Some background in case anyone is interested: This is a story that I wrote years ago, and eventually saw published in a fanzine called Imagination in around 1992. Imagination became less and less frequent, and then it died - and anyway, it never paid authors money. So this re-publication is entirely my own affair. Incidentally, the story also has a sequel, Face Value.


by Phil Masters

I finally caught up with Shady Ling in the area of wide, partly-green streets up the hill and north-west of the city centre. There's a lot of neighbourhoods like that one in a lot of towns, residential -- and probably quite respectable -- when they were built a hundred years ago. They were invaded by small, clean industries around the turn of the century; the 'purely residential' idea was undercut by the growth of home-working. Then they slipped down into shabbiness as the money moved away from those homeworkers.

Nowadays, they're just boring, jumbles of houses in beige brick and small industrial units in primary-colour paint. This one had been lucky -- not only was it part of a consistently prosperous town, but it had gone through phases of nearly being fashionable. The council had even managed to keep most of the trees alive.

The whole place was natural territory for Shady. His grandparents might well have run one of those pocket-sized companies out of one of those toy-town 'units', before it grew up or went under; I know he's H-K on both sides of the family, and the last-out bunch started a lot of that sort of thing with their savings. More to the point, it was a run-down and dubious, without being genuinely tough; it had pretensions to danger and resources, but they were all transparently feeble.

I tracked Shady by his control box; I programmed his mote net, so I know his codes and frequencies. He was leaning on a wall twenty yards down from the Duke -- a pub with enough privacy built into its internal layout to appeal to him. And to me, I have to admit. I've got four inches on him -- advantage of Afro genes over Chinese -- but he'd look short next to a dwarf. I don't think the smooth grey cape-coat he always wears does anything for him.

"Hi" I said, and "How's life, Shady?"

"Life" he said, "follows the lines of Greek myth, except that it repeats itself as bedroom farce. Hello Clemmie."

Pretentious little creep.

"Tell me about it over a beer" I told him. He made a big show of fishing out his control box and informing a kite-mote that he was going with me voluntarily, no problems. I'd tracked it when I tracked him; it was sitting in a tree thirty yards away, no doubt recording this whole scene onto Shady's file-box, which he keeps in a rented safe somewhere. Anyone would think that I might want to threaten him.

Shady's kite-motes are pretty simple. Apart from a pair of fold-down wings, a vectored-thrust fan, and the senses and radio, all they've got is a basic-model remote-effector brain. No arms, no legs or wheels or tracks, no fancy stuff. The brain is smart enough to follow Shady around (which makes it quite stupid, ha, ha), and they can dodge small birds, find safe places to perch, and obey a list of about a dozen pre-set responses. Basically, they're toys.

Shady likes to call himself 'The Last of the Private Detectives', which says more than he thinks. The sort of Private Detective he wants to be never existed outside of books, whereas he's actually quite close to the sort that always did. And he's not the last -- there's a few around still, although people like me have taken away a lot of their business. However, pretending to live on the edge gives Shady an excuse for dressing badly and generally being a mess.

He carries the whole thing badly. Like, he drinks a cheap and ordinary beer that he thinks is traditional. Actually, I once discovered that the name was imported from Australia (don't ask me why) less than a century ago, and the taste is just disgusting. That day, I made him buy me an imported rum (I was young and impressionable when rum was briefly trendy, and the habit stuck), and told him to tell me about his current job.

He sat with his hands on his knees, looking at his beer rather than me. "What do you know about body-motes?" He asked.

That at least made me pay attention. "As in full tactile?" I asked, and Shady nodded.

"About as much as most people" I said, "plus a bit of technical stuff that I've read on the pro boards. They're supposed to give you full, five-senses feedback while you operate them, and you get a lot of fine control via muscle sensors; you feel like your mind has transferred into the mote. At least, so the makers say. You have to be filthy rich to get fitted for one, and the motes themselves aren't cheap."

"Could you trace one? In use?"

I took a sip of rum and focussed on the rim of the glass. That's a useful set of actions; it gets you time, lets you enjoy your drink some more, and makes you look thoughtful when you aren't thinking about anything. "How long" I asked "is a piece of string?"

Poor old Shady really looked hurt at that, so I put my drink down and actually looked straight at him. "Come on, man" I said, "tell me about the medium -- radio, I assume? -- tell me if you know the band, the pulse structure, the encryption -- Hell, are we talking about tracing from one end or the other, or finding both ends, or what?"

