and waits to greet you personally.” Her stomach clenched tightly. “Please, follow me,” he said.
There was no response to give; she simply nodded, and he turned and strode back towards the exit. She wondered what he’d do if she simply walked the other way. How long would he continue to politely block her path before dropping the pretence and strong-arming her out of the building? Once she might have tried it for a bit of amusement, but today she was tired, nauseous and preoccupied. She trudged wearily behind him, making no effort to match his brisk pace.
Of course Donovan wanted to meet her. It had to been too much to hope that he would allow her free reign in the city. The ball of ice in her stomach grew as she pictured the coming week living in Donovan’s exclusive ‘care’. Stupid to think she’d be allowed any time to herself. An African Answer Advocate was too valuable a commodity to be allowed to wander wherever she liked in the city.
The KineSys agent approached the huge exit doors and turned left into a restricted corridor, the door sliding open automatically. She followed him down an austere carpeted corridor and into a small private elevator. As the lift shot upwards, Alice was uncomfortably aware of the agent’s bulk taking up most of the confined space. The lift interior was dark, but he kept his sun-visor on all the same. Alice would have found his strict adherence to the strong-arm stereotype amusing, except that his hulking shoulders left her little room to breathe.
The lift stopped and opened onto a more richly-furnished and dimly-lit corridor. Alice realised they must be entering one of the airport’s many private conference suites. These served as meeting places for those travellers needing to make urgent business arrangements. It made sense that Donovan had hired one today; likely many big European and American sponsors would be arriving for the Ball, and this gave him a convenient place to meet them as they arrived in the country. Alice half hoped that Donovan would be too busy entertaining foreign businessmen to be able to see her, but she knew without a doubt that he’d find a way to make the time. Damn him.
They reached a set of gloss-black double doors at the end of the corridor, which swished open as the agent approached, and Alice followed him into the suite. The small room was dimly lit with moodily-swirling blues and purples. A bar with attendant waiter took up one side wall, and two playgirls wearing film-thin slip-dresses idled on stools, occasionally shooting glances at the two men at the table across the room. The man sat with his back to Alice was grossly fat with an ill-fitting but expensive-looking suit, and was crudely caressing a third playgirl who sat on his lap. The man sat facing Alice was Donovan Dresden.
When he saw her enter, Donovan stood up and slid a cell across the table to his associate. The obese man compressed it to pocket size with a swish of two pudgy fingers, then studied it with an air of disinterest.
“Please, Gregory,” Donovan said smoothly, facing the man but with his gaze fixed on Alice. “Take a few minutes to review the contract, just to make sure everything is to your liking. I’m sure you’ll find the terms more than satisfactory. I’m going to talk with Miss Swann briefly, and then I’ll be happy to go over any queries you might have.”
The man grunted, slid the cell into his jacket pocket and stood up laboriously, shoving the playgirl off his lap in the process. She skipped across the room and took up position with the other two. As he walked past Alice, he made a languid grab for her skirt, and she dodged him irritably. He gave her an obscene wink, then lumbered past and left the suite. The agent who had led Alice in took up position outside the door, standing with her luggage. Donovan stepped around the table and pulled out a chair for her, and she reluctantly crossed the room and sat down.
“Hello Alice,” Donovan said as he sat back down across from her. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Pleasant company you keep, Donovan,” she said tersely, nodding at the door through which the overweight businessman had just left.
Donovan laughed easily. “Gregory may be somewhat unrefined, but I assure you that when it comes to business, he’s second to none. He’s one of our most influential sponsors. A real fat cat, you might say.”
Alice raised an eyebrow. Donovan must be in a fine mood to attempt such out-of-character humour. He must be screwing said fat cat out of a great deal of money in order to be in such high spirits.
“I trust you had a pleasant journey?” he asked.
“It was fine.” She didn’t want to waste time exchanging pleasantries.
