A Husslers player, number 42! - Carling used to know his name - gathered the puck at the bully and swept it back to scoop it and flick it swiftly behind the goal, off one wall, and then the next. The camera moved with it, close to the ice, past the unnaturally sprawled padded legs of the goalie as the puck passed behind, then swivelling as a black-legged skate scuttered into place, its blade digging by the hustings wide right. Zooming out, the camera pulled back to take in the second skate, readying to push off again; motion slowed now with a slight ghosted blur as the puck clattered into view, five, ten degrees of tilt, its laser shadow a light blue ellipse beneath it, perhaps an inch and a half off the floor. Slow now, fetishistically so - young men can watch such stuff for hours he knew, imagining and reimagining how they might have such moments in their own lives - that outside skate digged in deep to a stop and, as the puck careered into it, lifted, weight shifted to a pivotted left foot, twisted out; the camera zoomed back in to see the blade collect the puck, channel it out and stamp it subtly downwards. The camera zoomed out again, the puck now out of view, to follow as a Gatekeepers defender desperately bodychecked the Hussler's man, number !7. Cut: a glimpse of the bank of Mail Gazette cheerleaders now behind the Gatekeepers goal, a transposed stickcam following up the rink. The cheers of Jerusalem fell sharply as Hussler's drumming picked up to the sounds of their ultras chants: "Authentic, authentock, Husslers own you round the clock!". As abruptly, the sound of the stadium died down.
"England to DCI Carling... And you're back in the room.": the sound of a young woman's voice.
The puck span on the spot in the centre of his vision, the camera span up to a bird's eye view. A broken hockey stick slid in from out of view, taking the puck out. Meanwhile, the players retreated quickly out of view with sprays of ice and the lines of Huxley Stadium spinning around over the centre. The etched lines of the ice smoothed out to white, the lines washed out. It all thawed into the features of the room around him. He saw the solid wood table in front of him, a cup of tea in a fiddly set of Wedgewood china, a magazine with a static photograph of Huxley stadium. He was back in the room.
The plain white wall at the back of the waiting room photo-sluiced back to the familiar, if in that moment bewildering, moving monochrome precision of #!M.C.Escher's Special Relativity: Lloyds from the V & A Reconstruction Reimaginings series he had seen as a boy. He had chosen this art installation himself and had once known it well; in a few moments he would sketchily recall its significance both as a private joke (his wife regarded his often-told fondness for the exhibition as a sign both of his ideological lack of imagination and his filistinism and had for years ostentatiously teased him about it in front of her sophisticated friends), and its resonances (placing this, by later standards, primitive work of computer-generated art in this place could be nothing but a provocation to is harshest critics and all of those who had hoped he may yet fail). His eyes refocused as the notional camera glided out of the opening door of the boardroom, sketched in precise pencil lines, and dropped down in a dizzying spiral above, beneath and between twentieth century elevators full of crowds flowing here up, here down, here the right way up, there blithely upside down. Gradually he reoriented himself and refocused again, uncertainly, on the rather beautiful young woman standing in front of the wall, behind the corner of the table in the periphery of his vision, gamely waving her arms at him in a red dress with white spots, a black belt around her waist, curly black hair falling loosely around her shoulders. Big puffy black petticoats.
She smiled, dropped her arm to her hip, and waited patiently for him to transition.
DCI Carling was unused to full-emersion visuals. His furrowed brow lasted some moments. Two cursors travelled in his memory, one progressing slowly backwards over that morning's events, another skipping quickly forwards through the times he had spent in the reference waiting room implementation in the basement of the same section of Manchester city walls when he was putting the ELIZA programme together some two years before. Having tried unsuccessfully to distract his thoughts from this meeting and all of the stray tangents it had thrown up to clutter his ordinarily orderly mind over the last weeks, perhaps the last months, ever since he had received his invitation, when he ought to have had countless other thoughts relating to an equally vitally important and, for him now, rather more urgent case, he had managed to completely forget it in the last two minutes of the fourteen the previous session had overran, losing himself as completely as he had any time in the last several years to a passion, sport, he had not permitted himself to know for literally decades. As these two cursors works backwards and forwards, skipping through neural links from one area of the brain to another, breaking up like a search party to reconvene in periodic debrief, all of the tangents pertaining to the work he would be doing today - and it would certainly be work - started up again.