"We know where it's being run from, but we can't get at the control box" he answered. I scowled at him. He drank his beer; I had a nasty feeling he was borrowing my trick. "Would I ask you, if this was an easy job?" he said.

"So all you know is there's a remote out there, being run from -- wherever, and you want me to find it? On what you pay?" Shady nodded. "Well, okay, I'll do my best. As it's for you."

We switched in our 'minders and sorted out a contract. I was feeling fairly pleased, really; all I was committed to was doing my best, no guarantee of success. Plus the usual confidentiality clauses, natch.

"Right" I said, "where's the box?"

"Vectis Systems" said Shady.

"Uh-huh" I said carefully, "any idea who the operator is?"

"Peter-Joe Carter" said Shady.

I very carefully didn't choke or cough; I hate to waste good rum. I swallowed my current sip, then told Shady about his parentage, back three generations.

"Look" I added, "I don't really believe that Vectis use chainsaws as standard business practice, but you know that I'm supposed to be a regular working contractor, between the sort of dubious jobs you put my way, don't you? There are blacklists in this business. You should know, you probably do jobs for the people behind them."

"No" he said, "they've got their own investigators."

"Thanks. Anyway, I'm trying to save you money. I don't like jobs that I know for a fact won't wash."

"Calm down, Clemmie girl." Shady evidently realised he'd overdone this pitch. "Carter's running this on his own account. We think. No Vectis muscle involved."

"Don't be stupid. Carter owns Vectis."

"Sure. But it seems he has his private interests, you see? I talked to some staff at the place where he was fitted out; just junior people, you know, but he was definitely there privately. And the payments came out of his personal account."

"I see. But wait a minute, you said the box is at Vectis. I mean, actually in the company building?"

"Yes, but in Carter's private office. He's the boss, after all; would anyone tell him he can't keep kit in there?"

"Right. Hey, is this job for Vectis? I mean, is he messing his own company about?"

"Confidentiality, Clemmie."

I chewed on that one. From what I remembered, Carter owned sixty or so percent of Vectis, his father's old stock plus the block he'd built up while he was taking the old man down; hard to see why he'd double-cross that. On the other hand, perhaps it was a fiddle. Perhaps it was the other forty percent, thinking he was dealing them out. Or perhaps he was chasing some idea that was so secret that he wasn't trusting his own staff with it yet, in which case we were working for the opposition, hunting clues.

Correction; Shady was working for the opposition. I was working for Shady.

"Okay" I said, "give me what you've got."

Which was how, three days later, I came to be walking down East Road, listening to my modified stereos. Several of the mid-size, long-established swarehouses are on that road -- I'm told it goes back to the end of last century. When they were starting, this area was being redeveloped, and they took offices here; enough of them succeeded to give the neighbourhood some status, and they didn't need bigger places with all the homeworking, so they stayed. Carter's great-grand-daddy and his partners were part of that.

A voice on my stereos told me it had a Possible, then a Probable. I was strolling towards Vectis at the time -- the third time that day -- so I was happy.

"Tune" I muttered, and the stereos said "Tuning".

I turned down a side-street, one short of Vectis. The buildings here were terraced houses early in the twentieth century; by the end, most of them were mostly being used for light industry, and they'd never quite gone back to being happy homes. The streets were narrow and dusty.

"Possible match" said the stereos, then "Probable match".

The stereos looked like a heavy-duty multi-purpose personal set. Actually, I'd gutted them. A chip in there had half-a-dozen of my favourite late-period Nyman concertos -- for camouflage -- but mostly I had a radio receiver and a spectrum analyser, run by a custom smart chip, made to my own spec. It cost me a fortune, but at least I could feel I could trust it.

It had found a pulse signal coming out of the nearby buildings that could control a body-mote. On my word, it had looked for another pulse that it guessed might be feedback from the mote itself. If I'd had access to the licensed frequencies, encryptions, and clock-slots for this region, I could just have looked up what Carter was using, but that's very confidential stuff, so I had to use the stereos instead.

