LifeGames Corporation

By Michael Smorenburg All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Horror

Chapter 2

The dimly lit trattoria serving hearty peasant food and plum red wine came as a surprise—she’d not have guessed it his style, imagining he’d lean more toward the ostentatious.

As they settled in, she realized it was ideal, the perfect atmosphere of anonymity she needed to angle him toward her objectives.

Nobody gave Ken a second glance; wealthy as he was, he successfully avoided the public limelight of celebrity—an ongoing task that Catherine, as head of Public Relations for LifeGames, was charged with maintaining.

Catherine had her objectives clearly in mind; she intended this evening to liberate a hearty dollop of LifeGames’ back-story from Ken’s habitually guarded tongue.

Until this evening all that Catherine had learned of the company and its genesis were the need-to-know details of LifeGames’ marketing strategy. Since on all of their previous meetings they’d been accompanied by a group of colleagues from their respective companies, she was determined that this evening alone with him would yield answers.

The idea to hold the review through most of the day, alone with Ken, had been at his instruction. When Catherine had called to confirm that the campaign was ready for the review, Ken had insisted on a private meeting without respective teams. His copious note taking suggested that when the full review was conducted, he’d have insight to run circles around his executives who’d be seeing it for the first time—a shrewd move to give him the edge in the meeting.

Catherine knew all too well how he would grill them, seeming to do so from instinct rather than effort. “Keep them off balance and subordinate,” she thought—Ken was a gifted general and tactician and there was no doubt in her mind that this evening would require all the finesse required to lure this devil of a man out of his craftily defended den.

As they settled into the meal the conversation relaxed and Catherine probed until she saw her moment; “What’s a hedge trader doing running a technology company?” She spotted what looked like a flash of suspicion and danger move behind Ken’s eyes and she hesitated momentarily. “Uhhm... you were a fund trader I believe?” She stammered to re-cover the landmine so nearly trodden on.

Ken eyed her carefully, weighing her question with suspicion. He hated probes in any part of his business anatomy, but he especially loathed any discussion of his pre-LifeGames dealings.

Yes and the eleemosynary,” Ken replied, his answer deliberately and cryptically weighed with ‘the’ definite article to buy him time to think and to gauge if she already knew details he’d rather stayed cloaked.

“What?” Catherine frowned with bemusement.

Yes—my foundation was in hedge business; and, of course, the eleemosynary thing... which you’d know about from your own due diligence... it was covered in the Fortune interview—no doubt you picked it up in the original briefing documents?”

Eleemosynary—the word was a challenge and Catherine had tripped over it. The word obscure enough that she’d betrayed her confusion in the nano-seconds after he’d said it. An instant later her mind flipped up the answer—Ken had been shredded before a senate inquiry into his dealings in one of the rarest forms of financial trust through which he had been accused of routing vast fortunes of questionable funds, laundering them so that they were beyond the grasp of any tax authority in the world. Eleemosynary Trust, the legal entities and hides for the super-wealthy had medieval origins and, by predating Magna Carta and modern fiscal entities, afforded their beneficiaries tax-free status. A Fortune Magazine article concluded that this trust was the foundation for LifeGames murky beginnings.

She scrambled to cover and detour around Ken’s changing the topic. “Of course—I’m sorry. Long day,” she tried to deflect weakly, knowing he’d bumped her off balance and cursing herself for allowing the conversation, moving so precisely in the direction she intended, to need rescuing. By his expression she knew it was a tipping point, a watershed moment to get the momentum back, but not have him realize she had an agenda.

“It’s just... to a layperson like me, this high-tech wizardry is a fair leap from running a hedge fund. Nobody wakes up and decides one morning; ‘I reckon I’ll become a computer-wizard?” Catherine suggested.

“Strangely,” Ken looked a little surprised, “You got that right... You’re somehow in my head or just guessing lucky.”

“Really?”

“Yeah... waking part... that’s true.” He stopped talking to top off their wine glasses, and she thought he may slip the noose, but she got lucky; “I do find it strange you put it like that; I literally opened my eyes one morning with the concept of LifeGames fully installed in my head. I say installed, because I didn’t have to think about it further than that.” He took a sip, clearly weighing something in his mind. “All I needed to make the idea work was the computer-wizard you mentioned—the computer-wizard and a billion or six.”

His demeanor and pauses told Catherine he was mulling the tack the conversation was on, “This level of VR... virtual reality... it doesn’t come cheap. Remember... nothing remotely like it existed when we got our start.” He pushed away his half-finished plate of food.

Catherine studied him intently from behind a pointedly engaging smile. All the while and with every fiber in her being she hoped her devoted attention would keep the information flowing.

Though Ken saw her eagerness, he’d begun to feel comfortable and in total control of the subject, so he rode onward on her cue and reciprocated the attentions; “I already had a bundle, but OPM... other people’s money... is how you really get big, quick. Leverage. I had a track record, but convincing investors that their money is safe in high-tech with a technophobe takes a certain degree of...”

“Persuasion…?” Her mouth ventured without first checking in with her brain.

“You get it,” he smiled slyly. “You’re learning to think like me,” and it didn’t seem like a compliment, but he nodded to himself, making a note, and then he went on. “…Then the surprise... financing infrastructure and software was the smallest piece of the problems. You can’t scale this business with manpower, with one-on-one hypnotists, we needed to get that automated... led by the computer.”

“I’m not surprised”

“Why would you say that?” Ken’s question sounded surprised.

“I’ve got an instinct that there’s a huge feedback-loop going on during the hypnosis that a human hypnotist doesn’t even realize... I don’t know how a computer can have that sort of empathy.”

“I’d say you’re psychic... or been sneaking info out of our IP.”

“Your IP?”

“Our Intellectual Property... our ops manuals. They’re supposed to be classified.”

Catherine looked surprised, and Ken studied her; her surprise seemed honest.

“I swear... It must be instinct on my part, your operation’s tight lipped.”

“Good...” he relaxed a smidgen. “But you’re an insider now, and we have momentum that competitors won’t easily emulate. I can confirm it without giving away State-secrets—we hit our biggest problems with automating the computer-generated hypnosis.... And patching it to each subject’s personal psyche... Creates situations you wouldn’t believe.”

“Situations?” Catherine challenged.

“The details could take hours,” he assured her and ordered another bottle.

“I’m in no hurry.” It was music to his ears.

Catherine waited patiently for him to continue, coaxing with cues and feminine wile. “The third subject we hooked up... Oh, I must caution, Cath... this is strictly, and I mean strictly off of the record,” his voice laced with unmistakable menace.

“What happens in Vegas...” she gestured zipping her lips. Her eyes were sparkling, she willed them thus.