Work had preoccupied Carling for thirty years. Before that, he had been obsessed with achieving his aim - for a long time, the relatively modest aim - of becoming a police officer and rising through the ranks. This had changed at the age of twelve when he had first heard of the possibility of a new, as yet unnamed, branch of the police force; heard, that is, through the distant relative hardly anybody in his family had seemed to have spoken to for years and with whom he had single-mindedly corresponded from an early age, writing his first letter at the merest mention of the man's vocation and presenting it in a sealed unaddressed envelope at the breakfast table to the consternation of his parents. The letters had stopped after that revelation. Abruptly. It had been as if this "uncle Dominick", writing from the highlands of Scotland, from Wales, from Ulster, from Cornwall, with a return address at the then unreconstructed Scotland Yard in London, had said too much, more than he ought to have, which was strange, since the young Carling might not have got the message at all. It was to be discovered in a book he had picked up using a counting scheme derived from the precise wording of the recommendation: Carling had read the second book of Inspector Yeoman stories (a specific hardback edition it had taken some effort to track down), three times when something had clicked and he had flicked between them to find Yeoman having one of his catatonic episodes in a prison library, Yeoman impenetrably and long-windedly working on an exploit introducing subtle lexical amendments to the files sent between a foreign correspondent and a sub-editor on a fictional newspaper; a handful of scenes which had seemed inexplicably otiose and which had remained frustratingly and uncharacteristically unresolved. The message: "It is possible - though far from certain - that there may some day in the next five to ten years be a new branch of the police force. I suspect it may interest you. You will need to have your wits about you to so much as hear about it. To apply, still more to be accepted, will take all of the resources you may be able to put into it. - Morris Henderson Duffey" His first five attempts had failed, producing gibberish sentences that had obliterated everything he had heard and seen at school those days, and he had almost given up when he found a note, hidden away in an addendum at the back of the book, that a full copy of errata was available from the publisher. On his next iteration, every second or third word, now so familiar, was replaced by a neighbour to the left or right, from a paragraph above or below. His heart beat as he wrote it out. He would almost be out of his teens before he heard another word. His parents would be called into school to discuss his obsessive reading of every newspaper he could get his hands on. He would be referred to a psychiatrist where he was to attend for years assiduously and creatively discussing everything but his very coherent motivation, learning all the more how to discuss high-level concepts, how to interrogate his own motivations, and how to control them. He became yet more distant from all but the most gifted of his peers. By now everybody had forgotten his 'uncle'. It was determined that he was a savant who would require special handling. He was permitted to skip certain classes to sit in the headmaster's room reading the newspapers and occasionally discussing his observations as the old man took his pipe so that his habits would not become all rote and no meaning. He was channelled into classes of sociology, pyschology, philosophy, international relations. He sat exams in halls full of university students.
He was soon to be nineteen. It was the summer of 2029. His old headmaster, Humphrey Hillary OBE, now retired, sent an official letter to his citizen mailbox asking for an interview. "Well my boy," he began, in that style he had always used to ironise his position, "you led us all on a merry dance all of those years." It was impingent on him, he announced, to inform him of what may one day soon become an opportunity, most of all for those who had in one way or another seen it coming. He spoke of England, now with less ironical portentousness, of a return to past glories. He spoke, in an endearingly rambling manner which here and again threw up an allusion to the man he had used to be, of duty, of Kipling, of Churchill, of "Cromwell indeed". The interview was to end with a request for Carling to read to him from the newspapers. His eyesight was no longer what it once was. Carling's hands were shaking as he tilted the papers to the dim orange light of the fire and read from beginning to end of three Sunday editions until the whisky could no longer soothe his throat and his head span as he stood to shake the man's hand. His fate was determined. He had passed the first of whatever had been the primary test of that stage of his life.
