"The Xandra Function." Copyright Alan Cash 2008.


The Time: Tomorrow
The Game: You want to play it, but The Game has other ideas.

Chapter 1

A Death In The Family ight lay over the city. A still deeper darkness lay within the alley that punctuated the row of rundown buildings in the quiet, rain-sodden street. The burning of a cigarette end gave away the presence of the watcher, as if he wanted his prey to know he was there.

Peter Cabot emerged from the side door to his office and spotted it immediately. He smiled to himself. To him, with his long years of experience as a private investigator, it was just one more amateurish attempt to spy on him.

He had intended to pop out for a snack from the newsagent across the road before returning to work, but, instead, he turned sharp left and quickened his pace, listening for any sound of pursuit. His shoes squelched on the wet pavement.

Turning a corner, he ducked into the shadow of a doorway.

Sure enough, almost silent footsteps came past.

The man was tall with hunched muscular shoulders under his dark coat. Rather than confront him, Cabot silently made his way down the alley and doubled back to the newsagent.

As the bell on the door clanged, the balding man behind the counter looked up and smiled.

'Evening Mr Cabot. What can I do you for?'
'Packet of Fruit and Nut and your back door, if you don't mind, Eric.'
'Right you are then. You on a stakeout?'
'No, someone else is trying that on me.'
Eric grimaced as he handed over the change. 'I'm sure you've got the measure of him - but you be careful now.'
'The man's an amateur. Goodnight, Eric.'

The passage behind the shop was pitch black. Cabot listened carefully. Two cats yowled and spat at each other on the wall opposite, but took off soundlessly when they saw him. It would be too dangerous to go back to the office.

He'd better go home. Maybe there would be an answer phone message from Fran when he got there. He thought he'd been getting on rather well with her lately, helping her with that business with her employer. Was it wrong to entertain thoughts of stealing her from his brother Richard?

No. If the wimp couldn't make his mind up to make a move, he wasn't going to wait around. He snapped off a square of chocolate and put it into his mouth as he left the darkness of the passage behind and turned for home.

Perhaps it was because his mind was too preoccupied with thoughts of Fran and her green eyes that he failed to notice the car drawn up by the kerb under the flickering streetlight. Until the back passenger door was thrown open in his path and the dull glint of a gun barrel motioned him inside.

- • -

In the holographic suite at Scorpion Games that same evening, Frances McCallister closed the door firmly behind her and locked it. Taking a credit card-sized control pad from the pocket of her white lab coat, she pointed it at a red light winking at her from the other side of the room. Instantly, a three-dimensional holographic image formed 3 in front of her, filling out until it looked solid.

The figure was a tall, imposing woman with a haughty face and high cheekbones. At six feet she was more than a foot taller than her controller.

Her eyes were closed and long dark hair fell to her shoulders, framing her face. She was clothed in a threequarter length grey cloak with a hood, clasped at the neck with a gold brooch. A simple brown tunic, pulled in at the waist by a gold chain belt, stretched down to mid thigh. On her feet were Roman sandals. Her skin was deep brown, showing her desert origins.

Fran pressed the control again and the figure's eyes opened. They were green, like her own, and they shone.

'Who are you?' Fran asked.
'GreatMakerFranMcCallister, I am Sirios, Thieftaker to His Majesty, Marjaal The Magnificent.' The voice had a Nordic lilt.
'Do you know what you have to do?'
'Yes, Maker. You have trained me well.'
'Good. May the blessings of Voltron be upon you.'
'And upon you.'
Sirios bowed deeply and disappeared.

- • -

The next morning, after a sleepless night, Fran got to work at 9.35, still worrying about what would happen at the 10 o'clock board meeting. Climbing the stairs to the second floor she entered the reception area outside the boardroom and sat down in a state of agitation, much too hot inside her unaccustomed dark blue suit and white blouse. Moments later she came to decision. She smiled briefly at the receptionist and disappeared into the ladies loo.

Once inside, she made a brief phone call. She couldn't 4 stop to think any more whether she was doing the right thing. As soon as she had entered the building the rage she had been feeling boiled over. If the members of the board weren't going to see reason, then everyone could have her game and the hell with it. She wasn't going to see the project mothballed or, even worse, the results of all those long nights and broken weekends sold off to the highest bidder. She had to do something.