Ken grinned, enjoying relaxing in her presence, truly relaxing more than he had done in longer than he could remember. It was then, in that moment, that he seized on his opportunity to aim the conversation down a path he was coaxing toward; cementing his advantage in the run of power play: By using jargon she’d certainly not comprehend, he knew he could force her into subordination to his superior knowledge. His mouth began to run, relating all manner of trials and tests in the early days;

“...our first two runs were short and sweet with no hint of trouble, but the third attempt was a little unfortunate… we’d run the full ritual on the subject, and he was already neural-linked when he went meltdown.”

He paused for dramatic effect, “As we swung him out over a precipice, he went into cardiac. Without medical on hand, he was a goner. But the worst of it was, we weren’t yet using the bags and he soiled himself pretty good.”

He left the statement hanging.

Catherine deliberately showed no response, just a lopsided grin of assumed bewilderment hanging across her face.

Ken spotted the pantomime he’d angled to achieve: “What?” he asked, faking ignorance to his own over-complicating recount.

The full-ritual? Melt down...? What else...? Bags? I think I’m missing something here.” She maintained the pose—she actually knew and could guess at the terms, but she knew it was a game that he wanted her to play.

“Yeah.... Company jargon... This is actually fortuitous... we need you up to speed on everything for the next rollout phase.”

“Sure...” Catherine invited by leaning her elbows on the table.

Unaccustomed as he was to more than a sip or two of wine, it now had his tongue.

They each felt a victory; felt they were controlling the conversation.

“You’re of course familiar with what we do? The virtual reality... The technicalities of VR I mean? The economics of it?” Ken quizzed.

“Reasonably, but run it by me anyway, treat me like I know nothing.” Catherine suggested.

Ken’s vanity overflowed in his tone as he laid before her the foundations of the LifeGames operation. “We’re way more cost effective than any field assessment, so it’s only in the backwaters that serious training and benchmarking for almost any human endeavor is still done the old-fashioned way. The airlines, of course, have simulated flight training forever; but we take it just so much further. Our first contracts were military Special Forces and tacticians. These are all obvious angles; but then the courts began assessing judges and we uncovered huge incompetence. It was a coup. Law firms started pushing their people through, then politicians got into it coming into election. Now it’s even school teachers who need our certification before they’re hired on.”

He paused for a swig from his glass, “Okay so far?”

Catherine nodded, “Standard stuff... VR is common enough; and I think I get what you’re bringing that’s different...” It was a leading question.

“Sure, Virtual Reality’s now pretty much off-shelf technology,” he agreed; “Drop enough cash and you have a facility.... But what does it deliver? A simulation. And what’s a simulation when there are no consequences to the candidate? The plane’s tumbling in a death spiral, all the alarms and lights flashing exactly as they would in reality... But a VR pilot knows it’s a trumped up game. He knows his balls aren’t on the line. If the bird goes down, they just set up the scenario again, and off he goes into the next module... As you know, I bring a new angle; give him consequences, or, at least, take away his knowledge that there aren’t consequences in a simulation.”

“You hypnotize him...” Catherine encouraged.

“We hypnotize him before the simulation... yep. Get him believing that what he’s experiencing is the real thing. And, of course, these days we don’t have to just put a helmet on him with tiny screens to give him an eyeball view or stick him in a pressure suit and rock him around in a gyroscope. We found that subjects weren’t buying into the illusion of it. No... that was our other big innovation... to neural link subjects. Hijack the central nervous system with electrodes and give a four-dimensional experience; immersed totally into a three dimensional world with an authentic fourth-dimensional time component.”

“Time component?” Catherine was afraid to overplay her hand; she knew what it was. “I mean... yeah... I know about the time dilation... but it’s very superficial.”

“I’ll dig into that in a moment. It’s heady stuff,” he looked for her agreement.

“I don’t doubt it.”

“Like I said; we started out with trained psychologists conducting hypnosis, but that’s not scalable—there are only so many of those nutcases available that you’d want to employ, we needed scalable to go global, so we encoded the sequence to software—now computers can take in the upper-ninety percent of clients from full consciousness to the fourth level comatose state in under fifteen seconds. Psychologists differ in their abilities, but even the best will take a minute or more—and time is money. It was our first real coup.”

Catherine made a show of wide-eyed wonder as if hearing it for the first time, feeding Ken’s super-ego, willing him not to pause.

“We swept the board clean... without a LifeGames training certificate you don’t have a prayer to get above middle management. We dominate global power through our facilities—Legislators in parliaments, senates in States, the judiciary in every country that counts, military strategists... friends and foes... we hold the strings, train and review them all.”

“Just—WOW!” Catherine knew they were powerful, but the impact of implications was a genuine shock that she didn’t need to fake. He was on a roll now, needing no more encouragement.

“The computer’s got an integrated fMRI scanner, logging vast data fields, instantly compiling on-the-fly critical appraisals, re-training sequencing, re-testing... all in one run. Months and years of real-world performance all in a single session—all under one roof and at the touch of a button.”

He was striding, rambling, unable to halt his mouth, “Ritual... you’re a smart cookie, you’ll have guessed... it means hypnotizing subject... fitting bags. The hypnosis suspends the knowledge that it’s a simulation. The action kicks off and the subject’s lost in a world that’s deadly real to him...” he hesitated a moment, “...or her... see—no gender bias...” he assured, “He... she... they’re really, truly there, immersed in the selected world. We deliver the goods—every time. Nobody to touch us.”

He was unnerving; for all he was saying, something carefully not said, and it drew her in like a fish to a lure. There was fire here—something warm, reassuring and appealing about this discussion, this technology, this character, but something deeply sinister too.

Ken had already finished his glass and was pouring another; Catherine hadn’t remembered to sip yet. “...You see, Cath, that’s the valid reaction... the real one, the true one, that’ll happen when a trainee confronts the real-life situation. Using other training methods, other VR without hypnosis... certainly, failing to get the subject down to level four... something only our software can do... you just don’t see our kind of results.”

The alcohol was working its magic; Ken’s tongue was as slick as greased Teflon, information flowing over it without any holdback friction. Catherine kept the taps open with “oohs” and “ahhs” at judiciously chosen moments. So, as Ken swallowed the last of his glass, Catherine signaled for a new bottle of liquid truth.

“And it was that number-three that taught us to use bags. What a mess... These days, the bags are standard operating procedure... catheter and rectal.”

It wasn’t an angle she cared to pursue. Below the veneer of his billions, she reminded herself, Ken displayed a vulgar and ill-bred origin.

“...And melt-down,” she offered, ...must be jargon for an operating problem—right?”

“Right,” He confirmed, “And, the next phase for expansion will be the use of nutrition plasters.”