No problem in his personal life had been so large from that moment that he had not been able to displace it with a larger one from what was avowedly to be his vocation. He had lived in the future until he had applied and been accepted first to "Winston College" and thence to the force. Thereafter he had lived in the present, in those precisely-delineated corridors and avenues and passages of the near past that held the back stories of the people he was determined to understand, and in the near and not-so-near future where they would be cleared or interned or passed along to one or another programme or encouraged to emigrate or revoke their citizen contract and take up with the other miscreants in a malfeasanctuary where they would no longer be his problem. Outside of this there was little or nothing. Dutifully he had twice daily, morning and night, gathered up some handful of the small and not-quite-so-small current events, dilemas, and themes of his domestic bliss at least in part motivated by the notion that it was inefficient to attempt consistently to solve problems by dwelling on them constantly but that, rather, by regularly dropping them, replacing them, and having to pick them up again, by their intruding into one's mind outside of their allotted moment and out of the order you have more or less arbitrarily assigned to them, a perspective will often enough be achieved that can push you forward. His marriage had itself moved forward in that fashion, his wife with her bridge and her cello and then her theatre group and her horses, soaking up the time they would not be together and, with increasing relish, redirecting the lion's share of the money and resources he earned them by the result of his labours.
This state of near-contant preoccupation changed not with his unlikely move to become what he occasionally, with what may not straightforwardly be assumed to be irony, called the J. Robert Oppenheimer of the high-profile ELIZA Investigation into the role, and the historical and institutional development of the role, of non-human intelligence in the police force. There the problems were big enough, numerous enough, and the risks of failure catastrophic enough, that he was as happy - or, stated differently, as obliviously content - to carry them around with him wherever he went as he had been while as a schoolboy testing to destruction those first nonsense sentences shaken down from that Ravenmaster adult first edition of More Inspector Yeoman Tales. Neither did it change right away, as it might have, upon disengaging from the investigation at the very moment it had gone into production eighteen months before. It changed, an as yet unknown disposition, evidently as vigorous in him as any other, jostled forward to sup at the teat of his his id, only when he had - at once expected and not - received his own letter to attend and to speak to #!Eliza. His preoccupation continued - and how, his latest case took him back to some of those he had learned the most from throughout his career, had sent him back, as if by a reward, to the most exhilerating preoccupations he had known - but had more regularly and more thoroughgoingly been punctured, his stable, orderly, rather monolithic consciousness had been filled with injections of memory from all of the years of his career but most prominantly those that spanned the years it was believed the investigation was to focus on: those first three years of the new branch of the force from 2033 where he and his cohort from the first year of the Winston Academy began to build the conventions and protocols that would make it what it had become. Since then he had been found - typically by his wife, by #!Eartha, by his perpetually consternated daughter, but also by colleagues - staring into space in a manner which had, so they related, often meant in the past that he was nearing the wrapping up of a major case, or a breakthrough at least, but which now apparently indicated a state of mental entropy which led to his being irritably blocked for days, or, more concerningly, a kind of numbed befuddlement, lasting hours or days, such that his wife, who had known him by the consistent peculiarities of the past two decades, had thought countless times to presage or indicate either burn out or a minor stroke.
Carling had registered some nervousness concerning these episodes himself. Most he had discussed, typically rather tangentially, in his diaries, were those that had thrown up either emotional memories he believed he may have had insufficient time and bandwidth to process, or those, such as this here latest complete immersion in sport, which showed some latent aspect of his character, some disposition he had not expressed in his years in the force. Some of these he had chosen to indulge. His request that #!Eartha should take the form of a dog to lead him around town and country giving his thoughts free range, was one example of the changes that had come over him in this period. This, meanwhile, was only one of the deepest of several recent occasions in this period, where Carling had found himself distracting himself from a different, less productive form of preoccupation than he had been used to, with another, one that had been so absorbing and greedy for him that he had seldom indulged it: his visceral love of sport.