"Track" I muttered, and it said "North". So I carried on the way I was going, and took a right at the end of the street. That took me to the disintegrating shopping mall that had once been the heart of this neighbourhood, and I cut through; it's dingy, but quite safe in daylight. Out the side door, along another side street, right for a few yards down the Causeway, then left again, with the stereos muttering "North" in my ears every minute. I told them to play me some Nyman as well, then to shift the refresh frequency on the direction-finder. Eventually, I got it into synch with the music.

I was out onto Summer Common. It's marshy, but there's raised paths across it, and I took the one for the nearest footbridge. That bridge is old, older than the sea-rises, and so it's embedded in a notch in the levees; the big clear plastic gates at either end, which shut to complete the seal when the river is high, were open today.

(The news that morning had said that sea levels were almost certainly under control, now. The experts reckoned.)

Another maze of streets took me up towards Milton Road, and then the stereos starting telling me to work more westerly. Eventually, I worked out where the body-mote had to be; an old warehouse, with a newer hand-made sign over the open doors:


I could have turned round then and walked away, found a peaceful spot and called Shady. I'd got him an address; he could dig as well as I could from there. What I did was walk through those doors. Pure nosiness.

Inside was a big flat-screen display board, mostly neatly sub-divided into square panels advertising events and classes: Holography and Active Visuals, Gen-2 Mobiles and Synth Programming and so on. I'm a mote-programmer by trade, but I itched to re-work that layout into something less boring.

However, this wasn't going to be any kind of state-of-the-state set-up. Most of the things being advertised were forty years behind fashion (which I think is into New Ruralism this week). Not that I care, but I mentally filed it all to mention to Shady.

Then I found the thing that would interest me. I whispered to my stereos to shut up, took them out of my ears and pocketed them, then followed the signs up two floors to the studio.

There were two people there. A big guy waved to me when I came in, and asked what I was looking for. I told him I'd just been passing when I'd seen the place and decided to take a look at their kit, and sized him up while I was talking.

He was not only white, but pale. His straight dark hair was shaved close to the scalp up the level of the top of his ears, but left to grow and combed into a neat round shape above that; the style was fashionable, whereas his plain black clothes weren't. He introduced himself as Simon, but left the other guy out of the procedure. A woman came in as we were talking, and he barely nodded to her. He just went straight into a run through the Centre's fixed kit.

It was okay; a Yam stand with Cassie add-ins, cheap but solid if you aren't a purist (and I'm not), five bog-standard Big Blue motes, a cheap Yam mote (which Simon apologised for) and a specialised Letour-Faberge octopod. He ran it all through a big, showy number -- a very late Xiang Chi piece, from when he was starting to slip and rip off old orchestral classics -- and I noticed a slack arm on the octopod.

Then he asked if I wanted a try, so I accepted, being a born exhibitionist. I cut two of the Big Blues and the Yam, and told the octopod to just run on six arms -- minimalist stuff by some standards, which isn't supposed to be the point of mote music, but I didn't know this kit. The set-up took twenty minutes, with Simon trying to squint over my shoulder and the two who hadn't been introduced chatting together in the background.

The first was a skinny, coffee-coloured kid with a red tinge to his hair and an apology for a beard. He was wearing plain, hard-wearing, industrial clothes in browns and greys. The other was a white woman, shorter than me, with shoulder-length, black rats-tails hair in no particular style. She was a very little over-weight, with prominent teeth; she wore what would have been a conservative grey business suit if it had fitted better. I put her in her late twenties or early thirties.

I set the motes going, running them from a standard keyboard rather than the string-frets or pressure-panels that the set-up also included. I kept the minimalist approach for the verses, using just the octopod for a complex string part with a little percussion work from the Big Blues, but I let rip a little more on the choruses. I'd found a decent voice in the main processor bank, and the words were in store.

...I'll be, Wrapped around your finger...

I re-set the Big Blues while the octopod was taking a mechanical sort of solo; I think I almost had it all right by the end of the song.

"What was that?" asked Simon.

"Late last century" I said, "White boys playing reggae, but their stuff sounds okay played minimal."

Simon nodded, but I wondered how much he knew about music history.

"Hey" said the kid, "didn't you used to work with Richard Barrington's group?"

The joys of local fame. I agreed I had, shrugged off the whole subject. My musical career was never big, and I'd long since dropped out of it so completely that I could genuinely not know these people, despite the small size of any town's mote-music scene.

"What're you doing now?" the kid wanted to know.