She returned her mobile to her bag and washed her hands, smiled at herself grimly in the mirror and ran a comb through her short red hair. Pulling her suit jacket down, she straightened up. If it was war they wanted, she would give it to them. Turning away, she came out into reception, wobbling horribly in her unaccustomed heels. Damn them!

She sat down opposite the receptionist again and felt the sweat clinging to her palms as she hugged her briefcase to her, a shield against the woman's stare. She shifted her position on the seat that was too high off the ground for her. But then all 'normal' chairs were the same, built for people of 'normal' height.

She crossed her legs. Big mistake. One of her shoes promptly dropped off and clattered on the woodblock floor. Hateful things! She couldn't wait to get back into her trainers. She slipped it on again, nervously smiling at the receptionist, and looked above her at the scorpion-shaped mosaic on the roughcast wall. Underneath, illuminated in spotlights, was the company name: 'Scorpion Games'. A name she had once loved with a passion. Once.

The reception clock ticked on. She couldn't just sit here, staring vacantly into space - what impression would that give? Better to hide behind something. Leaning forward she riffled through the folded newspapers and magazines on the glass-topped coffee table in front of her 5 and chose The Birmingham Mail. She unfolded it, scanned the front page and her heart lurched.

'Local Detective Found Shot.'

She couldn't breathe, felt sick. 'The body of Birmingham detective Peter Cabot was found last night floating in Gas Street Basin. He had been shot...'

And it's all my fault.

She was the one who had persuaded him to break into the chairman's office and plant a bug in his phone. All to try and find out what the company's plans were for the Omega Project. Result? A big fat nothing. All that trouble and worry. And now he was dead... shot through the back of the head...

If the chairman knew... She thought of the receiver for the bug that Peter had lent her. It recorded every call on the chairman's phone and was, so Peter had said, the very latest and best technology. It was locked in her office desk. What a stupid place to leave it.

The boardroom doors swished open. A man in a grey suit put his head out.

'Would you come in, please, Miss McCallister?' He paused. 'Are you all right?'

'Yes.' It came out as a squeak.

He looked at her strangely, then turned and went inside.

She slid off her seat and walked unsteadily into the room. All thoughts of making a good impression were gone.

Ranged down both sides of a long mahogany table in the oak-panelled room sat men in grey, not another woman amongst them. She tried to keep calm. The chairman had his head down, studying the papers in front of him. Eventually, he looked up and smiled coldly.

'Do take a seat, Miss McCallister.'

He waited while she settled herself. Again her feet didn't touch the floor. She was sure they were all inwardly 6 sneering at her. How dare this short, plump redhead try to take them on?

Her boss stood up and cleared his throat. 'As the software team leader, we've called you here about the Omega Project...'

But she wasn't listening. He knew. He must do. He was going to sack her on some pretext. And then one night when she was walking home in the dark...

'Are you all right Miss McCallister?'

She looked up. He was glaring at her. The next moment, someone put a glass of water in front of her. She drank it down far too fast and coughed.

The chairman cleared his throat again, very pointedly, and continued, 'Firstly, the board and I would like to thank you most sincerely for the project data you have provided for this review. We've evaluated the revenue and cost projections provided by your team and the analysis of the critical elements required to bring the product to market.'

He paused, as if expecting her to interrupt, looked in her direction and then continued, 'Unfortunately, it's clear that we can't complete the development to either a time scale or the quality criteria required to deliver the return on investment required by our shareholders. While we agree that there are market opportunities for immersive virtual reality games, there are other options that will deliver a more reliable return. It is with this in mind that we have decided to cancel all further development on the project. Is there anything you would like to say on the matter? The floor is yours.' He gave a curt half smile and sat down.

Fran had expected this, but to finally hear it, cut and dried, from his lips, no longer gave her any leeway. She had meant to say a lot of things. This was to be her big moment, but her mind was in turmoil. Peter was dead. I've killed Peter...

Standing up, cold and shivering, she took another gulp of water and promptly spilled some it down her new suit. Someone tittered. 'I've got some projections here - you'll see...' She looked for the right document. Where was it? A nasty singing noise started up in her ears. Damn it, where was it? She gave up searching. 'Mr Chairman, gentlemen... I don't believe what I just heard.'

The chairman looked at her distastefully, 'What exactly don't you believe, Miss McCallister?' 'The game that I - that we - have developed will fly off the shelves. I can't believe that you're going to let such a business opportunity pass you by.' The chairman remained seated, but looked at her coldly. There was a strained silence. Every head was turned her way, willing her to shut up.