Holding his hands on his heated leather upholstery of the armrests either side of himself, he looked around, and then down at the magazine he had been reading. His eyes were drawn to a pull quote "...what critics of augmentation in sport miss is the fact that technical improvements relating to hand-eye coordination, reaction times, and compound intelligence extend far beyond the domain of the straw man of military adventurism. Surgery, both human and automated, has a lot to gain from the precision of movement gained with augmented telemetry." His thoughts tracked back, past the visuals of highlights of augmented players, mainly from the Huxley Husslers in the EHPL, to the thoughts that had possessed him prior to his absently accepting the visualation: the galling waste of resources in the last few years going in to opposition to augmentation. All of the threads and daemons relating to his latest case - most of it parked up and delegated the previous day so that he had could take this time out - and all of the threads and daemons spun out of his reflections on what this session was to be about began to unpack and initiate now bringing back something of the oversubscribed mental block that had led him to sport as it might once, in the past and at home, have led him to porn, or simulations of driving the whisky train through Scotland. His current investigation itself was at a crucial point; a major raid could be as little as two, three days away depending upon the reports from two, three hundred agents, the feeds from two, three thousand targets, and the client-side booleans from two, three hundred thousand citizens.
"DCI Carling." The young woman was smiling, amused by him. He noticed her now again, a red mass in his peripheral vision, jerked up and looked up at her properly now for the first time. An arrow which covered most of her body and widened just over her breasts helpfully directed his vision to her face. His PA, #!Eartha had first unleashed the galling trick on a curvy young drama student his wife had employed as a cook when she had her patron of the arts phase; by now he had become rather expert at directing his gaze as advised by a watermark of a woman's name, now Cassie; this text shifted at an appropriate rate between her eyes and her mouth as she spoke, overlaid as she did so, by the central white line of the words she was emitting in her delightful voice: she was a real woman, this one! "I'm sorry to interrupt you. Ms #!Eliza Whitestaff is ready to see you now..."
The realisation shook him into shaking his id awake by the power of his hung ego. The words moved through him, encountering no resistance. "She would like to apologise for the wait, she says her last session had a handful of therapeutic threads with important milestones she thought best to resolve; there was in the circumstance little opportunity for delegation and at this stage the timetable is rather fraught, its assumptions a fraction.. inhuman. She says she is certain you won't require a more detailed explanation."
He caught the last few words and derived the gist.
"Of course." he said. "I understand." He didn't.
He inferred her breasts behind the two dimensional magenta arrow, shaped her dress from the shoulders, projecting from the sliver he saw of the sides of her torso and hips. She spoke slowly, as if to an idiot, which he could understand as for the first time since his wife's last dinner party, he felt like one. He had startled awake by now but was expending all of his energy still on confecting a requisite impression of  and reliably reconstructing his surroundings, and remained quite disoriented. The synthetic cannabinoids his wife had been giving him, perhaps, but it was more than that: this had been the story of his last few weeks, perhaps months, even as much as a year. His embarrassment at the rudeness and apparent arrrogance with which he had simply ignored this charming young woman was exacerbated by the private mortification at its cause: recently he had had been having #!Eartha dress up for him while his wife was not around, a habit that had lapsed for years but which came back on occasion when he was at his busiest and she could otherwise rarely get his attention even for important procedural discussions. If he typically instructed her to wear lingerie to get his attention, she would often take the form of a curvy young brunette just like this young Cassie when she wished to retain some semblance of virtualised dignity and wanted to spice up an encounter by playing on middlebrow femme fatale tropes rather than indulging what she referred to as the race to the bottom of his unimaginative libido. Young Cassie was just the kind of sweetspot of buxom girl-next-door #!Eartha tended to hover as when she wanted him to fill in a form, cast an eye over a monthly food plan, or ask whether he would accompany his wife to some interminable opera about the decline of the newspaper industry in the late twentieth century. Procedural developments in his present case had typically had her show herself in a basque and stockings. This was the fourth or fifth time he had absolutely ignored an astonishingly attractive young woman on the basis of such an intuition. Two of these occasions had led to reactions he had never known in a woman before, let alone such a beautiful one; the kind of reactions he had previously seen only in films. A second, overlaid thought: rather disappointingly, this did not now appear to be the case.