"Contract mote-work" I explained, "ordinary stuff".

"Right" he said, letting that slide past him, but then he added, "we're all doing something with motes here. Simon's teaching me -- well, I'm in his regular class -- and Veronica here is getting them to dance."

The woman smiled, and nodded slightly.

"Sort of advanced mobiles?" I asked.

"Not exactly" she said, "I'm doing more with the tactile functions. Seeing what effects I can get out of body-motes."

"Isn't that expensive?" I asked.

She gestured slightly. "I use this place's facilities a lot. There's enough in the workshops here for me."

I thought about that. Usually, body-motes were custom-built to match one user's requirements. But once you'd had a box set up for your personal neural-reflex configuration, I supposed you could -- with some effort -- adapt almost any remote to get some kind of direct link from you to it. The results should by rights be pretty weird, though. Most motes would have too few tactile feeds, so you'd feel numb. And there's the variations in body-image. This girl was either dedicated or crazy.

I left not long after that; I didn't want to get too entangled. I wandered back towards town, found a bus on the way, and called Shady from a quiet seat at the back.

"Your man is running his body-mote at an arts centre" I told him.

"A what?" I repeated myself. "Okay, if you say so. I suppose I'll have to get in there, see what I can see."

"I've spent a few minutes inside already," I said "buy me lunch and I'll tell you the layout."

He bought me lunch and I told him my full story, reminding myself all the while that I wasn't giving away any secrets, and that Shady was someone I should remain on good terms with. It still felt too much like I'd been snooping. I suppose that I'd never have made a Private Detective, whereas Shady likes the idea.

I thought that was the end of the story, but a couple of days later, I got a call from Veronica.

"I'm sorry to bother you" she said, "but I've got a problem. It's to do with running a couple of motes simultaneously. I'd debug it myself, but I've got my show next week, and I need a quick fix -- I thought you might be able to help, with your experience on music groups."

"Yeah, I could try" I said, "but isn't Simon just as well qualified?"

There was a short but definite pause. "I've worked with Simon a lot before" Veronica replied, "I think I need a new viewpoint."

Well, I could believe that; any programmer can tell you how a newcomer can spot bugs in a second that the original author has gone haywire not finding. Anyway, my curiosity was piqued. Maybe my vanity, too.

Veronica had a big attic space on the top of the Centre. She was wearing a blue suit this time, sitting on a big bar stool at a couple of tables. On the tables were three terminals, and the usual mess of fibre connectors and local-band transmitters. She got to her feet when I came in, awkwardly, waved me over with the sort of uncertain gesture that seemed to be usual for her. I asked what her problem was.

It was down to trying to get a complex reaction soft-coded into three motes so that they'd react to a particular call in a particular way once, but differently later. I got the idea, started making suggestions -- Veronica's code was a bit verbose, but nothing the interpreter wouldn't smooth out -- but it all got too abstract for me, too fast. Plus I'd never coded for body-motes before. I told Veronica I'd have to see the thing in action -- or a good soft-model -- before I'd be sure of anything.

"There'd not be any point in a soft-model" she said. "User Feedback's too important. Still, hang on a minute."

She rummaged around a rack of components, and came up with two gloves -- not a pair, but similar designs.

"Here" she said, "try these on, and I'll find you a helmet."

I fitted them. I can use them, although direct-control waldo work isn't my line. The helmet she produced was a vader, a custom build job, with a bank of cones over each ear, insectoid, multi-faceted eye-pieces, and even ol-plugs. It was made to fit close, and she spent minutes adjusting it; I couldn't help with gloved hands.

Those eye-pieces were fixed, with no external feed. Blind, I had to let Veronica lead me to the carved foam block she used as a couch, then just listen as she fussed with the connectors. After that, the blinking lights and out-of-focus images and stereo buzzing of the calibration routines nearly gave me a headache.

"I think that's okay" she said, "here, try now."

A double thumb-click started her test sequence. For a moment, everything went dark again. Then a horizontal line of light appeared to my front, pure white at first, but soon expanding and resolving into a scene...

Right. The mote was in a chest, and it was opening the lid. I had a view of the room, including a nice stretch of pitted plaster-board wall.

There was a sense of pressure on my knuckles, then on my upper arm too. I guessed it was the feeling of the mote lifting itself out of the box.

Finger codes switched to the two other motes in the set-up. They had less complete views of the open lid.