Fran glared at her boss. 'Do you realise what you're sitting on?' Someone gave a short laugh, but she ploughed on. 'What we've been developing is only the beginning - the next generation will be truly interactive - the characters will start to think for themselves.'

There was a momentary flicker of interest round the table, but then one of the board members next to the chairman leaned forward. 'Have you any idea how long this would take - have you any cost projections, for example?'

'No, but-'
'So you're asking the board to fund this on a wing and a prayer?' the chairman put in.
'But-'
He leaned forward. 'Miss McCallister, I hardly need remind you that as head of research for this particular project you are important to our company but not, shall we say, irreplaceable.'

There was a general murmur of assent. She realised 8 she had gone too far. '

The decision has been made,' the chairman continued. 'The board has decided to explore other options.' He closed his folder with a snap. 'Gentlemen, shall we adjourn?'

She sat down, seething. The boardroom rapidly emptied in a maelstrom of grey suits, the door closing, cutting off the murmur of conversation while she stared at the panelling. Other options, he had said. What other options? His words chilled her heart.

The game engine was highly adaptable. It could be used for all sorts of things, not just a fantasy about the mythical kingdom of Marjaalia. Someone in her department had had the idea that it could be used to train troops in combat techniques, or retrain them when they came back from battle with psychological disorders.

It wasn't about the game any more.

From that moment she had been more and more convinced that her employers were up to something from little bits of gossip she had heard, the odd dropped comment. How dare they play fast and loose with her game? That was why she had involved Peter. She had used him - maybe even flirted with him - to try and find out what was going on. And her selfishness had led to his death.

And now her obvious opposition over the past weeks to what had been leaking out had led all the way to this meeting, ending in her ignominiously being put in her place.

But what was she doing here, sunk in gloom, going over old, painful memories? Other options the chairman had said. He could be selling out. Selling her game. She had to get back to her office. He could be on the phone right now. Quickly, she gathered her things together and left the room, walking unsteadily past reception with as much nonchalance as she could muster. As soon as she was out, she quickened her pace almost to a run.

She reached her office without passing anyone, opened the door and slipped inside, leaning against its cool surface. She suddenly realised she hadn't been breathing. No wonder she was feeling giddy. She look in a huge breath and felt behind her, turning the key in the lock.

Peter mustn't die for nothing. They had both been convinced the chairman was up to something. She was not going to let them get away with it. She had put her heart and soul into that game. Every evening and weekend, every good idea she had ever had, were all in that software. Nobody was going to take her baby from her.

She dropped her briefcase on the desk, rummaged in her bag for her desk keys and unlocked the bottom right hand drawer. The receiver for the bug was still there, hidden under paperwork. It looked like a perfectly innocent iPod.

She hesitated, wondering if she dared use the receiver for the bug while inside the office. Peter had warned her to leave it to record the calls made and then listen to them later at home. But Peter was dead.

Her feet ached. Taking a deep breath, she kicked her high heels off, wiggling her feet into a pair of trainers she always kept under her desk. Now she was ready.

She lifted the receiver out of the drawer, turned it on and put it to her ear. The device beeped and a low American drawl came out of the speaker.

'So the board rubber-stamped your decision?'
'As I said they would.' the chairman's voice was unmistakable. 'And you'll bring the only copy of the merchandise as per agreement?' the American continued.
'Provided you bring the agreed price.' The chairman sounded edgy.
'Sure. No problem. Where shall we meet?'
'Simpson's. One o'clock. I'll have the champagne ready.'
'See you then.'
The line went dead.
Fran glanced up. The clock on her office wall said eleven o'clock. It didn't give her much time. She turned the receiver off, leaned back, closed her eyes and tried to think.

How to get close to them? Her height and red hair would instantly give her away. She could disguise one, but not the other. What would her hero Holmes do? Conan Doyle had made him a master of disguise. In one story, Sherlock had gone into an opium den in search of information, passing himself off as an addict. She must get herself into the restaurant unrecognised and take it from there.

Simpsons was where the rich and those on expense accounts went for long 'working' lunches, lubricated by nothing but the best. And it was bound to be packed. What chance was there of getting a table at such short notice? But she had to try.

