The last candidate experience proved to be markedly different. As before, the cab waited outside. Millicent (now Penelope) straightened her skirt and went up the stairs. She knocked on the door and presented herself. “My name is Penelope Puissant. I am here to meet with Winifred Stanhope regarding her contract with John Smith.” She handed the butler her card. The butler dressed in the usual waist coat and greys. “If ma’am will wait”. Penelope waited and wondered if the service staff of all of Britain had learned the same lines. They could be replaced by automatons. She knew instinctively much more was done, but the sameness was striking from one house to the next. At this point the pattern broke. Winifred Stanhope came to the door with the butler. Penelope said, “I explained to your man. John Smith has contracted me to assist in travel.”
“Remarkable. Smith just contacted me via messenger. According to him, no such arrangements are to be made. Shall I call the police?” replied Miss Stanhope. She was wearing horse riding gear of all things – grey slacks and a jacket. Her hair was coiffed in a tight bun for wearing under the riding hat.
“And what will you charge me with? Knocking on your door?” Penelope asked with a smile.
“Fraud, from what I hear from Smith. You seem to be passing falsehoods about him. Regardless, he has asked me to detain you until he arrives,” Miss Stanhope said casually.
With those words, the butler opened the door enough to reveal a revolver, but still managed to hide himself from Penelope’s hack driver.
“Miss Stanhope, I believe you are making a grave mistake.” Penelope said. She reached for her pocket and hoped the NLedd had charged enough. “Smith has duped you all and the consequences of your hubris will be severe.”
“I am not like the others, Miss Puissant. Strangely enough, Smith told me the trip was exceptionally long unlike those other dolts. It seems my skills have a wider audience than anyone might imagine,” Stanhope said with a certain pride. “Now please come inside. Smith said he would prefer you alive, but he wouldn’t be terribly put out if a fatal accident occurred.”
Penelope considered this. The butler waved his gun into the door. If she was caught by her competitor, a fatal accident seemed inevitable. If she could get close enough to the butler, she could take him and the pesky revolver out of the encounter. Then, she could probably handle the young Stanhope. She headed up the stairs to the door and hesitated. The butler grabbed her to pull her in. This was his mistake. Penelope attacked immediately with the NLedd. With a satisfying jolt, the butler stiffened and then started to fall. Stanhope was behind her. Penelope turned and jabbed the device into Stanhope’s neck, but there was no charge left. Stanhope responded viciously grabbing her hair and slamming her hard into the door. Penelope saw stars. Winifred demanded “What have you done to Alfred?” Penelope tangled her legs in her opponent’s and twisted hard (no small feat in her dress). Stanhope dropped to the landing. Penelope tried to find something her bag, but Stanhope was too quick on top of her. By now her hack driver noticed the commotion on the landing. Penelope found enough purchase to swing her bag hard at Stanhope’s head , who had fallen off her. Penelope swung the bag full again at Stanhope’s head. Penelope cared not if her opponent was injured seriously now. The cabby was now up the stairs.
“Cor…what the hell is going on?”, the tall red headed man asked.
“A contract dispute. What is your name?” Penelope demanded sounding a bit out of breath.
“Liam O’Hannigan, my business just went rum. Here is your promised pay.“ She gave him the final three shillings. “Here is another half-crown if you can get me Westminster Abbey in 15 minutes. I need to ‘vanish’.”
“Get in ma’am. Might I recommend the new Charing Cross Station. For there, ye would be most difficult trace”
“Here is the half-crown. I don’t turn down good advice. Take me there and quickly”
The taxi ride was fast with O’Hannigan shouting as he drove the horse. There were several near misses with pedestrians or carts or other cabs. These were punctuated by O’Hannigan’s colorful invectives. She tried to open her notebook, but the ride was too bumpy or Winifred Stanhope’s head had caused damage. Finally at the station, O’Hannigan pulled over.
“Here you go ma’am. Through those doors you’ll find trains and other means of transportation. It is quite easy to ‘vanish’ or so I’ve been told”
“You have been invaluable. I hope we meet again Liam O’Hannigan”
“This last little bit certainly got the blood going Ma’am. If all your fares are half as exciting, I would enjoy my service twice as much. Now dash and don’t let the villains catch ye.”
“Thank you. And Mr. O’Hannigan, your forgetfulness and silence will be appreciated greatly.”
The driver smiled, tipped his cap and drove away almost as quickly. Penelope moved quickly into the busy station floor. She found and stayed with crowds as much as possible. As she progressed through the grand hall, hawkers of flowers, candy, newspapers and cafes seemed to dominate and disrupt the crowd and added to the chaos.
