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"The best installment in a first-rate thriller series...Standiford serves up crackerjack action and memorable characters." -Publishers Weekly, starred review
She paused outside her office door, carefully checked the long, dimly lit hallway in both directions, then hurriedly slid her key into the lock—so quiet now, she could hear the tumblers click—and entered. Not that she didn't belong here, not that she wouldn't have a reasonable explanation for returning, even at this hour, and if it came to that, she might be ready for a confrontation, some opportunity to explode into righteous indignation that would provide the perfect excuse to quit. But if she met someone, if she encountered Security, there would have to be that explanation, and she was already late: her pulse had begun to race, and her throat was thick with anticipation.
She moved inside, shrugged out of her coat, tossed it aside, traced her way to her desk by feel, nudging her way past the conversation area and the vague nimbus of the sofa, skirting the stone-slab coffee table and the huge puff of the down-stuffed chair, gliding the notch of her hip along the edge of her desk, quite aware of the sleekness, the teasing heat of that motion through what she wore. She kicked her heels off, dug her toes into the thick carpeting, felt a tingle rise from the flesh of her insteps to the back of her throat. She paused, closed her eyes. She could see the room in the ghostly light of her mind, every last detail of it. She ran her tongue over her dry lips, reached out to press her palm to the cool marble of the credenza behind her desk. She found the switch she wanted, pressed it down. She opened her eyes and waited.
The screen came alive first, with a tiny pop and crackle, and then asoft blue glow of light that spilled out into the room like mist, and she heard the grinding of the processor soon after. She realized that these sounds, so familiar to her by day, had taken on a new, almost human tenor, as if the machine itself knew what she was about. Illogical to think so. But it was night and even the muscles of her jaw were like tiny coils, quivering with a current of their own, and she felt as though she could be forgiven for thinking of this collection of microchips and circuitry as something approaching flesh and blood.
She waited impatiently as the machine cycled through its initial sign-on procedure, entered the password that gave her access to the master computer, an unfathomable bank of cards and boards and micro-circuitry lodged somewhere beneath her in the bombproof bowels of the building. When the machine had finally settled, she reached into her pocket, withdrew what anyone else might have assumed was a calculator, or some strange sort of television remote. She aimed it at the screen and pressed a series of numbers—her numbers—which the device would encrypt.
Prompted by this transitory code, the bland graphic painted by her organization's master computer vanished, and a series of vague images flittered across the screen, each one colorful, but too quickly gone to be discerned. She listened to the hiss and cries of the machine's electronic dialing, closed her eyes again as she waited, felt the flashes of color washing out over her, cleansing her in electronic light.
When the pulses had stopped again, she opened her eyes to find that the machine had squirreled its way along, as it had been taught, through the many points of choice offered in cyberspace, dropping her out precisely where she had left off her normal work only hours before. I don't work in this room, she thought. I work out there, somewhere. Out there, in the vast infinity of machine space.
Her machine sat quietly now, its screen bathing her in a film of deeper blue, and she imagined that she could feel the light's cool touch as she pulled the ties of her robe loose and sat down before the machine to take a different path.
"You feel more comfortable here?" he asked her, and she found herself nodding in response.
But it was a question pulsing before her on the computer screen, after all. She glanced across the dimly lit room to the door of her office. Locked. Yes, she had locked the door. Of course she had. She smiled at herself as she hurried to tap out her response.
"Is 'here' in Norway?" She watched her own message unfurl below his question, tiny electronic characters laid out against the dark blue of computer space.
"Yes, I think Norway," came his answer.
"Well, it seems very warm in Norway," she typed. It was true. She felt a thin trickle of sweat inching its way down the flesh just in front of her ear. Another time she might have brushed it away in annoyance. Now it felt like a tiny finger tracing its way down toward her throat, toward the plane of her chest. She willed it on its way, and her breasts tightened in response.
"... and how is the situation of your work?" she read.
A tick of sound from somewhere, she thought. But it was just nerves, her imagination.
"I am still deciding," she replied. "Such disillusionment. Maybe the best thing is to leave. But time will tell." Then she added, "I don't want to talk about work tonight, please. I am feeling too comfortable now."
"Ah, good," was his response.