A quick phone call confirmed her worst fears. No, there was no table for two, not even one - until she told them that she'd been given a rushed commission to do a piece on the restaurant and it was going to appear a glossy magazine - and no, she couldn't do it any other time. If they knew she was coming it wouldn't be representative would it? 'We have to be fair to our readers.' Yes, a secluded alcove would do beautifully, thank you.

She wiped her hand across her forehead. First objective reached. Now all she had to do was get a press card and a disguise. Time to make use of one's contacts.

Her friend Celia loved mysteries and moonlighted as a waitress and a freelance journalist between acting jobs.

She hunted through her bag for her mobile and pressed speed dial. A bright female voice answered. 'Hi. You've reached the voicemail of Celia Thornton. I'm busy right now, but leave a message and I'll get right back to you.' Peeeeep.

'Celia, it's Fran. I've got an emergency. Can you meet me at the Lion's Head at twelve - please? Oh, and could you bring your waitress's skirt and some pins? And your Press card. Don't be late!'

Hopefully that would pique her interest. Celia was a devil for mysteries. But she always turned up late. She might never check her messages. Oh, there were so many things that could go wrong.

She needed to know what was going to do the moment the chairman did it. If she needed to stop something happening she would have to act there and then. There would be no time for agonising.

The only way was to plant a bug on the chairman himself. What she needed was the opportunity - and she would have to make one.

She unlocked the bottom drawer on the other side of her desk, lifted out the camouflaging paperwork, and pulled out the false bottom she'd made. Now, where are you my beauties?

She opened a small jewellery box and took out two little devices, one a black transmitter and the other a skin toned receiver that Peter had also lent her in case the bug on the phone didn't work. He used stuff like this all the time. Had used. No. Stop thinking about him. Must focus.

They were less powerful and with shorter range than the new ones she'd persuaded Peter to give her, powered by the flow of blood in the victim's vein, but she was keeping them at her factory unit for another plan she had.

These would do for now. She moved all the camouflage back into position in both the desk drawers and locked them. Slinging her bag over her shoulder, she dropped the iPod-like recording device into it, put the bug's receiver in her ear and gingerly picked up the tiny black transmitter between thumb and forefinger, curling her fingers around it.

It had a needle point for attachment to clothing. All she needed now was the opportunity to get near her boss. She unlocked the door and peered down the corridor. No one about.

Closing the door quietly, she walked quickly down the stairs to main reception. As she came round the corner from the stairwell she stopped dead.

The opportunity had dropped right into her lap. The chairman was leaning over the desk, talking to the receptionist.

He turned round and looked her straight in the face.

'Ah, another valued member of our team.' He came forward, well away from the desk. 'Don't take any of this personally, will you, Frances?' he said in a low voice. 'It's all for the best. You'll see.'

Patronising git.

She gestured to him, as if to say something in private. Being a tall man he was forced to bend down to her in an unctuous manner. She readied the bug.

As he came within range she put her hand on his shoulder. He seemed pleased. She stood on tip toe and whispered into his ear. 'Bastard.'

As he jerked upwards in surprise, she used his momentum to neatly plunge the bug's point into the shoulder seam of his jacket.

'What?' He shook himself free. 'I don't think you're very well, Miss McCallister. Not well at all. You'd better come and see me first thing Monday morning. Take the rest of the day off, you hear?' He turned his back on her and strode off towards the exit.

She watched him go and then the quietly moved out of sight of the receptionist. Making it look as if she was looking for something on the floor, should anyone come past, she turned on the receiver and listened carefully. Footsteps on a hard surface, then the voice of the security guard wishing The Great Man a nice weekend, a door opening and the sound of background traffic. So far, so good.

She looked at her watch. Where was the best place to buy a wig and some make up?

She could really do with some help applying it. There was a place that Celia was always going on about. That should do.

She strode past reception without giving the woman a second glance and walked briskly through the low maintenance gardens surrounding the science park where Scorpion had its premises. The accessories shop turned out to be only ten minutes walk away.

A quarter of an hour later, she left the shop considerably poorer and made for the rendezvous. How could Celia afford such a place?

A moment after entering the Lion's Head, she cursed herself for making such a choice. It was sweaty, noisy and reeked of stale beer.

She went up to the bar and caught sight of herself in the ornate mirror behind the lines of optics. A young woman with black curly hair stared back at her with far too much make up on. Oh well. Wait a minute - was that barman giving her the eye?

'What can I get you sweetheart?'