She ducked into a book shop and dared to open her second notebook in the crowded aisles. Thankfully, the book illuminated quickly. She went to a late page and observed. The page displayed signals emitted from her technology. The notebook could detect signals, but no drones were yet discernable on the screen. She needed to regroup. Browsing the shop seemed a good way to hide while her pursuer grew frustrated with the crowds and commotion of the outside. No one would notice a woman reading a notebook in a book shop.
She headed to the back of the store to the foreign language section. On the shelf, was a first edition of “Les Miserables” She took that as a gift for Alice. She might even promise Victor’s signature, if Alice was happy with it. At that moment, her special notebook flashed a yellow dot nearby. The sensors were passive so it was only listening and not passing her location. Nevertheless, she moved further back into the store. The dot moved and then paused near her store. Penelope held her breath as if that would make a difference. The dot stayed for a moment and then moved on to the next shop. She released her breath. She looked over herself. She needed to get rid of this overcoat. She perused the shelves more hoping that the pilot of the drones would grow weary or frustrated. In the sciences section she found a book by James Clerk Maxwell – “A Dynamic Theory of the Electromagnetic Field”. This was a bit arcane for Abigail, but she may have a use for it later.
The yellow dot made slow progress down the hall. She took off her coat. A new hat might help as well. The drone that was the dot was now five store fronts down. She made her way to the front of the book store. She paid with the thugs money. She wondered if they would appreciate the irony her purchase.
“Is there a hat shop nearby?”
“The Baldwin hat shop is five doors down to the right.” Perfect – opposite of the direction of the menacing yellow dot.
“Thank you so much”
She took the parcel and headed right immediately with her head down. It felt like the longest 75 meters she had ever felt. She ducked into the door, headed to the back and dinged the bell.
“Hello ma’am. Do you find something you like?”
“Oh a number of items. However, I am in a rush today. Could I see what you have in stock in my size? I prefer a wide brim and purple would be best.“ The shop owner showed her a set of hats. She settled on one with a large black plume of feather and a net in front of the eyes. That would certainly disrupt most recognition algorithms the drones might have.
“This will be perfect.” She handed over most of her remaining cash to the shop owner. That might make getting back a challenge, but she could walk now if need be. It would be long, but not impossible. She took the hat without a box and headed out into the crowd. In a nearby alcove she found a beggar woman and handed her the coat and her old hat. The new subway would take her north and she might be able to get a hack for the remainder of the distance. The fare was a tupance and she parted with that. She got in the car confident that the drones had been slipped. The noisy car proceeded along for four stops. People crowded in which was amazing as the underground train had been in operation only a short time.
At the fourth stop, she got off at the Euston station. She had a schilling and a half left. She might make her goal. Outside she hired a hack to Eagle Wharf road and Regents canal.
“Will a schilling be enough?”
“Just enough ma’am. Thank ye for asking.”
She handed him the schilling she had. The ride was quiet and uneventful. She found no indications of drones in her notebook. She sighed in relief and frustration. She had gotten three of the four in town. The fourth had clearly been warned by her competition. Without the advice of that cabman, she might not have eluded John Smith. Things will be heating up severely now. She hoped that her list was done early tomorrow. The hack arrived at her requested location.
“We’re here Ma’am. There’s nothing here.”
“That’s quite all right. I enjoy a good walk.”
“But it’s near dark and I’m not sure these streets is safe.”
“I so appreciate your concern, but I will be quite all right. Here is a half schilling. Truly I will be fine,“ Penelope reassured him.
“If you say so ma’am. Watch the three lads behind us. They can’t be up to good” the driver warned.
“Oh bugger. Them. You’re right – they won’t be. “ She pulled out the revolver. “ I suspect they may have a surprise if they go after me. “
The cabby smiled broadly. “I expect they do. I feel a bit better now. I’d almost like to watch. “
“All cabby’s like you?” she asked.
“Just the good ones,” he replied and tipped his hat.
“I could probably use some help afterwards. It was a small fare and a bit of entertainment isn’t much. There might be a reward afterwards. A favor if you will – do you have a knife?” Penelope offered.
The driver pulled out a five inch long blade about an inch wide. Penelope admired it. She hefted it then flipped it in the air and caught the handle. She took a cosh out of the satchel and returned the revolver to the satchel. “Could you return these after the fun?” She handed over her satchel and the parcel of books and the new hat. “Aye ma’am. Are you sure you won’t need help?”