She murmured a prayer of thanks. In fact, she was greatly distressed about "the situation of her work," but she was determined to bury her feelings, for tonight at least. As their scheduled day and time had neared, she'd found herself burning with anticipation, and she did not want anything to spoil it. The suspicion that her passions might possibly have risen in direct response to the greater urgencies in her life had occurred to her, but she did not care. Comfort was where you could find it, she had decided, and nothing was going to deter her from that tonight.
Besides, the fact was that she did feel more comfortable here, in this new meeting place. They had met in a much different arena: "on line," as it was referred to, in one of the chat groups on the Internet, nothing like alt.sex.bondage, of course, but one of the more innocuous ones, where she had been lurking quietly in the background, keeping an eye out, not for cybermates, but for lost souls who might profit by what her organization might provide. She had read about all these groups. What better source of converts? How patronizing she had been, she thought now.
Torsten, his name, and though it bespoke of Scandinavian open-mindedness, even sexual brazenness and amorality, she'd been touched by the innocence of the messages he had sent when he'd first appeared on-line: "I am new to this," he'd said. "I am alone ... but not lonely," these messages popping onto her screen interspersed into the chat of three women complaining about the rudeness of men they'd met on-line.
"... I am being amazed at how the world has changed to allow such a thing as this ...," she'd read that and more and finally felt somehow so taken by this Torsten, whom the other three steadfastly ignored, that she'd found herself tapping out her first truly "personal" message in response, surprised by how her fingers trembled as she pressed the keys.
Things had progressed rapidly with Torsten, and beyond her wildest imaginings. She knew it was partly to be accounted for by her own loneliness. She hadn't had what might be termed a "date" for more than a year, having come to prefer the predictable, low-grade boredom of her own company to the inevitable disappointment she'd become accustomed to in her relationships, the last, of course, worst of all.
There were men around, other men in the organization, of course, and she hadn't sworn off them, but the organization was growing so rapidly, and the responsibilities of her position had increased, and she felt that she'd needed no distractions, not for a while at least. And somehow the weeks had become months and those had strung together into a year or more ... and then, suddenly, there had come Torsten, from nowhere, or from out of cyberspace, to be more exact.
They had discovered common interests in reading (biographies and histories, primarily), in cooking (the medium-fat diet and a little wine never hurt anyone), in thinking (how vast the world had become with these machines leading the way, how difficult it seemed to feel an important part of things). She could have him on her terms, or on equal terms at least, no more at the mercy of his whims as to when to be together than he was at hers.
Though they had shared vague physical descriptions (she had subtracted a few pounds from her true weight and five years had somehow vanished from her age; he, on the other hand, had called himself a better-looking Sigmund Freud), she was free to imagine him physically as she preferred (these imaginings becoming steadily more intense), and she was free to speak with him without fear, for she was ultimately just a few letters and symbols, as ultimately untraceable by him as he was by her. And though it had been Torsten to guide them gently out of the common group where they had met and into a private "room" where they could talk more intimately, she'd soon discovered a latent desire to speak openly of things she'd barely allowed herself to think about, much less express.
At first, he'd questioned her about her work (he was an accountant, in a large city, and though he'd never said, something in his odd syntax suggested it was in some European country), her upbringing (his a pastiche of anonymous boarding schools, exact locales unnamed; hers inconsequential, in a city of the American South, she'd told him, and never said how far south, nor how misleading that expression was, in her case). In the beginning, she'd been extraordinarily cautious, as if any chance detail she might let slip would lead to this unknown man tracking her down, across continents, perhaps ... she'd come home late from work one night to find a sex fiend, a killer slavering in the bushes by her doorstep.
But little by little she'd lost her reserve. He had become her friend, after all. And she had begun to confide in him. At first she'd shared the vaguest hints of her unease about her job, and then, at his gentle prodding—"We all have passed through these periods of doubt about what we do"—she'd confessed graver concerns. She'd told him nothing specific, of course, but spoke of matters she had discovered that, if not outright criminal, at the least seemed at odds with the very mission of their organization.
"In this new world order," he'd tried to reassure her, "perhaps what seems untoward is just the way of business."
No, she'd told him. She knew the difference between matters of simple exigency and what was downright wrong.
Was there no one she could talk to about these matters? Torsten had asked. No, she told him. There was no one. Of course that was not exactly true. There was one person, and she had taken certain steps, but she had not seen fit to tell even Torsten that.
Besides, by then they had begun to speak of other intimate matters, discussions of things that had swept her into utter dizziness as she tapped and read, tapped and read. It had started with his admission that he had found himself thinking of her lips as he read the words she typed, how her mouth would move as she formed the words, and she'd quailed at first, but then thought, well, yes, they had the words between them but not the sounds, nor the lips ...