The look he gave her amused her. That was the first time she'd been addressed like that. Normally they just stared at her sullenly.

She bought a tonic water, settled herself at a small table in full view of the entrance and looked at her watch. 11.55. She gritted her teeth. Come on Celia! Where are you? No wonder she lost so many acting jobs.

Ten past twelve. Twelve fifteen. Come on girl! Where the hell are you?

She was about to go and look outside when the door swung open and a flushed looking Celia came in, carrying a large plastic bag.

She scanned the room and then walked straight past her. Fran suppressed a smile. Her friend went up to the bar and spoke briefly to the barman, but he shook his head. She turned and looked round the room again. Fran raised her hand hesitantly and crooked a forefinger.

Celia's puzzled frown gave way to a look of surprise, and then she smiled and came over.
'Well, I'll be damned, it is you!' She settled herself down.
'You look terrific! Where's the suit from? Haven't seen that before.'
'I bought it for my meeting with the board.'
'Did it work?'
'Did it hell. Got the stuff?'
'It's in the bag. What's the emergency?'
'Going to stick it to the boss.' Celia's eyes widened.

'Bout time. You're always going on about him.'
'I think he's up to something and I want to know what.'
'Like a whistle-blower, you mean? Sounds fun. But why do you want my Press card?'

'Only way I could get a table at the posh restaurant where I'm going to spy on him. Had to say I'd been commissioned to write an article.'

Celia looked dubious. 'I hope you know what you're doing. Don't abuse it mind. I don't look a lot like you.'

'I'm only going to flash it at them. Tell you more later but I'm really tight for time. Let's head for the ladies'. I've got to change out of this suit, otherwise they might spot me.'

Celia raised an eyebrow. 'You're the boss.' Inside the echoing white-tiled room Fran took the bag from Celia and retreated to a cubicle, where she peeled off her suit. Struggling into the black skirt, she pinned it up roughly and came out.

'How do I look?'
'Bit frumpy. That hem's not straight You're face is smudged and your wig's crooked. Come to Auntie Celia. Got any make-up?'

'All brand new.' She produced it.
'Wow! Did they see you coming! Pity you don't wear any normally. It would make such a difference.
'I want to be as invisible as possible. Could you tone it down a bit? Her friend sighed.

'Okay. They've put far too much eye shadow on you for a start.'
'Can you make it quick?' Hey, steady on! I want an eye left!'
'Sorry. Right, pucker up.'
'Careful, I don't want to look like a hooker.' It would be just like Celia to put too much on.

'Shush.' She worked away for a bit and then stood back and admired her efforts. There. You'll do. Wait a minute. Just got the final touch.'

She rooted in her bag and produced a pair of rectangular black frames. 'I always wear these when I want to look intellectual. Just plain glass, but they'll change the shape of your face and mask those eyes a bit.'

Fran took the glasses and put them on, inspecting herself in the mirror. She swallowed hard and straightened her white blouse. She did look completely different. Maybe... just maybe...

'I'm being an idiot, aren't I?'
'Never stopped you before. Remember Clive?'
'All right, all right. Is it any wonder I've been celibate since then?'
Celia pursed her lips. 'Time's ticking on you know.'
Fran shook her head. You never give up, do you? Got to go. Call you when it's all over.'

Outside in the street she turned to Celia. 'I-'
'Whatever it is, I don't want to know. Just take care of yourself, okay?'
She hugged her and walked off. The town hall clock boomed out the three-quarter hour.

Fran breathed in, drew herself up and set off. Five minutes later, she pushed her way through the creaking swing doors of Simpson's, into a quiet panelled hall.

All around was the smell of money. A discreet cough came from the direction of the recessed reception desk.

'Do you have a reservation, madam?' She smiled as best she could. 'Yes, I made one this morning. Celia Thornton.'
'I'll just look on the computer. Yes, madam. May I see your Press card?'
Fran made a big fuss of digging in her bag, giving the man her best smile. 'Here it is.'

She flashed it briefly, just as a couple came through the street door, happily distracting him as he exchanged pleasantries. The card wouldn't bear close examination.

At least Celia had dark hair.
'Thank you, Madam.' He pressed a button and a waiter came through the mullioned doors to her left.
'Table six,' he instructed.

The man bowed and gestured her to follow. The dining room felt like a hot bath. She could swear her uncomfortable make-up was beginning to run.