The first mote was out now, and I had sounds from behind; the other two following. Switching fast between them, I had my first clear-ish views of Veronica's kit.

It was all based on stock lightweight work-motes -- I think she'd used Black-and-D's -- but heavily modded. They had the usual four legs, two heavy multi-limbs between the leg pairs, two light fine-arms just below the cameras on the front of the tubular body. But Veronica obviously wanted more tactile feed; each leg and multi-limb had dozens of piezo whiskers set in rows along the last segment. The results looked like giant feathers.

Curious, I upped the tactile feed. I overdid it; suddenly, I felt like someone was running drum-sticks all over my hands and forearms.

I quickly ramped the feed back down. The result was a relief; now the thing felt almost pleasant, though the inner-arm parts tickled like crazy.

The motes paused; I realised that they were waiting on me, and clicked for the next stage of the program.

What they did wasn't exactly a dance, but I don't know what else you'd call it. They began to move and circle around and about each other, stepping sideways slowly but neatly. I'd seen how much effort Veronica had put into the control routines; it payed off. I've seen motes move smoother, but those were expensive maker's custom jobs at trade shows.

The motes had been moving in a symmetrical circle, but suddenly the one I was taking input from moved sideways, fast. I switched to one of the others, and from that I saw the other two spinning round and about, almost touching. They seemed to be jumping clear over each other, but that would have been more than their legs could have managed. I realised that each was giving the other help, the mote on the ground using its multi-limbs to boost the other as it closed in for the jump. I'd found some of Veronica's coordination routines confusing and complex; now, in use, they made perfect sense.

But now the third mote was closing in, joining the leaping pattern. I kept switching inputs round the three, trying to keep track of things, but that just combined with the spinning of the visuals to make me dizzy -- and that's a reaction a mote-programmer can usually suppress.

Plus I was getting even weirder effects from the gloves. The main thing I could hear was the clicking and pattering of the dancing motes from the helmet feeds, but behind that was an irregular soft thumping; I realised that it was me bashing the gloves on the side of the couch, flailing in reaction to the dozens of soft and hard touches that corresponded to the feeds from the piezo whiskers.

It took an effort of will to bring the gloves up and press my palms together, the standard signal for an abort.

"Oof" I said, intelligently, as Veronica unlatched and lifted away the helmet.

"Were you having trouble with the tactile feeds?" she asked, and I nodded. "Perhaps I should have thought of that. I tuned them for the early dances, but I hadn't done much with them since I set up for full body control. You okay?"

I nodded again, and she suggested a coffee. After that, I got my act back together enough to make some useful suggestions about her code.

We parted on good terms, as far as I could tell; I couldn't decide what to read from her friendly but fumbling mannerisms. And I liked her. Anyway, she invited me to her show.

Come the night, I bussed out to the Centre in my best blue-and-green, employer's-drinks-party suit. I noticed one or two private gyrobikes parked outside; evidently Veronica had well-off friends or connections.

I identified one of them while I was milling around in the foyer crowd, drinking sweet Sussex sherry. Most of this mob were, I assumed, arts types, connected with the Centre; they reminded me of the kind of audience you get at private gigs around the university. I only glimpsed Veronica briefly; she was chatting to a well-dressed couple, both in business suits. But then the man wandered up to me.

"Good evening" he said, "Veronica tells me you helped her program her motes."

I agreed, wondering if I'd got a programming bore here, and if so, how I'd get away.

"Sorry to talk shop at you" he went on, "but my company is just getting into that area, and we could use some people with the right experience. You're contract?"

I nodded. "Not sure I want to go back to permi work" I said.

"Understood," the man said, with a quick smile that didn't hurt me any to watch, "but maybe we could sort something out? Anyway, feel free to get in touch -- in working hours."

"Maybe" I said, "anyway, what's the company?"

"Oh, sorry. Vectis Systems."

"The ops'n'i-face swarehouse?" He nodded. "Okay." I pushed my sleeve back from my 'minder and touched the name-swap stud; he matched the move, showing a 'minder with one of those chunky steel Porsche bodies. Very nice.

I pointedly looked at the readout we'd traded names, then back at him.

"Mr Carter?" I said. I must have sounded a little stupid; he must have been used to that reaction. His nod and smile had that fine balance of self-assurance and modesty. I decided it was time to change the subject.