He paused a moment, a moment that seemed terminal to the momentum and Catherine feared that the spell was gone, but he tantalized her with a promise;

“I need to brief you on this; guess now’s as good a time as any. First I need a leak,” he stood up.

Catherine watched Ken make his way through the dimly lit tables. In an obvious attempt to stave-off the onset of advanced inebriation he was forcing a stiffly disciplined control into his stride.

Three minutes later Ken returned, and, predictably, he had assumed the different personality his vice lent him.

“Where was I?” He asked rhetorically, gliding back to where he’d left off in his account. “Ah, yes. The next phase of our PR campaign will be way bigger, Cath. Our primary test market results in operations have been staggering.”

Catherine’s eyes widened with genuine dismay, this first phase of the campaign was paying beyond her wildest imaginings, a bigger payday would be obscene. She was sorely tempted to suggest a sliding commission on increased revenues, estimating he might just agree, but it would derail the drift of the conversation so she let the strategic idea pass in favor of details.

“Now that I’ve given the world the idea, there isn’t anything too mystical about our cocktail of hypnosis and virtual reality; eventually there’ll be corporate espionage... a breach. The competitions plenty far behind, but I need them out of the game, and we do that through innovation they can’t figure out.” He said it smugly. “I’ve got insiders on retainer, and I know the Chinese, Koreans and Israelis are all chasing hard—they hate depending on us.”

It was all “I”, unadulterated vanity, and Catherine forced a smile to mask her aversion to the self-gratifying indulgence.

“As you know, all the stuff you’ve been working on is our next phase but not yet ready to go to press, so this is all strictly off the record. Only executive level clearance for now... you’re in the inner circle. Do I have your commitment?” Ken urged.

“Absolutely,” Catherine crossed her fingers, “hope to die!”

He chuckled and seized the interlude to slide his hand across the table, cupping her crossed fingers in his palm. It was a shock—something she hadn’t expected and it caught her off guard. The candle flickered from his close passage, and the room’s temperature seemed to rise a degree.

Catherine let his hand linger a moment before covering his hand with her other hand, squeezing it, and withdrawing to fold her napkin.

Ken left his hand waiting in vain for a return to touch. It did not come.

Her inner circle status was hanging in the balance, evidently consummated if she returned to touch, but she gambled—more power in a promise than an action, and she deliberately let her eyes caress his lips as she wet her own; “You were saying....? This next phase?”

Time Dilation…” he said it with reverence, almost mesmerically.

It was show-time; Catherine cocked her head to one side. It was a deadly game, but she was in it and needed to break the impasse, and she did it with flattery, giving Ken the power by playing the student hanging on her master’s every word; “Einstein? Relativity? Speeding time up?” she offered.

“Yeah, Einstein…” he nodded, “also genius, yes.” Ken inferred himself into an exclusive club. “He used the term first... this we must grant him.” He touched the wine to his lips, “...but my breakthrough’s right up there, equally monumental... and of course, genius. But, no... Time Dilation isn’t about speeding time up, it’s slowing it down."

“Sorry, that’s what I meant,” he’d bought it, and she knew she’d played the ruse expertly. “But how? How can you slow time down?” The concept appeared unlikely, and Catherine’s puzzlement at the possible mechanics of achieving the feat was absolute.

“Our original combination of hypnosis and software, but we’ve got a new module that puts the brain into a... a sort of hyper-drive. When you go through the new sequence, everything seems normal enough to you, but the data is supercharged, pumping in and out of the neural connection at up to ten times—some times twenty times the throughput. The effect is more training in a fraction of the time. What’s happening is, it seems normal to you... you’re time dilated, but on our testing... and that means our billing cycle, it’s more training in less time... very very profitable to me. We are through trials and are test marketing to a limited group of premium clients.”

There was a sudden minute flutter at the corner of Ken’s eye, a nervous twitch that brought his hand up to dab at it. It was a lie, and Catherine saw it. The twitch had betrayed him and she pretended not to notice;

“Decode that for me please,” she prompted; knowing something was a lie, but whatever that something was, it wasn’t clear.

“I’m vastly simplifying this... Using an upgraded hypnosis sequence, we suggest to the subject that images will be coming at them a little quicker than in real life. They respond. It’s been very successful in trials, and… uhmmm… some limited rollout.”

The nervous twitch flicked again, she was closing in.

“The computer then sends the images at the correspondingly faster rate suggested in the cue, and with the subject’s brain stimulated and their adrenaline going, they’re able to rise to the occasion.” There was a moment of sobriety and she saw caution in him.

“You’ve done this? It works?”

“That's’ what I’m telling you. Yes, it’s already in operation to our top clients. We bill on the outcome, on how much assessment and training has been achieved, so that they don’t need to know how we achieve those results, as long as we produce. The improvement in efficiency has exceeded prediction by three hundred percent—and that’s a multiplier over our estimations that were already a four-times increase in productivity.”

Catherine whistled, giving Ken a sense that she was counting his money, and he liked that.

“I’m of course a wealthy man already... this is going to... well… I’ll be in a league of my own.”

“Undoubtedly,” she moistened her lips again. “But the function of it... I’m imagining it’s like being in a car accident? That feeling of time going by in slo-mo?”

“You’ve got it!” Ken agreed enthusiastically.

“Can the mind take it?”

“The body’s been the bigger problem. Most of our subjects on the physical routines are athletes of one sort or another. But we’re herding fat politicians and lawyers through and we’re not yet certain of the implications... we’ve still got it notched down... one slip and it’s, well..."

She found herself chuckling with him, the mood between them becoming ever more familiar.

“So there is a level of fatigue?” Catherine prompted, with an instinct to propel the conversation, “The extra load.... the subjects must surely experience some degree of physical cost... exhaustion?” she squinted, “...even I understand physics enough to know that for a given amount of work there has to be a given amount of energy spent. Athletes aren’t immune, nobody goes on indefinitely.”

“Smart cookie,” Ken grinned, the compliment seeming for once valid. “Another huge breakthrough. We’re using patches. You see, in our modern era, the human body is physically under-utilized. Actually, we’re all a bunch of hypochondriacs.”

Catherine looked skeptical and she let it show, “Hypochondriacs.” An instinct nagged at her; something amiss.

“I’ll give you an example of how under-utilized our bodies are to their capacity,” Ken was running with the doubt she’d conveyed, “You ever seen a hypnosis session, Cath... an ordinary stage show?”

She shook her head, “Nope.”

“Worth a laugh.... subjects do some pretty amusing things.”

The conversation was drifting off track, and she needed to coax it back but the timing was off, so she waited and listened.