She was led to a shadowed corner and left with a menu. The prices! No wonder only those on expense accounts could afford to dine here.

Her stomach was so knotted up she couldn't have eaten anything if she'd wanted to, while her face burned 17 underneath the cosmetics.

She hoped this would be over soon. She glanced round the room. They weren't here yet, thank goodness, otherwise they might have noticed her coming in. She got out a pad and tried to look business like, jotting down a few notes.

With a squeak, the doors to her far right opened open and a waiter, who had been standing patiently by the door, immediately turned to see who it was.

It was them. The chairman and a fresh-faced young man strode in as if they owned the place.

Her boss whispered something to the waiter and pressed something into his hand. The man smiled and nodded, leading them to another alcoved area over to her left. They settled themselves down so that she could only see the back of the chairman's head.

Thank heaven for the bug. She turned it on. There was a lot of rustling, then an American voice said 'Nice place. you have here.'

'It serves. Have you brought the money?'

A shadow fell across her, breaking her concentration. 'Would you like to order a drink, madam?'

'What?' Fran was taken by surprise and then attempted to adopt a superior air. 'Er, no, I'm just taking in the ambience you know. What our readers may expect on first coming in. I'll let you know when I'm ready to order.'

'As you wish, madam.' Did he sneer as he departed? No matter. She was desperately trying to keep up with developments.

'I think you're going to be impressed,' the chairman was saying as she tuned back in.

His words were followed by the sound of a laptop starting up.
'I'd better be. My employers are really sticking their neck out on this one.' She recognised the American from the telephone conversation earlier.

'Let's hope the engine is as good as you say. This is the only copy?'
'Yes. I personally saw every other copy of the Project erased from our system. This memory stick holds the only result of five years' hard work by some extremely bright people. I took this one out of the safe before I came here. Nobody else can take anything off site.'

Fran smiled to herself. She had. Lots of times. 'Aren't you taking a risk?'

'Once I have your money, it's your problem.'

'This looks interesting - very interesting,' the American said. 'I'll need to take it back to the lab for our boys to run some tests on it.'

The chairman's voice was stern. 'The money first.' They were going to sell her out. What was she going to do? She was about to get up when she realised she hadn't planned her escape route.

Through the diners and out through the front door? She would be stopped. Out through the kitchens? Too risky. Her brain froze. Then she caught sight of a green sign with a picture of a stick man and stairs. The emergency exit - over there in the corner, quite close to her boss.

Right. No more dithering. Get it. Now. She stood up, her heart pounding, breathing loud in her ears and was right up to them before she knew it.

The men were so engrossed they didn't notice her. Her heightened senses homed in on the laptop between them. A memory stick was protruding from its the side. She snatched it and ran before they had time to react.

Being small had its advantages. She dodged past a surprised waiter and the astonished faces of diners, pushing open the exit door. She found herself in an alley smelling of stale beer and rotting food. It made her want to retch. Huge wheelie bins, closely packed, almost blocked the passage. She squeezed between them, heaving one down.

Evil smelling sludge cascaded out, making the ground like a swamp, blocking any pursuit. Gasping, she reached the end of the alley. Sunlight broke through between the buildings.

Where was she - and which direction was her car? Utterly disoriented, but sure she heard a shout behind her, she turned left and ran along a side street towards the noise of traffic, dragging in breath after breath.

On the main road, afternoon crowds of shoppers jostled each other, spilling out into the road. Car horns blared, brakes squealed. Dodging among the sweating mass, making herself as small as possible, not looking back, she began to recognise shops and other landmarks.

She was in Corporation Street, heading uphill. Away from her car. She swerved down the first side street she came to and found a deeply recessed doorway. She leaned gratefully against the dusty door and gradually her frantic breathing slowed. After a while, she calmed down enough to listen.

She could hear no sounds of pursuit and peered out into the street. An occasional person passed by, but nobody took any notice of her.

She walked back to her car as swiftly as her quaking legs would allow, pausing to dump the wig and glasses in a bin, and drove off randomly into the suburbs. Anxious miles passed.

At one point she was sure that a red Volkswagen was on her tail, until it turned off in the direction of Wednesbury.

Eventually she found herself in the Bloxwich area, among dilapidated and largely closed factories. She must find a canal to dispose of the receiver for the bug. If the police ever found it with her and Peter's fingerprints on it they would start asking very awkward questions, instantly implicating her in his death.