Donovan waved a hand towards the bar. Instantly the waiter came over to the table with a glass for Alice and a bottle of sparkling golden liquid. Donovan gestured to the table and the waiter set both down. Alice was aware of an almost imperceptible whining sound, and tried to discretely work out where it was coming from. She realised it came from the waiter; his audiobuds must be set to play high-frequency static to stop him being able to hear any confidential business arrangements made in the suite. She guessed that the three playgirls must be similarly equipped. The waiter bobbed his head and returned to his position behind the bar.
“Care for champagne?” Donovan asked.
“No, thank you.”
“It’s real champagne,” he said, ignoring her and filling the glass. “Over fifty years of research, and our synthesised version still lacks that certain something.” He lifted the glass and inhaled deeply, then handed it to her. “Try it. It’s very good. A ten-year vintage from a three-hundred year old blend recipe. The taste is unparalleled. ”
She’d lifted the glass to her lips before she’d realised what she was doing, then lowered it angrily onto the table. “I thought you didn’t drink?” she said.
“I don’t. But I have many acquaintances that do, and they tell me this is superb. Are you sure I can’t tempt you?”
“Really, I’m fine.” She studied him across the table. He’d not changed at all in the year since she’d seen him last. The same sharp features, the same electric blue stare. The same cold magnetism. She shivered slightly and dropped her gaze. She had to remind herself that she hated this man.
“A shame,” he said, pushing the bottle to the edge of the table. The waiter hurried over and took it back to the bar, leaving Alice’s unwanted drink on the table.
“What’s this about, Donovan?” She wanted to get this meeting over and get to her hotel. Being around Donovan made her feel uncomfortable, and she still felt a little unbalanced from her journey. “Do all your Advocates get such a personal greeting?”
“Straight to business as usual. Admirable.” He smiled smoothly. “But there’s no need to hurry; Gregory will be a while with that contract. He’s not the most literate of my peers, and that may be putting it lightly.”
“I can’t stay long,” she said. “I have to check in at The Whitehall this afternoon, and I’ve still got to order my ball gown. Just tell me what you want and I’ll be on my way.”
“My, so abrupt. Is something troubling you?” His smile widened. Alice realised she was gritting her teeth, and forced herself to stop.
“Not especially,” she said. “I’ve never been fond of your murky business dens.” She waved a hand to indicate the suite.
“Well, no need to worry about rushing to the hotel. I’ve booked you into a suite at the Macula Astrum; they completely understood at The Whitehall when I informed them of the change of plans. I’ve also taken the liberty of ordering you a ball gown; I knew you’d be tired after travelling, and I thought I would save you the hassle. I’m certain you’ll like it.”
Alice felt her jaw clench again, and struggled to keep her expression even. “Thank you, but that won’t be necessary. I’m perfectly happy staying at The Whitehall and ordering my own gown.” Damn him!
“Please, think nothing of it.” He waved a hand nonchalantly. “Everything is already taken care of. I have a car waiting to take you to the Macula Astrum as soon as we’re done here; I want to ensure that you have the finest quality of service during your stay. Think of it as my way of thanking you for the great work you’re doing.”
“I don’t need babysitting, Donovan,” she said through gritted teeth. It took quite an effort to unclench her jaw.
“Of course not. I only wish to ensure that you are adequately taken care of.” He smiled indulgently.
“Oh, stop it,” she said. She wished now that she had run when she’d seen the agent in the lobby. She could be in her room at The Whitehall now, soaking in a hot bubble bath. Instead she had to sit here while Donovan casually rearranged her life.
“Is something the matter?” he asked, voice laced with feigned concern.
“You don’t have to pretend to be human around me,” she growled. His smile curled up at the edges and she instantly regretted opening her mouth. The brief satisfaction of the insult wasn’t worth his condescending smirk. She gripped her cell in her pocket.
“So cold,” he said, his smooth grin mocking her. “And you’re usually so charming.” She took a gulp of her drink before realising what she was doing, then cursed herself silently and slammed it back onto the table. Damn him; the champagne tasted sublime.