“I’ve seen needles stuck into people up to the hilt,” he rambled, “they don’t feel a thing, even if they’re awake and looking at it. There’s no real explanation for it... the wounds don’t bleed. What can you say...? The power of the mind when it chooses to ignore something.”

“Can’t imagine...” Catherine made a small show of puzzlement, then thought she saw a way to get back to her subtle interrogation; “But fatigue is different, Ken, fatigue’s like a car without gas, when the tank’s empty it’s done—surely?”

“A little patience...” Ken assured, swallowing one of the several Jägermeister shots he’d lined up; Catherine’s didn’t match him. “We needed to give our investors something tangible, we took a street kid, maybe nine or ten, skinny as a rail..." he held up his middle finger, provocatively gesturing more than extreme skinny-stiffness, “Our hypno-sequence did its thing, convincing him he was a steel rod that couldn’t flex. We stuck his heels on one chair and his head only just on another, no support in between. It was astonishing to behold... no flex in his body... stiff as a plank. I got one of the porkier bankers, maybe two forty plus pounds of lard; sat him squarely in the middle of the kid. And you know what? Nothing—he didn’t budge, not an inch—like a park bench.”

“A bit irresponsible...!” Catherine blurted, unimpressed.

“Not at all, Cath,” Ken offhandedly brushed her concerns aside, “Forget the kiddie sentiments... my point is that there’s no way a kid like that... malnourished into the bargain... no way he could’ve done it awake—not a chance. But with self-doubt removed and replaced by affirmation—no problem.”

As Ken mused at the strange anomaly lurking within even the lowliest human cur, Catherine felt once again irked by Ken’s brash disregard. An experiment like this was outrageous yet he seemed unable to grasp that. The strains of hypocrisy accused her again; Ken’s attitude belied all the warm and fuzzy PR spin her company was trying to weave for LifeGames as a benevolent caregiver to humanity’s needs.

Everything about him caused her the agony of wrestling with her own hypocrisy; she was attracted to him and repulsed at the same time. It wasn’t the money or power—that would be something she could still justify to herself, no, it was worse than that—it was the danger he represented, and she was a dreadful risk taker.

Ken was entirely oblivious to her expression of distaste for him, he just laughed at her with condescension, as he would to a child;

“That’s just history, my girl. You’re too funny with your concerns for the great unwashed... you can’t save them all, you know. What’s important is what I need to discuss with you that impacts on our next PR phase. I did brief you about our new innovation? Well, this is it, it’s time I disclosed it: Nutrition patches. They’re doing great in trials.”

There wasn’t time to mull the awkward sentiments of moments before, it was go-time and Catherine needed to be up to the task;

“You’re saying, it’s the answer to fatigue?”

“You got it! Pretty trusted technology, borrowed from NASA but amended for our needs. We’re almost ready for commercial applications.”

“Ahhhh, I remember some noise about the NASA breakthrough..."

“Not really rocket science, just a high-yield enzyme-catalyzing monomer held on a transdermal patch. It facilitates gluconeogenesis... it’s a whole mouthful of polysaccharide jargon that I’m too battle weary tonight to recount, but it’s a dynamite little innovation! In layman-speak it supplements energy, a real kicker for the metabolism directly through the skin.”

“It’s a sucrose plaster? You’ve added more sucrose?” Catherine quizzed, intending to draw Ken’s confidence, she pretended to know less science than she feigned through her question; she’d read up on the NASA innovation when Newsweek had covered it years before.

“A bit more than that... you’re a girl, it may be a bit much for you.” Ken winked as if it was a joke, but there was too much truth in his attitude for it to be funny. He was mulling a thought and smoothing a non-existent moustache, weighing how far he’d open up. “I’m going to disclose some facts... strictly off the record—above top-secret, understand?”

He lifted another shot glass, examining it minutely; it was a ruse, his peripheral scanned past it to Catherine, looking for any flinch in her that might suggest she was not worthy of the top-secret confidentiality rating on her file.

“You want the lay-speak or you want it raw...?”

He was confident she’d overestimate her own smarts and opt for the detail—and he intended to lay it on thick, to bury her in so much information that she’d retain none of it; exaggerating some aspects, inventing others. But he’d be faithful to the details that she needed in order to do her job.

“Pretend I’m smart,” she challenged.

“Fine... Do you know why we never patented the process?” he posed, then continued without waiting for an answer. “It’s the Cola strategy—When you patent you’ve gotta reveal the details of the process, and that’s the worst tactical move; so we buried what’s a fairly simple concept behind a firewall of physical security and complex jargon. Once we had it configured, the truth is that there’s not much to it. By reverse engineering our breakthroughs, our two or three competitors are actually closer on our heels than we’ll publicly admit; we know how close they are, we know what they’re not yet seeing… fortunately they have no clue how close they are. I’ve got inside scope on them; they’re right there with our processes, probably a month or two from cracking it... they even have innovations of their own that are, well... worrying. We can no longer rely on first-move advantage. Off the record, we desperately need this breakthrough to put real distance between us and them.”

Catherine felt her pulse quicken. He was telling her that the company was in a crisis—desperate—they were facing dire competition from government agencies that were their key clients. She’d heard murmurs that something fundamental was shifting in the organization; something groundbreaking, she’d been stonewalled on details, now she realized why.

“Do you understand epilepsy?” he asked unexpectedly.

“It’s a neurological disease,” there was a shift in her mood, fear.

“No, not a disease, a neurological state—there’s a difference.”

“That’s what I meant—a genetic... uhmm... disorder.”

“No—in this case it’s a state. You’re correct to call it genetic and disorder when it occurs naturally, but we’ve mastered the process of inducing it with anyone, so it’s just a state. We can switch it on and off at will.” He looked at her closely, “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“I... I’m sorry, I’m taken aback,” she stammered. “My... my family...” searching for the words, “We have a, uhhmm... a history. I was a toddler... I lost my older sister to it, to epilepsy. She had an event... in the pool. I thought it was a game. I remember the funeral, it was raining.”

“Gee...” Ken said; it sounded hollow.

He knew that he was no good with emotional sentiments and avoided them. He hesitated, wondering what to add;

“Well, yeah... Thirty years ago treatments were crude, a cure’s a lot closer now.” It came out unfeeling, so he added, “I’m... sorry Cath. Sorry about your sister... if it was today...” then ran out of small talk.

It was an uncomfortable moment, Ken and Catherine both wanting the sidetrack behind them so that the conversation could move on; each with their own objectives for it to do so.

“Crap happens... As you say... it’s long ago, just got me off balance.” She gave him a smile that acknowledged the unintentional gaffe as meaningless; “Anyway.... Interesting stuff you’re up to; I had no idea about the medical... the pharmaceutical angle within LifeGames...?”