“If it is who I think it is, at least one is already injured. Assuming I am successful, I want them taken away. I suspect they will have fare to cover that expense. Are you squeamish about that task? “
“Are you going to kill them? “ the driver asked sounded cautious.
“Probably not, but I am getting very annoyed with them. “ The driver looked disturbed at her choice of words but agreed to transport. Penelope then cut a slash in the front of her skirt and then slipped the knife in her garter. The cabby whistled appreciatively.
“Hush you. I could be your mum” she said with a small laugh.
“Nay ma’am. Not in a thousand years. I am sorry I doubted ye. Tis my pity that you are already home”
“Fresh man. Toying with your elders. Now make as though you’re driving the cab away. I expect a block should be enough and out of any light”
“Aye ma’am. I’ll park and turn about in case you need assistance. “
“Then let us start the game“ she said eagerly.
The light was dark so she may have looked like new prey. Well they had been warned. They could have found a new revolver, but it was more likely knives. She walked down the dark street. She only saw one just outside the light. She muttered “enhance vision” and now she could see the other two figures in the alley way. She decided to look the part of a lost tart (in the dark, it might work). She stopped at a store front outside of the light and looked about and then down towards the hack now two blocks away. She surely hoped he returned. She got up and crossed the street and walked along the canal away from the light. The figure closest to the light whistled lightly and the two in the alleyway approached her. He himself came from behind. She muttered “Enhance speed”.
“ello’ luv. I’m sure I can find a place you.”
Penelope smiled and turned around and nearly bumped into the two thugs – it was the same three. She smiled to herself – some people take longer to learn. Her face was lowered to the two in front of her. One said “hey” as the bloom of recognition started, but the leader grabbed her from behind “Hoy Dolly, I said I think we need some company”. At that point, one of the men in front of her grabbed the top of her dress and then his eyes went wide in recognition – “Boss, it’s her”. That was a mistake. She looked up and grinned and the two sets of eyes went wider, but it was too late for them. She kneed one hard in the groin. As he doubled over, she slammed the cosh on the other’s head. As he went down, he pulled the dress hard, ripping. She then instinctively kicked backwards, winding the leader. She then hit the first thug, now bent over and wheezing, hard and concussed him. She turned to face the huffing and angry leader. His wrist was plastered, but he was somehow holding a knife. She pulled out hers, which slashed the dress and her garters. The dress hung loosely off one shoulder exposing her camisole and light corset. She held a knife in one hand and the black jack in the other.
“You are a parasite and a fool.” Penelope said derisively. Then she slashed at his jacket and shirt
“OW.. you bitch. I’ll slice you good” , and he lunged.
Penelope danced around his knife and slashed at his shirt and coat which now hung open loosely. “Fuckme” and he tried to step back. The knife flashed again, cutting one and then the second suspender. The pants dropped down and he fell over.
Penelope stared at him with menace. “You need to leave this neighborhood or the next time I will kill you.”
“You can’t do this, ” whined the leader as he struggled with the fallen pants with his broken wrist.
She set the cosh down and grabbed his hair and pulled his face up. “Do I need to leave you with a reminder? I said you leave. I find you annoying.” She drew the knife across his face leaving a trail of blood and the leader squealing. She slammed his head onto the cobble stones knocking him out. She stood up and whistled loudly. As the cab arrived, she cut the others clothes as well leaving all men with tatters of clothes. Her own dress had suffered to the point that she was nearly exposed above and below. She used the knife to cut away the thieves’ clothes to bind and gag them. She removed the boots and threw them to the side.
The driver arrived and she stood up and handed over the knife. “My things please”
“Cor… what did you do to them?”
“I gave them a second lesson in messing with old ladies. Here, the cash is yours. Can you drop them over to Stepney at the East Town Cemetery?”
“He looked at the cash. I suppose. They might not last the night. It’s chill and that’s not a pleasant part o’ town”
“They’ll have nothing to rob. They’ve attacked me twice now and I frankly don’t care. Now will you take them far away or shall I dump them in the canal?”
The driver looked startled. She rummaged through the clothes of the remaining two. There was a about a pound in change.
“Two days wages that aren’t theirs. Yours, but you find a place for the vermin. Agreed?”
“I can find a place for them.”
“Paddington or Stepney makes no difference to me, but it is to be as far away as possible. “
“I will know if you shirk.” He looked shocked and scared. “Come on. I’ll help you with this cordwood. Hyde Park may be more discreet than Stepney anyway.“ The two loaded the three into the hack. He placed a blanket on the three to cover them up a bit.
