Back in his room, with his US™ working again, Nike realised he should keep his head down. Make things look like they were normal. But nothing was as it had been before. Externally there was no change, but inside, Nike felt like he’d completely transformed. And he couldn’t tell anyone about it. He didn’t think he should tell his Nan, he couldn’t talk to Omo and he knew he shouldn’t breathe a word of this to Pryce. He was alone. Truly alone. In his case, knowledge was most definitely not power. He was beginning to experience loneliness for the first time.
He wasn’t the only one with secrets now though. Omo had a secret. Angela had a secret. Put them both together and that WAS the secret. Yet another illicit liaison that Pryce didn’t know about. If he had, he might have wondered why it was that his wife was interested in having sex with any and every other man but not with him. Why were some women like that? Why hadn’t ULTIMATE® done away with infidelity when they’d done away with everything else in the personal life? But Pryce was busy struggling with other questions. Pryce didn’t even recognise the ball, so it’s no surprise he couldn’t keep his eye on it.
Right now, Pryce was under pressure from Graham to plug the gaps. He had to be extra vigilant. The system had been cleaned and checked and double checked and appeared to be safe again, but Graham was blaming Pryce for not pre-empting the problem and he was detailed to investigate Omo, Nike and Flora thoroughly in an attempt to work out how the breach in security had occurred. He had been left in no doubt that his career prospects were looking decidedly shaky if he made any more mistakes. And he had no idea how he was supposed to achieve the results Graham demanded from him. Even if he carried out 24 hour surveillance on the kids logs he wouldn’t be able to work out what was going on. It was physically impossible for him to carry out real time data collection on three people. That was the point of having an automated system. To work effectively, the system had to be far too complex for a human to work. And he felt out of his depth.
Omo felt out of his depth too but for different reasons. He was still trying to make sense of what had happened between him and Angela once Nike had left the office. Not just how but why. He had no previous experience of real sex, precious little of virtual sex. Sex wasn’t a taboo in the ULTIMATE® world at large, but in the world of The PROJECT⌂ things had evolved so that there were many other things to focus on. Consequently sex had never really featured. And certainly not sex with emotion. At least Omo thought what he’d experienced was emotion. He had no idea that Angela had seduced him simply because she could. He thought that she’d picked him because she liked him and that their love-making was ‘the real deal.’ Not that the phrase would mean anything to Omo. He had no conception of reality and nothing to compare the experience to. For the first time in his life he had questions and emotions and he wanted them answered. So like a good ULTIMATE® citizen he turned to the knowledge bank.
While Nike was doing everything he could to keep his head below the radar, Omo’s amorous liasion with Angela made him stick his neck out in a way that was bound to draw him to Pryce’s attention. Maybe this was part of Angela’s plan? But that was a thought Omo was incapable of having. Nike asked asinine questions about suitably meaningless topics, Omo started asking questions about love and sex, and Pryce was supposed to be following it all and making sense of things.
‘What is love?’ Omo asked the knowledge bank.
LOVE: Definition. In History, an intense feeling of deep affection or fondness for a person or thing. Generally associated with sexual passion and sexual relations.
Omo had experienced an intense feeling. It was a positive feeling so he assumed it was affection or fondness. He wasn’t Nike. He wasn’t going to waste credits getting definitions for ‘affection’ or ‘fondness’ ‘sexual passion’ or ‘sexual relations’. He worked with what he had. His question was answered. He loved Angela. He was less bothered about what that meant than about what would happen as a result of the fact. Did Angela love him back? Of course she must. After all, they’d had what she called ‘a shag’. He’d asked her what it meant. She’d had to spell it out to him. He’d felt such a fool. But then, quickly, he’d felt so good he wondered why he’d never known about this before. Why he’d never known that feeling could be so good. ULTIMATE® had never encouraged him to feel. If he was Nike he might have wondered why. But because he was Omo he just wanted to know what the feeling was, and when he could feel it again. And he realised this was a feeling quite unlike any virtual simile he could experience. ULTIMATE® sex focussed on physical sensation and that was enough for most people. What Omo had just experienced was physical sensation plus emotion. Omo could not believe anything could be better than the half hour he’d spent naked with Angela. Not even ULTIMATE® sex.
Words and definition provided no practical resolution to his newly found emotion. Knowing what it was didn’t stop him thinking about it, or wanting to experience it again. So he embarked upon a dangerous path. Very out of character. He attempted to interface with Angela.
‘Uh..’ he was lost as he saw her face on the US™ screen, larger than life and even more attractive than he remembered.
‘Omo. Hi. How’re you?’
‘What can I do for you?’ Angela was a piece of work. She didn’t bat an eyelid. Didn’t seem concerned that everything they said was being logged and could be seen by Pryce if he only put in the effort to check the logs. Or maybe that was exactly why she did it.
‘When can I see you again?’
She’d got him, hook, line and sinker. She knew it. One taste and he’d be back for more. She wasn’t even flattered. She knew it would be this way. He wasn’t the first, he wouldn’t be the last. And she was completely in control. Which was just the way she liked it.
‘Oh, I don’t know, it might be difficult… can you think of a good alibi?’
‘What’s an alibi?’ Omo had never heard of the word.
The US™ screen came to his rescue.