The diversion aside, this was gold for Catherine; a new thread to unpick that might run all the way to snippets of conversation she’d picked up earlier in his office.

“Good... it’s good you had no idea, it means we’re getting it right, keeping the news under the radar. It’s time for disclosure, you need a grasp of what we’re up to, to do your job properly.”

“Great. But if you’re messing with... with epilepsy and inducing it, that’s pretty heavy. That’s proper medicine, genetics? Where are you hiding the white coats?”

“Not on the admin floors.”

“Fair enough. But if you’re employing specialists... with those skill sets... surely a flag would pop-up somewhere? The press would’ve been on it in a second.”

“Keep going,” he encouraged, “it’s why we’re talking now... still off the record. You need to be briefed; we’ve had, well... a few... problems recently and the press is starting to sniff. You might have heard a few of my calls earlier. I wasn’t happy.”

She allowed that she had.

“I don’t want anyone getting hurt, but we have had to, how shall I put it delicately...? Persuade a few of the more persistent editors that there isn’t a story here. You’re going to have to run interference I’m afraid....”

He looked at her hard now and she responded on cue;

“That’s what I do.”

“Good. What I don’t do,” Ken responded, “is the details of all the science; so don’t quiz me. I’ve got a fair working knowledge—enough to be dangerous, I’ll give you access to some of the operations people if you need to get confirmations.” He offered. “Our team is off-site, the one working on the pharmaceuticals. It’s rather, well, clandestine at the moment. We anonymously and openly support certain charities who in turn make large donations to universities; sometimes the money goes half way around the world through various gateways before it lands in the, uhhmm, right hands.”

“And the right hands are university research labs?” She ventured.

“Sure”

“Cardiff? San Diego? Nagasaki? Petersburg?”

“You have been doing homework,” there was suspicion in his voice.

“No—I read it in Newsweek, I’ve got a good memory for detail. There was speculation as to why and how unrelated universities had all come into the money at once. As you say, ears prick up when teams of neural specialists come into unaccounted money for research. My ears pricked up because you don’t have facilities in these centers. It struck me as… significant.”

Ken had hoped that the press articles wouldn’t make the connections so obvious, but he consoled himself that it was only because she now had privileged information that made the dot-connections possible for a smart person with a good memory.

“Okay—so you provide finance, and the results of key research finds its way back to you?”

“A little more complicated than that, but it’ll do.” He sipped and continued, “The early pharmaceuticals for epilepsy were called anticonvulsants. Now there’s a whole raft of new and exotic cocktails; gabapentin, topiramate, levetiracetam, lamotrigine, pregabalin, tiagabine... the pronunciation’s a bitch, don’t quote me.”

“Like I could,” Catherine quipped.

“Collectively they’re called Antiepileptic drugs, AEDs... What I’m painting for you is a picture of our extreme vigilance, our meticulous attention to detail... it’s an insurance policy when things go wrong. You may need this info if we ever need to defend ourselves in the press.”

“Is something wrong?”

“Nothing important... but the potential is always there. It’s important we know how to turn off what we trigger. The cocktails to turn off the epilepsy that we induce, work by blocking sodium channels and modulating calcium channels, the effect is that we inhibit neuron firing and interrupt neurotransmitters; more details than that aren’t important right now. What is important for this conversation is that we’ve developed anti-AEDs—it’s a delicate push-pull to control the condition, we prompt it and we turn it off very precisely.”

Catherine suppressed her shock this time. Something sinister slid within her that went beyond her personal attachment to the malady; they were playing with fire, she knew it instinctively and it terrified her.

“So anti-AEDs have a similar effect to strobing lights? Like the TV news warnings for flash photography?”

“Clever girl, yes. But flashing lights only trigger epileptic events in epileptics.”

“By events, you mean fits?”

“Fits are a symptom, don’t get confused and hung up on fits—we’re not triggering fits, we’re triggering a special class of epilepsy. Epilepsy only describes the brain activity, not the reaction, understand?”

She nodded.

“Fits are out of control, we control everything, absolutely everything.”

“Now are you administering the Anti-AEDs...? Or the AEDs for that matter?”

“I was wondering when you’d twig to that... The software needs to do the magic with the AEDs and the Anti… it needs to dole them out according to the second-by-second telemetry data returning from our monitors… Now, all that detail stays in these four walls—the patch’s main function used to be as a carrier for the nutritional side, and we’ll just keep that idea rolling along in the public perception when the time comes, so that’s front of mind from here on out—that’s all we feed to the press when the time comes—got it?”

“It’s great for my professional ethics,” she grimaced.

“If you’re having problems with ethics, tell me now and we’ll...”

“Have me eliminated?”

She said it as a joke but he nodded just perceptibly—she hated herself all over again for being attracted to danger.

“You’re on the inside now, Cath. I’m serious, so take this seriously.”

She looked down into her lap, chastened.

“I’m not threatening... not trying to scare you. You’ll be well paid. Trust me, it’s very controlled.”

She nodded agreement.

“The patch proved perfect for a dual role… We paste it strategically where blood supply is close to the surface. The NASA patch was dumb—it was passive, simple. It was slow-bleed, slow release. If we used Anti-AEDs on a passive patch, we’d definitely induce a fit that could run out of control. So we made it active, releasing the active chemicals to match our need. The patch is RF active, Wi-Fi radio linked to the computer, and the computer is monitoring metabolic rate and neural activity, releasing dosage on demand... The whole system’s now A.I.”

“A - I...?”

“Artificial intelligence...”

“The patch has artificial intelligence?”

“Yes. It’s integral to the whole system. It’s like another neuron in a brain. It has circuitry. It has some autonomy. But the whole process—our back-end with the patch—that collectively is A.I. It learns on the fly, it teaches itself, it spawns new sub-routines. We’re at the point that we can create a new routine by giving system specific URLs, bona fide Web addresses where details are available. The unit interrogates the site and builds a program from it, just a like a human operator would... Let’s say we need to assess a fire-foreman to manage a major disaster. Take the biggest, the 9/11 Twin Towers. All we need do is point to 9-11 sites that have the details, the findings, the footage. For illustration let’s say we point it to Wiki; and the A.I. takes it from there. It creates the whole program from what it finds. A bit of tweaking to ensure it’s right, and its done.”

“Your A.I. can do that?”

“Sure—that’s what Artificial Intelligence is. It’s intelligent. It’s autonomous. It’s a neural network like a brain. It comprehends, compares and makes decisions. In many respects we’re now just handlers. Jockeys steering it. And that… that our A.I. is this advanced, it is off the record. It doesn’t leave this table.”