“If they awake, threaten them with the knife. I am fairly certain they will be out for the next 30 minutes. I thank you for the service. I apologize for my manners. Things got a bit tense. Few people would be willing to do this.”
“Aye ma’am, you have the right of it. But, they’s no good and are getting a taste of their own. It’ll all work out. I may not be out here this way for a bit. At least until things cool down. “
“I understand. I hope the rest of your evening is less eventful. “ The driver clicked and drove his freight away. She sighed and murmured “default settings” and felt achy and tired. She pulled the satchel over her shoulder and hiked up the tatters of her dress and walked the rest of the way to the warehouse. She pulled the lock out and the door opened. She walked towards the ship holding her hat. Her stockings were starting to slip down. The ramp came down and she walked up the ramp. The lights came up and she headed for the adaptation lab. She left her satchel next to the historical library. The computer voice came to life.
“What have you done to my dress?”
“I taught a set of ruffians not to mess with a 60 year old lady. I am tired and sore. I was attacked at the last address and had to get lost in a crowd in Charing Cross. Do you know that the subway here is only six months old and it reeks of urine all ready?” She put the hat on a shelf and slipped out of the ruins of the dress. She untied the corset and let it fall. She stepped out of the remainders of the garter belts and hose.
“I have three drones back. The fourth has not returned. My early analysis says you disrupted his contracts on the first three.”
“I would not expect the fourth drone to return. The final contractor was prepared for me.”
“Yes…oh. Then again, never underestimate a sixty year old woman. I expect Winifred will have a substantial headache tomorrow. One of Smith’s drones followed me to the station but I managed to dodge it there.”
“And your dress…?”
“I met three toughs this morning and I thought I had settled matters then. Apparently I was wrong. If the cabby does his job, they will wake up half naked in Hyde Park. “ She stepped into the center of the room. “There should be a cab heading in that direction. Could you see if you can find it? Three men under a red plaid blanket, wearing no shirts.”
“I will try. I will start a search pattern. It will mean active transmitting. The drones can’t process identification that finely.”
“Forget it then. I want things quiet as a mouse in a litter of kittens. Reset me to Millicent.” Her transformation process reversed itself. Her skin lightened; her eyes narrowed; her hair grew back; her body toned back to that of someone in her mid to late 20’s. “Urgh. I need a hot bath. I will settle for a hot shower. Transfer the drone data to the local analysis lab and we’ll process it there. I may have additional data on my portable unit. I will connect it there. “
The body was once again Millicent’s. She headed to a shower stall built into the adaptation lab. Small shower heads surrounded her from her knees to above her head and projected small light streams of water. She rotated herself in the cascade of water and tried to let the warmth rinse away the worry. She did not have as much success as she had hoped. She tried to plot out her next moves and his. “Stop shower”. She grabbed a comb in the shower and pulled it through her hair. When it was adequately straightened, she uttered “Dry” and gentle warm air blew on her removing the last drops. “Stop”. She grabbed a local cloth and dabbed the final wet spots away and recombed her hair. No one on the ship could assist her in tying up the hair so a simple pony tail would have to do. She glanced at a clock on local time – 5:45. The dress from this morning remained. She found pantaloons and slipped a camisole on. She then slipped her dress on. She walked barefoot to the local analysis lab.
This lab had several cubes of local history, culture, maps and customs. Microscopes, measuring devices, brushes and other cleaning tools were arranged carefully on the various tables. An optical viewing screen and working port to Charles, the computer, was at the end of one long table. She took her notebook and loaded it onto a mounting device which then began to transfer data that she had acquired and to update her notebook with updated information on weather, maps, and local events. A variety of environmental data was collected and routed here: current air quality; satellite data to help with weather prediction (unlike the locals she always knew when an umbrella would be necessary). As she sat down, three images were visible on the screen representing the data of each drone.
“Charles – consolidate files.” The three images were merged into one image. “Charles – review data on the three sources. Return any common addresses. “
“I have a common address near Regent’s Park”
“Excellent. Play readings at that site.” The screen showed one candidate after another entering the building. The first one had brought a second person along. “It seems that Charles had hired a barrister”. The barrister was allowed in with Charles. The second and third candidates arrived – Neville Carter-Fraser and Simone Campbell. After some time, the barrister was escorted looking very unsteady and supported by a smartly dressed woman. “Zoom in to pair”. The image enlarged to show the faces of the two people “Winifred…fancy seeing you here”. Time clearly passed after the barrister and Winifred Stanhope had left. Then the three candidates left the building “Time mark.”