“How long were you planning on dancing around the matter?” she asked. “I don’t have then energy for it.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
Alice felt a cold flash of anger. Wordlessly, she pulled her cell from her pocket and slammed it down on the tabletop. It had deformed under the pressure of her grip, but it sprang back to its usual rectangular shape as she released it. She opened up a vid-file and slid it across the table to Donovan.
He spun the cell lazily to face him, and enlarged it. He watched the file play without expression. Alice couldn’t see it from where she sat, but she could hear the screaming. She felt tears well up in her eyes, and she angrily blinked them away. She didn’t need to see it. The images were burned into her mind. That video played on the back of her eyelids whenever she tried to sleep. It was the culmination of all the memories she could never quite successfully block out. Donovan watched it to the end, then calmly resized the cell and slid it back to her.
“I’m sorry, Alice. Believe me when I say I wish you didn’t have to see scenes like this. But these are the regrettable consequences of implementing the Answer.”
“‘Regrettable consequences?’” She scrubbed furiously at her face in a vain attempt to stop her eyes watering. “Truth, Donovan, those are children!”
“It saddens me, truthfully. But this, however awful it seems now, is still progress. Implementing the Network will take time, but in the future, we will be able to create wonderful lives for these poor people.”
“They can’t have wonderful lives! I had to fucking bury them!” She dropped her eyes. She couldn’t look at him anymore. She stared into her bubbling champagne instead.
“I am so sorry Alice.” He reached across the table and touched her hand sympathetically. She flinched and drew back. “I deeply admire your strength,” he went on, “and am eternally grateful for the work you are doing. You can’t imagine how much it means to me that you are working with us.”
“Oh, shut up.” Her voice came out as almost a wail. “Please,” she said more quietly, “I’m leaving. Have you had your fun now? Only I can’t do this anymore.” She couldn’t bear another minute in his company.
“Please, Alice. Can’t we talk about this?” His voice was gentle, but his eyes still glimmered with cold amusement.
She glared at him through a haze of tears. “It’s impossible to talk to you. I only wish I’d worked that out years ago. Goodbye, Donovan.”
She grabbed the glass of champagne from the table and downed it in one swig, then smacked it back down, snapping off the elegant stem. She stood abruptly and stalked across the suite to the black double doors. They didn’t open. She pushed at them, and still they remained resolutely closed. She spun around angrily. Donovan was watching her calmly from his seat at the table.
“Open the doors,” she said in a level voice.
“Of course,” he said. “But first I need you to understand something.”
“Save it. I’m not interested. Let me out, now.” She felt panic rising in her chest, and she struggled to keep her voice even. She wouldn’t let Donovan see how scared she was.
“I’ll let you out once I’m certain you understand. I shouldn’t need to remind you of the contract you signed, or the consequences of breaking it.” His voice was hard, and all amusement was gone from his eyes. “The success of the Answer is everything to you, understand? You will not play that vid-file outside of this room; we will know if you do. You will attend the Ball tonight and you will tell everyone there how privileged you are to be working on the Answer. You will check in to the Macula Astrum. You will wear the gown I chose for you. Do you understand me?”
“Oh, completely,” she sneered. “You like to think you can control everything, that you can manipulate everyone with your wit and your charm, but you’ve always suited open threats better.” She spat the words to stop her voice from shaking.
“Say what you will.” His voice didn’t alter one beat. “But you signed the contract, knowing full well what was involved, what the consequences might be. You made your choice and you will adhere to it. Now tell me you understand, or I won’t let you out of the room.”
“Then what? You’ll keep me prisoner in your hotel? Are you going to tie me up and force me to attend your ball?”
“You know I don’t have to do that.” His matter-of-fact tone made her feel cold. “Tell me you understand, and I’ll let you leave.”
“I hardly have a choice, do I?” She struggled to hold back tears. She would not cry in front of him.
“Not really. Tell me that you understand.”
Tears rolled down her face. She couldn’t hold them back. She tried to inject as much venom into her voice as possible. “I understand, Donovan.” It felt like a small victory that her voice didn’t waver.