“You gotta be kidding. Amazing,” she mumbled dreamily, mesmerized by what she was hearing, back under Ken’s spell, lost again in her detestable lust for danger. “I want to make sure I’m getting this,” her mind tumbling with the revelations. “What exactly are you getting out of all this?”

Ken sipped again, smacking his lips at the sting of the liquor; deliberately letting her stew, considering how much more to impart. He’d opened the Pandora’s box and taken out enough of its toys to manipulate her for his objectives, but he was mindful to keep the rest of the skeletons sequestered safely inside.

Catherine saw his cageyness so she angled as best she could to get him back to details. “Come on Mr. Torrington... you’ve got my attention, you have my word,” she demanded with her most girlish charm.

“Are you religious?” he suddenly posed.

Again, it wasn’t a question she’d anticipated and her mind raced to estimate her best response.“If I was, what would it matter?”

“Oh, it wouldn’t matter a great deal. Just that, with a religious disposition you may have a specific view on what I’m about to tell you; the downside is that your barriers will go up—you’ll have the urge to deny what I’m going to say.”

“Okay... no, I’m not, for what it’s worth... not at all religious. I’m a bit spiritual, I guess you could say, but not religious.”

“Spiritual’s same as religious in this regard, less... uhhmm,” he looked for a word, “Less... feral, perhaps. People who label themselves ‘religious’ tend to be hostile to facts they fear might explain their mindset. It’s in their outlook to remain ignorant of some facts is a goal.” He sipped again. “…Epilepsy has several dozen manifestations. You heard of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy—TLE?”

“No.”

“Temporal tells you where it’s located in the brain, just above the ears. Now when this sector malfunctions it causes hallucinations, visions and voices that aren’t really there. A lot of research has been done on this branch of medicine. Several decades ago a researcher—Geschwind—a neurologist, first noted hyper-religious symptoms that stemmed from TLE—it’s called the Geschwind syndrome. There’s a whole branch of study called Neurotheology that investigates the symptoms. It’s fascinating and answers a lot of questions about our superstitious minds.”

“Really?” Catherine was riveted.

“They speculate that individuals with temporal lobe epilepsy have a tendency to experience states of consciousness called Euphoriaor Samdhi. These characters often find their place in traditional cultures as religious figures, as shamans and witch doctors. It explains a lot about our cultures.”

Ken was relaxed now, on firm territory and egged on by her enthusiasm for the topic;

“We use a technique called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation; by electro or magnetically stimulating the temporal lobe just above the ear, we can trigger these hallucinations—make ghosts or UFO’s appear... have God’s voice boom inside the subject’s head. We’re reverse-engineering biology, we bring on and control what has spontaneously been happening to some people for all of history.”

“You don’t think it’s dangerous messing with the brain?”

“Not at all,” Ken assured her. We’re riding in on an evolutionary adaptation. You want a side lesson? It’ll help you grasp the scope and context of what we do.”

“Of course I do.”

“We obviously have something that makes us very different from our ape cousins. They need to see tens of thousands repetitions of doing something before they grasp it. We grasp it in one or two viewings. The question is…?”

“Why?”

“Mirror neurons. You experience them when you see someone, say, twist their ankle, and you physically cringe… sort of feel your own ankle twist and their pain. Psychopaths don’t have this response.”

“Oh, good… I’m not a psychopath,” she almost asked if he felt others’ pain, but she already knew the answer.

“The evolutionary scientists tell is it’s why we developed so fast. Our mirror neurons, in our Temporal Lobes, run a sort of virtual reality software. It recreates a simulation so that in my brain I can actually get a good grasp of what you’re thinking or feeling… and I really feel it inside of myself. It helps me understand that you have intentions and predict what you’re going to do, it helps me come to your rescue or neutralize something negative you’re going to do before you do it… It’s obviously a very advantageous faculty to have. It means we watch something done once and we can imitate it. No other animals have the same density of these neurons, and none of them have can do this.”

“And this is established fact?”

“Sure,” he insisted. “Accident victims—people who’ve had their corpus coliseum cut—the connection between the two halve of the brain. You wind up with two separate people in one head… one half of he brain might believe in a god, the other half’s an atheist.

“Why don’t they teach this? Maybe in schools?”

“They’ll probably pick up too much resistance… The implications of it explaining why humans are honest or kind, and why we had this huge leap in cooperation that led to the world we’ve built, flow directly from that, that sort of simple explanation’s not popular for people who want a good mystery.”

“But still…” Catherine was frowning, thinking of those implications. “So you’re saying you’re not doing anything more that the brain is already doing?”

“Sort of… yeah… it’s not a bad way of putting it. The brain’s already running virtual reality software, we’re just amplifying it. Very good Cath.”

“It’s how I earn the big bucks.”

Catherine’s mind somersaulted—the scope of LifeGames’ new dabbling suddenly crystalized—chemically open up pathways within any healthy mind and then electrically stimulate the brain to control it. Together with the autosuggestion of hypnosis already gripping a subject, LifeGames would have total control over the mind, thoughts and actions of the subject.

With a shock, she realized she was at risk of being hypnotized by Ken’s carefully modulated voice, and she silently reminded herself that she was with a man of unfathomable capacity and unknown motives. For certain he was intelligent and manipulative, and his grasp of psychology was obvious.

“Whoa! Whoa, Whoa…!” she rubbed her own temples as if what she was hearing was illusion, “I’m going numb here.”

She’d said it loudly, an outburst, and some of the other patrons looked across at them.

“My mind is tumbling, Mr. Torrington. What precisely are you doing to me?” It was only halfway a joke, the information was overwhelming, but something in his manner had her captivated; under his spell.

“You’re right, I should stop.”

“You dare!” Catherine threatened with impish radiance; again it worked and he smiled the grin of another small victory before continuing.

“In the early days our operation—the infrastructure—was quite crude. Great big sets to accommodate client’s training needs. They’d don the helmet feeding visuals with integrated audio and pneumatic pressurized suits for haptic feedback... it was a mess. What we have now makes that look laughable by comparison. We used to deck-out entire airline cockpits to train pilots and we’d hang special-ops military personal in giant gyroscopes, like the one in your advert... That’s all passé, pretty shortly it’ll be redundant.”

“What was I hearing then in the corridors?”

“The last of the old tech. It’s not our future, not as profitable, not as... sexy.”

“You had me fooled, I thought infrastructure was your competitive edge, and I’m supposed to be an insider.”

“You’re becoming an insider.”

It was a promise of lots more information dangled close to her nose she could smell it. He implied that she could taste it too if she played her cards just right.

“It’s not prudent just yet for the general public; non-personal and key clients; to think we’re moving as fast as we have been to the new way. It suits us for the public to think our trainees are physically hurling themselves around in Three-D virtual reality suits, dangling in gyros, but the change is coming fast. All our top clients are already on the new systems. And,” he dropped his voice so only she could hear it, “my darling, love you as I do, if you breathe a word of this before I’m ready I will personally bury you.”