“They left his house around 4 PM local time”.
“That is at least an hour with the last candidate. What were you doing Mr. Smith? Hold and zoom in.”
The three looked wan and almost haunted. Their eyes had dark shadows. It was apparent that Simone had been crying. Neville was dabbing his head with a kerchief even though the air was chill. “Zoom into Simone. Focus on her neck”. The screen adjusted accordingly. The image showed a black and brass band around her neck. “Check the others necks as well.” Though both men had high collars, there appeared to be the same brass and black band peeking from their necks as well.
“Oh that bastard. He will pay for this. He is using restraint collars. These are people. They are not pets or animals.”
“It would appear so. If his is using the current version, there is audio monitoring. There are test versions out with visual feeds, but they are not in general release.”
“General release?” Millicent sounded outraged “I thought these were banned. How many others use these abominations? Don’t answer that. I am sure I will be surprised and disappointed not matter what the number.”
“Use of restraint collars has been banned in trade for somewhere close to 150 years. However, individual member planets and races still use them. Slavery and servitude are still remarkably common. The collar is also used in penal colonies. “
“As I said…surprised and disappointed. Continue feed. “ The three left and the drones followed each home. Charles Wayland climbed the stairs and paused and looked around and then went in the door. There was an element of sadness as he surveyed the area as if he were viewing everything one last time.
Millicent did not yet have her list and he could disrupt her candidates just as easily as she managed with three of his. But John Smith, having resorted to restraint collars, might well be tied up the next few days. Millicent needed to know more about their functioning. “I have never worked with these things. What is involved?”
“The subject needs to be immobilized during the initial binding. That can be physically or through drugs. Once immobilized, a set of security nanos is injected into the main blood stream. Those nanos need to establish themselves. This usually takes one to two hours. The collar is then attached. Usually training begins immediately on attachment. The collar can deliver varying degrees of intense pain or pleasure. Usually the subject is given a series of progressively degrading activities with the idea of breaking down personality and will. When obedience is complete, the subject is considered trained. In theory the collar could come off at this point, but is frequently left on as the subject may have developed a certain…dependence on the pleasure side of the collar. Pimps and slave overseers use similar techniques on this planet without using nanos or collars. The collars are quite barbaric. “
“So training may not have been complete on these people” she asked.
“Full training can take days. Unless they were utterly submissive …no, ” Charles replied.
“He probably applied enough to scare them and sent them off while he tried to prevent further damage. “
“That is consistent with the timings.”
“Can the collar be broken?”
“No. Or rather only by the death of the primary owner and secondary owner. Some collars have ‘suicide pacts’. If the owner dies, the wearer dies as well. One can see a fairly gaping hole if the slave becomes free when the owner dies. Most include a ‘simultaneous death’ feature,“ Charles supplied helpfully.
“What about prevention?” Millicent asked.
There was a pause. “There is no research on this matter. Hypothetically, I suppose nanos could be programmed to attack the security nanos. The subject would probably have a severe allergic reaction to the security nanos. This is new to me. We’ll have to test to see if it would even work.”
“Start research and development. We can prototype on the local rats,” Millicent suggested.
“There are certainly plenty of those. Would you believe they are trying to get into the ship?” Charles sounded offended.
“It’s what they do. They’ve spread across the world on trade ships. Why not universe?”
“Hmph. Not if I have a say. Pestilent beasts. I have equipped the cleaning bots with exterminating rays.”
“Back on task. Can I talk to one of John Smith’s contracts without him knowing?”
“The security collars likely have auditory monitoring. It is also likely he will have drones monitoring his contracts. I will also note that once training is complete, they are unlikely to talk.”
“Can the drones be disrupted?” she asked.
“If the pulse is large enough, I suppose. Since drone four hasn’t come back, we may assume that Smith has such a device. “
If she could find a way to meet with one of the candidates tomorrow in a busy place, a hat or a well-placed umbrella might make any sort of imaging of herself difficult. “Can you have the drones be discreet enough NOT to get caught?”
“I have two stealth monitoring drones.”
“Deploy them on Charles and Simone. I want to know who visits them.” She sighed and changed the subject. “Did you finish the tangram books?”
“They were done at 5PM.”
She looked at the time – 6:30 local time. She might be a bit late to an 8PM dinner.
“I will head to the machinery lab and try to cobble together a disrupter. I feel a bit better. Smith acted rashly with the collars and that is going to keep him busy. I know his where his lair is and I think we are safe for the moment. I might even be at Abigail’s in a reasonable time.“