“Good.” His smile returned, and his eyes sparkled with barely-concealed amusement. “Always a pleasure, Alice. Take a few hours to relax. Enjoy the city. Check in to the Macula Astrum whenever you are ready, and I’ll have everything taken care of for you. I look forward to seeing you tonight.”
She wanted to scream. She wanted to stab his eyes out with the broken stem of the champagne glass. Instead, she turned smartly on the spot as the doors slid open behind her and strode out into the corridor. As she marched towards the lift, she was hardly aware of the black-suited agent keeping pace behind her with her luggage, or of Gregory the obese businessman leering at her as he came out of an adjacent room. All she was aware of was the hot shame of the tears streaming down her face.
Donovan watched Alice leave with a feeling akin to pride. Head held high and shoulders straight, blonde hair streaming behind her as she stormed out with righteous rage; she’d retained every bit of her iron will and fiery temperament. She was worth ten of the spineless humanitarians that made up the majority of his Advocate volunteers. The success of the African Answer hinged on people like her. That she’d witnessed even half of those atrocities and still been able to sit across from him was admirable. Not, he supposed, that he’d given her much of a choice.
The waiter rushed over to remove her broken glass as Gregory Solomon re-entered the suite. Donovan watched him half-swagger, half roll his way across the room to the table, and wondered not for the first time how a man could allow himself to become such a disgusting spectacle. That the head of the Solomon business empire, one of the largest affiliates of the KineSys Corporation, could have such lack of discipline with his own body was alarming. Donovan hoped he controlled his business with more efficiency than he did his various appetites.
“She did not look happy,” Solomon remarked with a conspiratorial grin, in what he probably imagined was a fair attempt at macho camaraderie. He waved in the direction of the bar, and one of the playgirls skipped over and slipped lithely into his lap. He ran a sweaty hand up her thigh and began working his fingers beneath her skirt. She giggled and nuzzled her head against his flabby shoulder.
“Alice has a mercurial nature, but a strong heart,” Donovan said. “She understands what is required of her.” He’d have to commend his entertainment manager for his choice of playgirls; the girl didn’t flinch at all as Gregory pawed at her.
“An old flame of yours, so I understand?” Solomon continued to gurn obscenely. Donovan found the man’s inappropriate over-friendliness exhausting. The fool had no concept of professional boundaries.
“We were close once, but those days are a long way behind us now,” Donovan said. His time together with Alice seemed almost a lifetime ago. So much had been accomplished since then. He had struggled to tolerate her towards the end, but she’d proven worth the effort. The added result that she now couldn’t abide being in the same room as him was an unexpected benefit.
“Well she’s certainly a fine one,” Solomon said. “I’ll keep my hands off, though, seeing as we’re such good friends.”
“I appreciate it.” Donovan would love dearly to have nothing more to do with this lecherous idiot, but the Solomon conglomerate had been an affiliate since his grandfather’s days. One did not discard such influential persons so easily, however distasteful they may prove to be. Unfortunate indeed that he must be polite to this man. He continued to smile serenely.
“So you seduced her and turned her into an Advocate?” Solomon asked. “Seems cruel, even for you.” His eyes darted about in his head; Donovan got the impression the American was trying to subtly probe for information. His ineptitude at it was both amusing and fascinating.
“Not at all,” Donovan replied. “She volunteered for the project herself.”
“Now I find that difficult to believe,” Solomon said as he sat back in his chair.
“Really? You have reason to doubt me?” Donovan kept his voice light and friendly, but let his eyes harden slightly. Solomon squirmed slightly in his seat.
“No, no. Just seem to me like you’d have to be mad to volunteer for that shit.” Solomon looked decidedly uncomfortable, but was still trying to appear nonchalant.
“All of our Advocates are volunteers,” Donovan said. “Is this so surprising to you?”