It felt like he’d wrapped a crowbar around her head. In that instant she knew he meant it and it gave her a buzz to be riding this wave so close to its deadly curl.

“Ken,” Catherine said it as quietly, almost huskily, “I can keep a secret.”

“You will.”

“It’s the people I tell that can’t,” she shrugged with a smile.

He laughed, and that was something she’d never seen him do.

“Well...?”

“Well what?” Catherine responded.

“What do you want to talk about now? Now that you’ve admitted you’re untrustworthy and I’m going to have to kill you...?”

“More of the, uhhmm...” she said, and then blurted something she wasn’t thinking and it shocked her “...something sexy.”

“Something sexy?” he repeated slowly, and there was a glint in his eye that made her wonder how deep into her head he had been manipulating. He clinked her glass for her to drink.

“We’ve also got a God Helmet.”

“A God Helmet?”

“The name’s a bit off—it’s not a helmet at all, just a webbing band with electrodes. The name comes from the early days of TLE, it’s jargon. The electrodes generate specific magnetic pulses that the computer controls, interacting directly with their biological neurons. It’s full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system. We can shut down the signals coming from the real senses and replace them with the signals that the brain would be receiving if it were in the virtual environment. The result is, it feels totally real. The ‘God’ part comes from the early days when scientists first proved they could create religious experiences on demand, under laboratory conditions. Of course, we’re far down the track on that now, working on having you go there interactively with other people and have any kind of experience with anyone involving all of the senses, we call it “beaming”... Impressed?”

She nodded, too stunned to talk.

“We’ll eventually be able to route an entire flow of sensory emotions out via the Internet. You’ll be able to plug in and experience what it’s like to be someone else. Can you imagine the boon for human intelligence when individuals can merge with our technology. Factor in our R&D on nano-technology to push life expectancy and you’ll be talking centuries. And imagine... just imagine...”

“And you can also do this? Already?”

“Oooh, no. We’re not yet beaming, but it’s on the cards. Right now we have nodes that neuro-lock with the central nervous system—it’s a 2-way bridge. Like I said, we use it to bypass the sensory organs when we stimulate our programs directly into the brain. We retrieve the experience our subject is having via fiber optic cables that display on our monitors. Effectively we’re looking through their eyes, we see what they see, we sense and feel what they feel. It’s where that footage we reviewed today in your campaign came from—directly from a typical feedback loop.”

“What? I thought that was a set, a CGI mock-up? A computer graphic interface simulation...” She was dumbfounded, “You’re telling me that was someone’s thoughts we were viewing? Actual recorded thoughts?”

“Yes.”

“I... I... well. Ken, I’m...”

“It’s quite something, isn’t it.” He let the silence hover—he hadn’t lost track of his objectives. Adjacent diners had come and gone, and the evening had tumbled by precisely as he’d planned.

There was something about this woman that bewitched him. He’d had this feeling before for a woman, but those occasions had been fleeting and rare; he knew that the only way to exorcise the uncomfortable crush from within would be to have her, to know her in the biblical euphemism.

“You still got an appetite for details?” He posed.

Her mind reeling, stunned by revelations she’d not begun to guess at, Catherine nodded and murmured something encouraging, an agreement that emerged from her mouth, bypassing her mind.

“We need the public to continue believing that the operation is mechanical. We keep the decoy alive, we use our equipment to run a few subjects... to show it’s business as usual. We maintain a full staff complement and maintenance division. Nothing seems to have changed from the outside. Meanwhile, we’re ratcheting the old program down, only putting the less important subjects through it. The Very Important Persons, the VIPs, the world leaders in their field, the high rollers, big bankers, politicians, military strategists... we’ve started pushing them through the new programs. They don’t know it because we take them down, hypnotize them in a greenroom and only usher them into operations when they’re under. They’re of course coded to remember it differently. So, when I tell you there’s a lock-down on who knows these functions, I’m talking life and death… Like, just about nobody outside of a closed ring. That’s how I’ll know if you ever leak it.”

“Fine—got that.” She was now truly terrified and deeply aroused. “Keeping pretenses is my job. I sense there’s something you’re working toward; you have a problem that needs my attention?”

“Let’s call it a teething problem.”

“You need it sanitized—kept from the press?”

“Precisely.”

“Then why did you tell me all this, burden me with the convoluted mess? Why make it possible that I slip up?”

“Because I trust you... and I want you to experience it, to run a session—awake and in the flesh. No hypnosis sequence.”

“What? No, Ken… No, I don’t think so,” Catherine denied it vigorously, but the fear factor was screaming within her for a yes. “There is absolutely no way...”

“Don’t be so nervy… I’ll arrange it—no patch and you won’t go with the whole ritual; it’ll be light, very vanilla… We’ll do a mechanical, not a TLE, won’t use the new electrodes. You’ll be totally awake… lucid and cognizant.”

“There’s no way I’d do the hypnosis for sure…”

“But you’ll do it without?”

She shook her head, pretending to not like the idea but tumbling inexorably toward a yes; “Ken... no... I just can’t, I won’t.”

He smiled and tilted his head, nodding.

“Okay... all right,” she began to relent. “I’m not agreeing to this at all... but I’m definitely not doing the hypnosis.”

“I agree—no hypnosis. We can do it that way, just a very mild ride, the helmet and the feeds. I want you to really understand. In your position… as spokesperson for our company, you absolutely have to.”

It was nonsense and posturing, they both knew it. In spite of herself, Catherine knew she had capitulated and was buying in. “I’m absolutely not agreeing,” she affirmed, “but... I’m intrigued. Let’s just leave any thought of my participation out of the conversation and tell me more. Give me a picture; what exactly goes on behind that smoke screen, Mr. Torrington.”

She tried to employ the girlish grin for a third time, but it was unconvincing. Ken gave himself to it willingly.

“We bring the subject in from the Green Room... With the need for heavy machinery now eliminated, we need surprisingly few staff—just one or two. In fact, just a single member can run the whole show—it’s all software and automated.”

“Good for integrity—confidentiality,” she observed.

“Precisely... We bed them down—all very clinical. There is some question of the, uhhmm... bodily functions—the bags and catheters, that’s handled by medics.”

“I’m not having any of those” Catherine smiled, making it a joke.

“But you’re not doing it—remember?” He winked, “... We fit the God Helmet and the patches, and let the secondary hypnosis sequence begin. It takes them down another stage, or several stages, as deep as we need them for our purposes. The software begins to run—there’s some twitching, there’s a grunt, a grimace, sometimes mumbling, and then it’s over. We debrief, we de-hypnotize, remove the hardware, return to Green Room, and begin the process over with the next subject. The results are all recorded; the recordings are analyzed, graded and results posted to whoever is fitting the bill.”