ALIBI: Definition. A claim, supported by evidence that when an alleged act took place, one was elsewhere.
This didn’t really help Omo. He didn’t know what an alleged act was…. Angela helped him out.
‘We need to come up with an excuse.’
‘Why don’t you think of one and then get back to me?’
And she was gone. Angela knew what she was doing. She was the last generation of women to grow up espousing the ‘Treat them mean, keep them keen’ philosophy. ULTIMATE® had consigned such doctrines to the far reaches of the knowledge archive where no one was likely to find them. But Angela had slipped through the net. She had known the art of seduction long before she used it on Omo. She was already an expert when she’d met Pryce and she was only twenty years old then. Angela was more than a match for Pryce and Omo was a minnow to Pryce’s trout. While Angela reeled Omo in, she was making her play for Pryce and Graham. Minnow, trout and shark. Three for the price of one. A job worth doing.
Omo came up with his excuse a few hours later. It wasn’t a good one. He didn’t have experience and he didn’t dare ask Nike, who as far as Omo was concerned was the master of the good excuse. Alone, he did the best he could. Omo decided that his alibi would be that he had become interested in adaptive analytic theory after his visit to Angela’s office and he’d like to know more. Why he didn’t just ask the knowledge bank now it was back on line wasn’t a question that suggested itself to him, though it was the first question Pryce asked when, later on, he looked at the logs. But Angela hadn’t demanded a good alibi, just an alibi. And an alibi Omo gave her.
‘Hi. Me again. I wondered if you could come over and show me more of the analytical problems we worked on at your office.’
‘You want me to come to your apartment?’
‘Yes. Is that possible?’
‘Should be. Will Nike be there too?’
‘Not in my room.’
She pushed him. ‘You want to be alone with me?’
He felt his face heat up. His dark skin hid the blush, but Angela could sense his discomfort and played on it as though she could see into his mind through her US™ screen.
‘Yes,’ he replied.
She knew she had him right there. She could have toyed with him as long as she liked but Angela was equally happy just to get right down to it. Actually, although what she usually liked in sex was the control with its attendant power, Angela found that she’d been strangely attracted to Omo’s innocence. She was used to using her considerable sexual prowess with the likes of Graham, men who could do things for her, help her up the ULTIMATE® ladder so to speak. Part of the challenge for her was to best men who were in essence themselves controllers. With Omo it was different. She was using him, of course, but he was just a pawn in her analytical game, and there was something naive and charming about him. And she found something sexually arousing about teaching him the practicalities and nuances of ‘live’ sex. It was a feeling she hadn’t experienced since she first met Pryce, when they were both barely out of their teens. Ironic really.
‘I’ll be over in an hour,’ she purred.
Omo didn’t realise how long an hour could be. He found he couldn’t sit at his screen and he wandered through to make a cup of ULTIMATE® coffee. There he found Nike. Avoiding ‘productive’ work as usual.
‘Would you cover for me?’ Nike asked, immediately.
‘What d’you mean?’
‘I want to go out,’ Nike said.
Of course Omo should have asked where but he was thinking of his own alibi. Flora would stay in her room while Angela was there, none the wiser as long as they were quiet, but Nike could be guaranteed to intrude when least wanted. So this was a boon. Having Nike out of the way could only be a benefit and he’d offered Omo the perfect solution himself.
‘Sure,’ Omo felt that he might look like he’d given in a bit easily. So he added, ‘say Hi to your Nan for me.’
Because, after all, where else could Nike be going?
Nike smiled. Omo didn’t suspect a thing. But why would he?
‘So if Pryce calls…’ he began.
That pulled Omo up short. He hadn’t thought about that. What if Pryce called when he and Angela were….?
‘I know. Let’s call him now. Get him out the picture for a couple of hours and then we can do what we like.’ Omo was getting cunning. Like all lovers.
‘Yeah. Good idea. Better still. Let’s get Flora to call him.’
‘Okay. How?’ Omo still had a lot to learn.
‘Leave it to me.’ Nike reassured him. ‘I’ll sort it.’
And Omo, being Omo, didn’t question any more than that. He really should have done. But it wasn’t in his nature. ULTIMATE® had seen to that.
Several minutes later when Flora contacted Pryce, it was like a break in the clouds for him. And once again, he took his eye off the ball. It mean that just when he should have been able to see two potential problems (Nike going AWOL and Omo making love to Angela), Pryce had a more important task on his hand: dealing with Flora.
He determined that it was time to take the bull by the horns and set things straight with the girl. She had no good reason to call him. They both knew that. But he found he was flattered by the attention. It made it easy to convince himself that the problem in hand was to deal with an inappropriate teenage crush, the sort of thing that had to be nipped in the bud. He’d have to be smart and find ways to divert her. He didn’t know enough about girls. He knew he should pass her over to a female social counsellor, but hey, why bother someone else on so trivial a matter. It would make him look even more incompetent. Surely he could sort it himself. He would talk it through with Flora and find something more ‘productive’ for her to spend her energies on.
So, while Pryce became convinced that Flora was his immediate concern, and obsessed over how to deal with her, he missed the fact that she wasn’t his problem. THAT was his problem. Pryce was once more destined to miss the central point. His eye was firmly on the wrong ball. Again.