Eventually she went past a road with a bridge at the end of it, backed up and drove down it. She parked round the front of a rusting white van, whose deflated tyres showed it was going nowhere.

Its bulk would mask her car from anyone going past the end of the road. Taking the receiver from her bag, she ran up the steps at the side of the canal and found a patch of deep shadow under the bridge. She looked about her.

All was quiet. The iPod-like device felt ever so light. If she threw it into the water it would float wouldn't it? She looked into the scummy water. Very slowly, a dirty plastic bag was floating past.

She knelt down, grabbed it and carried her dripping prize at arms length over to the wall where she searched for a loose brick. At last she found one and prised it out of the wall, breaking her nails and scratching her hands.

Getting a handkerchief out of her sleeve she wiped the receiver free of fingerprints, and then tied it up in the bag with the brick.

She bent down and lowered it slowly into the water, watching as it sank quickly into the depths. She hoped it wasn't one of those biodegradable things or she really was in trouble. Still afraid that someone might come she half ran, half walked, back to her car.

Fumbling with the key, she opened the door and slumped into the driver's seat. Drips of sludgy canal water had got onto her skirt and blouse and smelt. She would have to get changed as soon as possible.

That was one problem solved. A greater presented itself. What was she going to tell Richard?

'Richard, I've stolen this game from my employers, they're after me and I need you to look after it - and by the way, I've killed your brother?

She couldn't deal with it here. And suppose they had recognised her? She couldn't go back to her flat. The only other place was the factory unit she used for experimentation out of office hours.

Her employers knew nothing about that, she hoped. She had taken the lease out in the name of Erewhon Ltd, a ready formed company she had bought when she had dreams of starting her own games 'empire'. It took a fair while to get there as she took a circuitous route, afraid she was still being followed.

When she finally got to the factory complex, she was covered in sweat. Having unlocked the gate to the yard, she drove the car in and hid it behind a wall. It was a short walk to the outside steel staircase that led up to what was little more than a large Portakabin.

Opening the door, she walked across the room past a bench strewn with equipment, threw off her smelly clothes and pulled on her working gear of a grey tracksuit and collapsed onto a worn out sofa, exhausted, but glad to be in a place that felt more like home than her flat ever did. But she was so wound up she couldn't relax.

She reached for her King James version of the Bible and opened it at her favourite passage at the beginning of the Book of Proverbs. The page was getting dog-eared and soiled with use. But even its sonorous phrases failed to calm her. She put it aside and lay looking up at the ceiling, floating in and out of consciousness.

A well known voice, now stilled forever, drifted into her head. Those words she was never meant to overhear.

She was back in her parent's house, a teenager again, descending the stairs, her mother below on the phone - 'Of course, she's got this inferiority complex the size of an elephant. And she's so difficult to buy for because of her size, and really, Barbara, those tomboyish looks - she'll never get a man, of course... I mean-' I must have trodden on a loose board or something and you looked round. The look on your face... And, of course, Clive was a disaster.

The only one I thought I ever loved. I didn't even know, then, what an 'inferiority complex' was or a 'tomboy'. But, despite it all, I've made it mum. Head of Department at Scorpion Games.

A short, none-too-pretty redhead, with green eyes. Used the brain you never thought I had. I've had to fight your opinion of me every step. You're inside my head, forever.

Now they've taken the project away from me.

You'd say it was all my own fault. Should have ingratiated myself with the management. Used my assets, such as they are... Mum, did the whole feminist revolution pass you by without a ripple?

I've stolen it, Mum, the only copy. I can't let them use it for killing people. I simply can't.

My lovely world.

Closing her eyes, she lost herself in her creation, the world of Marjaalia. She smelt the hard mud of the Boronwy plains, heard the murmur and bellow of the cattle herd that roamed close to the tent city, and the whistles and cries of the herders.

They reared up in her imagination, mounted on their baktri. To the north, the multitudinous greens of the Forest of Curtains dripped into her tired brain.

In the background were the scuttling noises of the keracafogae, the dwellers in the trees, bringers of sleep and death.

And beyond the forest the deep iridescent blue of the lake beckoned, inhabited by strange creatures preying on one another, surrounding the City of the Emperor.

Back home, Sirios The Thieftaker was being prepared by her elderly father for her quest. Lucky Sirios.

Only alive when the current was switched on. Never being cursed with the ability to think, nor to feel anger, desperation, sadness - and fear.