“And you’re cramming more training in like this?”

“Depending on the sequence and application—several fold.... Actually—dozens of times the normal pace we can achieve with other advance methods. That’s hundreds, possibly thousands of times real life. A year’s worth of piloting, or courtroom dramas, or political electioneering—trained, practiced, assessed, repeated, over and over again in a single session. You come out a different person.”

“And that returns us to my earlier question about expending energy and replenishing it? I’d imagined the subject actually doing whatever it is they’re signed in to do—fighting a war... running, tumbling, firing... whatever—like we had in the Board Room.... God...” she looked awed, “I feel so dumb... So... So silly.”

“Don’t—it’s a natural assumption to make.”

“But the physical routine; surely they’ll thrash themselves to pieces?” She posed.

“A good observation. But you don’t when you sleep, right?”

“What?”

“When you sleep, you can have all kinds of outlandish dreams—falling, running, fighting, driving... whatever. And you don’t actually run or fight in your bed—it’s the theatre of your mind. And that’s what we’re doing and all we’re concerned with—your mind. The physical health of your body is not our concern—we are only interested in getting information into you and reactions to those stimuli back out of you. That’s a cognitive exercise. What we really do is control sleep, control dreams.”

“Aahhhhh....!”

“You’re getting it. When you sleep, your body is paralyzed—it has to be, it’s an evolutionary reality, if you weren’t paralyzed you’d beat yourself and sleeping partners to a pulp. We have a sequence in the hypnosis sequence—the secondary sequence when we fit the God Helmet that takes care of that. It paralyzes the body, just like sleep.”

“Oh-kaaay....!” Catherine exclaimed, “You know,” she dug into the recesses of her mind, I read about something like this somewhere. One of the breeds of dogs, Rottweiler’s, they have a mutation where they don’t have dream paralysis. I remember now because I had one... fortunately not one of the mutants; it was in the training book. They don’t have the suppression and it makes them act out their dreams, makes them tear a house to pieces in their sleep.”

“Not the best breed to act out.” Ken observed.

“No kidding!”

“You want to know something else about Temporal Lobe Epilepsy? On one hand it heightens religiosity—when someone’s in the state, their response to words associated with religious thought are hyper-stimulated, their reaction to neutral words is unchanged, and their response to sexual words diminishes.”

“Which means?”

“Which means you’re safe.” He said it as a joke, but they both caught the moment and knew it wasn’t.

“And you want to bring up sex because....?” She’d spoken the words again as if a ventriloquist had hold of her voice, the ventriloquist in the wine glass.

Ken was momentarily knocked off balance by her forthrightness and she saw it.

Now it was his mouth that spoke before he could check the words;

“Just me wondering what gets you turned on when the power suit comes off. What really turns you on?”

She’d exposed the angle she’d seen him aiming for. Instinctively she knew that this sudden swing in conversation had her on a ledge; a watershed moment. She could pursue one of several directions, so she determined to drive the conversation and her association to where she’d prefer it to go.

There was something wicked in her tonight and it wasn’t just the wine; she was in a reckless mood, of a mind to be blunt and frank, and shocking. It was a tactic she’d often used to instantly neutralize a man’s advances.

Nothing had been said between them for long seconds and she weighed how far she dared push her next statement. It was a moment of conflict—half in deliberate blunt control, and half still under his hypnotic spell that had been building through the night.

She rolled her dice.

“What turns me on?”

Catherine repeated Ken’s question with deliberately slow cadence, looking him directly in the eye. She spiced the words with her voice and pronounced them emphatically with her lips; lobbing the dangerous subject like a grenade.

She continued confidently, “I’m thirty-six. Never married... doubt I ever will. I’ve had six heterosexual relationships, two serious.... Anything else?”

She was now confident, treading firmly on certain ground. This was her terrain, the social environment, toying with the unspoken.

“Six heterosexual relationships? It suggests an alternative,” Ken was uncharacteristically bashful.

“Lesbian?” she smiled and folded her napkin very deliberately, “It’s an ugly word. I have a female lover, if that’s what you’re asking.”

The concept gripped him; Catherine was a breathtaking woman of poise. She’d never hinted at this aspect of her life, and Ken felt a stir within that he couldn’t explain; it was a peculiar challenge to him as a man—that he should dine with her, but have her suddenly so unavailable. By the sound of his voice when he found it, it seemed that this was an entirely new concept to him, “Why a woman?”

He made woman sound like the description of a disease and Catherine retorted it with a well-rehearsed answer, “Wait till you see her.”

“Which one’s the man?” Ken rebutted, feeling cheated.

“We’re lesbians, Ken, we’re not confused!” she smirked.

“Well now, isn’t that just interesting. And you know what…” A new trajectory veering off the flight path Ken had been navigating toward suddenly loomed into sight, so he took the initiative; “You ever thought about cyber-sex? Ever wondered what our systems could do… to boldly go where no man has gone before?”

It made her laugh and he joined her.

“I’m serious Cath… imagine… just imagine where you could go.”

“Hmmm" Catherine made a show of considering it. This was still dangerous ground, flirting with this man, but there was a devil on her shoulder. “Let me guess; you’ve got a range of sex-game software?”

“It can be arranged—I have influence you know...”

“You drive a hard bargain, Mr. Torrington. Can you do spectacular things? Things I can’t imagine?”

“I sure can,” he bragged, “and our system certainly can. You brave enough? A small try?”

“I must be nuts, but I’ll try anything once.”

Her voice seemed to echo down a tunnel in both their minds.

“It’ll take a bit to set it up.”

The company hadn’t had call for this class of training or software before.

“So, who would I get? What image? How does it work? Do I get to choose a... uhhmm... partner?”

“I’ll arrange a surprise.”

“And you? You’ll probably expect to watch my, uhhmm... game,” Catherine quizzed.

“Naturally, there’s got to be something in it for me—call it a rental of my very expensive equipment!”

“All right... Okay... I’m up for it. But, no other spectators! Just you, me, and the machine.”

Outwardly, Catherine was as cool as ice, inwardly she quaked and quivered.

The deal had duly been struck and their respective spoils agreed upon.

Ken rarely drank and never suffered hangovers, but next morning was slow death.

Anton Lim, one of his brightest from software was summoned to Ken’s office, where the boss-man ventured a cautious approach, “It’s a Saudi Prince,” he asserted, “Discretion is essential, you understand?”

And all the software necessary for Catherine’s sequence was quickly and surreptitiously put into process.

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