“Well, you know, you hear stuff,” Solomon said somewhat uneasily. “Just rumours, I’m sure, not worth discussing.” So he’d heard the rumours circulating about the decline in Advocate numbers. Beyond time to find out who was leaking those particular figures; it was becoming quite a distraction.
“No, please,” Donovan said. “I’m intrigued. No onus on you, you have my world.”
“Well, certain sources tell me you’re losing Advocates faster than you’re hiring them. They’re saying that…well, there’s speculation about psychosis.” Solomon whispered as though it were a dirty word. He still looked uncertain, but seemed to be soothed by Donovan’s assurances no blame would land at his feet.
Donovan indulged the man’s nerves with the tiniest widening of his smile. “Certainly your source is exaggerating, but yes, a number of our Advocates do suffer from psychiatric trauma as a result of their work on the Answer. Conditions are gruelling, and I assure you they receive the best care possible. They understand the risks involved when they sign up, and they undertake rigorous psychiatric testing before they are allowed to take part. The health of our Advocates is our number one priority.”
“Of course, of course. Look, this is just stuff I heard, you know, general word of mouth. I don’t want you to think…”
“Think nothing of it,” Donovan said. Solomon looked relieved. “I trust you’ve had time to review the contract?”
“Indeed, yes; everything seems totally satisfactory.” Solomon sat forwards again, shifting the playgirl around on his lap. Her breathing had quickened slightly as he continued to work his fingers idly between her legs. A single bead of sweat dripped down her temple. Donovan reflected on her superior control of her emotions, and on Solomon’s too-obvious lack of the same, and decided he had far more respect for the prostitute. “The only thing I picked up on is the transferral of this ‘EF’ protocol,” Solomon drawled on. “No one seems to know what it’s actually for, just that it’s some sort of redundant code.”
“Nothing more than a little caretaking,” Donovan said. “The EF protocol is an ancient process that’s been around since the conception of the Network. It hasn’t functioned for years now, it’s completely redundant, and transferring it from you to us is simply a streamlining process. Frees up some dead space in your share count, that’s all. Does that sound reasonable?”
“Yeah, fine. I only asked ‘cause I’ve no idea what the thing actually is. And the MindPool saturation, that goes into effect immediately, yes?” The familiar sheen of avarice lit up the fat man’s face.
“It will be active in time for the Ball.” This was so easy that Donovan idly wondered if he’d wasted his time working out the subtleties of the contract. Most never read past the promise of greater share in MindPool.
“Great. That’s great.” Solomon was all but licking his lips. “Where do I sign?”
Donovan slid his cell across the table to receive the American’s thumbprint, which concluded another successful contract negotiation. Donovan smiled.
“I’m glad we could come to an agreement. It’s been a pleasure, as always, Gregory.”
“As always, Donovan, as always.” Gregory stood, not without some effort, all the time keeping his hands around the playgirl’s waist. “Say,” he went on, squeezing her buttocks with one hand and waving the other towards the two girls across the room, “are these Class A’s?”
“Of course. Please, make the most of them.”
“Oh, I will.” Gregory leered as the other two girls ran over and the three of them grouped around him, simpering and giggling. “You’re a good man, Donovan, a true gentleman. Always a pleasure, always.” He raised a pudgy hand and turned slowly, laboriously making his way out of the room. Donovan sat back down at the table.
Checking his cell, he realised he had five minutes before his next sponsor was due to arrive. He toyed with a few processes, located the member of staff who had been responsible for the leaked information regarding Advocate infirmities and had him arrested. He reflected on Solomon’s obvious lack of even basic self-control. It never failed to surprise him how a man like that could run one of the world’s largest business conglomerates. Whenever he met with any of his business sponsors, Donovan found his meagre standards were invariably set too high.
Still, their lack of competence certainly made his life easier. If only his own Board of Directors could be so easily persuaded to part with their parts of the protocol, he could probably curb much of the unpleasantness that would soon unfold. It was out of his hands at that moment, however. All he could do was wait. Wait, and hope that all involved played their parts as intended.