"Is it the motes that bring you here?" I asked.

"Partly, but..."

Then his escort materialised at his side, and just said, pleasantly enough, "Peter..."

"Elsa" he said, and then "let me introduce Clemmie Lenthall, who I'm trying to interview for a job. Clemmie, this is Elsa Jones, my wife."

I said hello, and Elsa Jones, an elegant dark-complexioned white woman with mid-blonde hair, said hello back. But then someone announced that the show was about to begin, and I found my seat in the Centre's small theatre.

I squinted round and eventually located Carter and Jones. I knew nothing about her; I wouldn't even have been able to say that Carter was married until now. Him I knew a little about from the trade boards, especially after he'd replaced his father after the boardroom coup seven years ago. He was an example of that old-fashioned thing you get round a lot of the long-established swarehouses; the direct descendant, father-to-son, of one of the founding partners. Mike Carter was supposed to have been the quiet software genius of the original Vectis; company propaganda said that Peter-Joe had inherited the flair -- more than the last two generations, anyway -- and added a good business mind. Which was the polite description for what he used on his father.

The other stories, about his charm and suchlike, certainly seemed -- at first glance -- to be true, anyway. And I have to admit that I liked the recent Vectis product that I'd had a chance to play with. I couldn't know how much credit he deserved for it, but Vectis seemed to do good stuff with him in charge.

Veronica came on stage to a thin flutter of applause. She looked especially ungainly in a plain grey leotard, hung around and weighted down with the collars, cuffs, gloves and assorted gadgets of a full body-mote rig, her vader-helmet, too big to tuck under an arm, held uncertainly before her. She smiled, though, and made her way to her couch. It was set to one side of the stage; the big, hinged-lid box was at the centre, well to the back.

Veronica settled down, latching on the helmet. Inside ten seconds, some quiet background music began -- boring stuff, I wished she'd asked me for suggestions on that, but harmless enough -- and then the show started.

It all seemed familiar to me, to start with. The box lid hinged up, and the three motes emerged, to start their precise, balanced, circle dance. I was still impressed by the quality of Veronica's code control. Then the fast, weaving interplay began, motes leaping over each other, rushing and pivoting; it was far more complex than I remembered, or than the code I'd seen would produce, which had to mean that Veronica was controlling things directly, switching her attention between motes, launching one then another into those weird spins and dances. I was really impressed. I watched her closely on the couch; her fingers and hands were fast, a blur, as she switched feeds, while her limbs and head moved slightly, just occasionally. She was running the show with the subtlest of muscle-sensor tunings.

The interplay of the motes had developed. Now they were staying much closer together, touching most of the time. They joined multi-limbs in a ring, and then two of them drew together, almost in the same motion flipping the third up and over themselves. It span in the air and landed cleanly, and all three drew apart and began circling each other.

Then they leapt together, and each dropped their fore-limbs hard to floor, then stood on them like people doing hand-stands. Except that next, they began to spin; Veronica had done something very clever with their joints. Their multi-limbs and back legs fanned out, keeping balance as they went, and the rows of piezo-whiskers fluttered slightly in the breeze of rotation. The motes were close enough together for the limbs to meet (but they didn't), or for those whiskers -- the touch sensors -- to brush, (and they did); I could just hear the soft sounds of contact above the muzak-music. I glanced at Veronica; she was motionless.

One of the motes flicked itself off the floor, span in the air, and landed exactly like a cat; the other two followed suit, and now the three were in a neat triangle, facing inwards. They each stepped forwards, and their multi-limbs flipped out, locking together once again. They drew together, and sank slowly to the stage, and the muzak faded away. A single spot picked out their feathered limbs.

There was the usual pause, then applause. I joined in, and meant it; I may not know much about art, but I know about mote programming. Veronica sat up, took off her helmet, and smiled uncertainly; then she wandered backstage to change.

Next was an interval; the idea seemed to be for people to talk about the show. I wandered closer to the stage to examine the motes, then got spotted and cornered by Simon and a couple of people I think he was trying to impress, talking about mote music.

Over Simon's shoulder I saw Veronica, in a plain green robe. She was talking to Peter-Joe Carter and Elsa Jones. I got the feeling that quite a lot was being said.