... and then discovered as she typed her timid response that her thighs were bathed in warmth. They'd somehow passed on from lips to skin to hands and what those might do ...
... and had anyone suggested to her a month ago that she would find herself admitting to a total stranger that yes, she had in fact touched herself in those ways, and found it intensely pleasurable, she would have called it unthinkable. But now, what would have been a flush of embarrassment or shame had become a heady, heart-pounding rush of exhilaration as she responded to his inquiries: "Tell me how ... tell me how it feels ... tell me that you can feel me there with you, in your office, my hand with yours ..."
Even now, her hand had moved to her breast, was squeezing the knotted flesh of her nipple to the very edge where pain took over pleasure. She swallowed thickly, saw that her robe had fallen entirely open, that she was fully bared before the glowing machine. She closed her eyes and arched her neck up to the blue light, and thought that some soft sound had escaped her throat.
I am in Norway, she thought ... in Tibet ... in Oz ... I am floating in clean, clear space where nothing can hurt me, nothing can trouble me, where I can be just as I wish to be ...
Glorious freedom here, then. And thanks be to Torsten, who had told her of the need to move their meeting place again. He read the magazines, the specialists' reports, kept up with such things, it seemed. When he'd discovered that others had invaded their "room," to "lurk" invisibly while they spoke of such intimate matters, he'd been not so much incensed or embarrassed as saddened. While she had felt a sudden pang of fear—imagine if the others with whom she worked were to ever learn or overhear—he had reassured her. The two of them were just as anonymous to those electronic voyeurs who "watched" as they had ever been.
Still, the dynamics of their meeting had been altered dramatically. Certainly, there had been no more discussions of her work. And even their sexual conversations became awkward, truncated, interrupted by signals that others had slipped into the "room," or by Torsten's manipulations to check for such intrusions.
Then he had discovered the safeguards. First, the device she'd used when she logged on, a tiny computer itself, actually, which converted her password into a different, encrypted code each time she used it.
And now, as a double safeguard, this new place, this Comnet. A "remailing" service. In reality, a computer somewhere in Scandinavia, where their messages would arrive, after leapfrogging along the Internet, to be stripped of their original identifying codes, and receive new, randomly assigned names. Here, in some room within a room within a room of an indifferent Nordic machine, they could converge, safe from any prying eyes.
Insulated now. Insulated and insulated again, disembodied spirits trysting in some mythic ice cave of the future. In real-world space, she might find herself confused, doubting, uncertain, but here in the place the machines had created, she could come to be with Torsten, and for now at least, be free.
"... something different ... something you have never done ...," she read on the screen before her now. Her hand had moved to her thigh, then slowly up to a fold of flesh that seemed almost agony to touch. She felt her ankles lock against the spokes of her chair, felt her pulse thudding in her ears.
"... my hand is your hand ..."
Her lower lip was caught in her teeth, her fingers truly were another's as they probed and stroked ... and yet something was nagging at her, fighting for attention: in your office, he had said. Had she slipped, had she told him where she was? She'd been so careful all these weeks, no clues, no hints ... but perhaps he'd just assumed. It was natural, wasn't it. He was in his office, so she'd be in hers ...
She threw off the thoughts, silly, silly, found herself urging upward now, lifting herself out of her chair toward an avalanche of release as great as any she had ever known. She knew that she was speaking aloud now, any thought of typing a distant memory, but it did not matter, for Torsten would have joined her in his own turn, and they were connected over the vast, impossible stretches of ether ... her very being had disintegrated, spread across this unknowable space, her consciousness filling with one explosion of light after the next.
"Oh, dear God," she said, and might have spoken the words again, had she not heard from somewhere the sounds of the door lock clacking, the rush of feet upon carpet, the spoken reply.
"Harlot," came the voice. "Blasphemer. Jezebel!" The words hissed in her ear.
At first the words meant nothing. They might have been elements of her fantasy, imagined sounds that barreled out of the tunnels of the ethernet along with the images of light and color that rocketed about her brain ...
... and then she felt the arm about her throat, and realized that she was being pulled backward, brutally lifted from her seat, her ankles raking the spokes of her chair.
Excerpted from Book Deal by Les Standiford. Copyright © 1997 by Les Standiford. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.