I made some kind of excuse to Simon and his cronies, and started towards those three; I'm not entirely sure why. The room was busy, and before I was half way there, a few other people were paying attention to the exchange. I hadn't quite covered the distance when Jones used a couple of words, then hit Veronica -- inexpertly and not very hard, but with a clenched fist to the face. Veronica turned and ran for the stage exit; everyone else went quiet. after a second, I made for the main doors.

I left the theatre at a fast walk; everyone else was talking, not leaving. I kept that pace up until I found a bus, then I called Shady Ling.

It was mid-evening; it sounded like he was in a pub somewhere. I didn't much care who heard what at his end, or mine.

"Shady," I said, "are you working for Elsa Jones?"


"Peter-Joe Carter's wife. I think you know that."

"Hey, Clemmie, confidentiality, remember..."

"Don't fool yourself, Shady. Shit, I should have listened when you made that crack about Greek myths and stuff. Carter visiting Veronica in the form of a Black and Decker work-mote..."

"Hey, Clemmie, are you in private there?"

"It won't matter much. Most of it's public now. Jones just called Veronica a whore in front of a room full of people."

"That's Veronica Capel, I take it? The mobile designer?"

"Shady, don't dumb-smart me, you..."

"Okay, okay. Sounds like you know everything now, anyway. So why the call?"

"I just wanted to tell you..." I paused; I couldn't find the words for what I felt. Mainly because I wasn't sure myself.

"What?" Shady sounded puzzled. I doubt that anything in this was more than routine business to him -- which was part of why I was annoyed.

"In future, Shady, let me know when what you're sub-contracting out is one of your nasty little divorce cases, will you? That's all."

"Hey, Clemmie!" Now he actually sounded hurt. "You've got very old-fashioned ideas there. It's not usually divorce. Not as such..."

"No, it's helping people decide what their position is, isn't it? Jones is probably going to pull some kind of polite blackmail on Carter. She looked the type..."

"Where'd you get that idea? She's a Biotech Consultant, actually. Doing very nicely, according to her credit rating."

I cut off there, not wanting to hear about the things Shady considers basic good business. (Maybe I ought to; I've missed getting paid for contracts before now, once or twice.) After that, I went home, and a large rum.

Which was the end of my part in the story. I didn't get any calls from reporters, so I suppose none of them found out very much about the sleaze-board headline of the month, and I didn't need cash enough to call them for myself. If I switched my brain off, the stories were quite funny, really, though oddly enough most of their facts were mostly right.

Yes, it really was the first recorded case of divorce-after-adultery where the adultery was done via body-motes. Elsa Jones was deeply and persistently pissed off with her husband and Veronica, so she told the world everything before she'd even got round to registering the divorce. With no cash on the line -- Elsa did have her own solid career, and their one kid was fully provided for -- it all came down to good clean name-calling. Great fun, if that's your kick.

Veronica vanished from sight, and maybe I lost sleep over that. I couldn't see her relationship with Carter really going anywhere; it's hopeless enough when you only want someone for their body, without the body involved being a custom-rebuild work-mote. I never called him about the possible job, either.

Perhaps I did get something out of it all, though. About three months after the show, I was between contracts again, and I got a call. I said hi.

"Hello" said the caller, "is that Clemmie Lenthall? It's Veronica Capel here."

"Oh" I said, and "Hi", and "How are you?".

"Fine" she said, "I've been keeping out of the way for a while. I didn't want to talk to some people." Then she laughed.

"Right" I said, "how's work... I mean, what're you doing now?"

"Oh, keeping busy. That's why I called, really. Are you fairly free right now?"

"Fairly" I said.

"Well" she said, "the point is, I've been getting offers. You know, for body-mote designs. I got lots of free publicity." She laughed again. "And honestly, it's getting to the stage where I need assistance. Look, would you like a job?"

I mumbled thanks. But then I said "Look. You ought to know -- when we first met..."

"You were working for Elsa? Yes, Peter's lawyers found out, and I made him pass on everything. Don't worry about it."

"I'm not sure..." I said.

"It's history" Veronica said. "I like you anyway, okay? Now, what about that job?"

I'm still deciding. For some reason, I can't decide what I think about the whole thing. But it is a job, and the sordid side of it all was never really anything to do with me.

And the only other job offer I've got right now is to reconfigure Shady Ling's mote-net.

// END //

Copyright Phil Masters, 1991.
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