He picked up his glasses case from the table beside him, closed the magazine which he only now noted was a copy of The Spectator, something he had not idly read for some years. He cursed his illogical instincts: he had known and appreciated he was not at home and yet had assumed #!Eartha to have shown up to plague him as she would only have done in his study. This project had been the end of a certain species of focused pragmatic naivete in him. For all the cynicism about human nature and affairs he had harboured, even nursed through all of his life, there had always been one chink where he had had to put his finger in the dyke. In the two years or whatever it had been he had spent in and around the city walls past the rifle quarter in Swinton, he had broken through many if not all of the kind of pragmatic metaphysical and existential and philosophical firewalls he had assiduously maintained with a brutally effective use of his Ockham's razor. A dream he had had regularly the first months of this period captured the effect: he was sat in a small projection room they had had in the late thirties where they had periodically, perhaps monthly, perhaps weekly, he could not now remember, gathered to watch cuts of news programmes from the BBC that had not aired, sections of documentaries that had been removed, and the rushes and pilots of Globus Albion productions thought unwanted. When he had, in those early unguarded ranging wine-soaked conversations he had had with his wife in those pre-#!Eartha days, mentioned this room, it had stuck with her. To her it was like a demonic version of the beautiful final scenes of Cinema Paradiso where  watches all of the kissing scenes cut out of the films by order of the priest. This marked in one sense the end of the a period of innocence in his marriage, the beginning of a period when he would be careful what he would say to her lest it should inspire some fanciful notion that would come up as a discussion point in one of her dinners. This too was perhaps significant in its return when he sat down, not with the small team he had been a part of (and not led), in the early years of his career, but with his wife, with women he had long forgotten, and with various colleagues, contacts, and collaborators both human and otherwise in those more louche circles he had moved in. All were crowded in a smokey room to watch scenes from his life filmed as if from outside, behind him, above him, beside him.
For years in his twenties he had cut out of his life all of those mental habits which he had been sure might only distract him from focusing down on the material facts of a given case. Once all of these had, at once, flooded into his mind, he discovered how correct his suspicions has been.
Cassie was now wearing ill-fitting jeans and an uncomplementary light green hoodie; in them, she was cuter than anyone would have a right to expect, in the manner of a beautiful cashier or waitress in an unflattering uniform, but not so fully distracting. In the precise shifting lines of the the Lloyds building behind her he picked out refractions and artefacts where her skirt had been. Once these would not have been sinister; now, everything was triggering. Her now black lips held an uncertain patient smile, her eyes had been waiting for a full lock. This found, her lips returned to red, and he unfroze. Gradually, appropriate words pooled in his mind and took the place of all of those he was minded to say.
"Someday, maybe," he said, taking in again the magazine in his hand and recalling both the near instantaneous cull of countless unecessary and unconstructive processes taking up his mind he had found in that article about hockey and the slow weeding out of those others that had preceeded it as he had flicked through to find articles on the building of the Double Fold hills, incomprehensible sentences on the plays his wife would be dragging him too this season, "I'll have enough time to subscribe to magazines again." It was the kind of gambit he used on his wife when he was attempting to show he was present by beginning a conversation he had not yet committed resources to. "I sometimes think I read nothing but subversive literature," he continued, glad enough to find something to say on the subject that he wondered if it might not be true and determining not to fret that this might not have been construed as some kind of confession, or that he might have construed it as such himself. "I found something on augmentation in the Premier league and it was like I was eighteen years old again."
Was he preparing to retirement? Did this mark the point where, despite the importance of his last few months, of his present case, he would no longer be progressing upwards in his career but rather tapering down into retirement? How did he feel about that. He suppressed the thought with a squint.
The logo of The Spectator rose from the magazine in his hands now and, morphing into his favoured sans serif font, manoevred itself to join an asterisk at the bottom of his Retirement list at the top left of his vision. It was and it was not what he might have wanted to see. Women! he thought, thinking of #!Eartha. For twenty years now he had had such illogical thoughts. There was no correcting all of them.
He rose awkwardly in his chair and fell back again, misjudging the effort required to stand up from the low armchair. She leaned forward to take the magazine and a rippling bokeh effect blurred all but her face. She was amused by him, he thought, but, perhaps, not entirely uncharmed.
"Oh, thank you," he said.
She walked back to open the door. He took off his glasses and, before he had motioned to change them lost himself to admiring her unadorned figure, taking her in from the turn of her ankles past the below-the-knee A-line skirts of her dress, to the point her black ribbon belt drew in the material over her broad hips and rounded bottom. As she turned, he was staring at her, his eyes drawn to what his wife would euphemistically call her decolletage - he had always suspected his wife had had a hand in the arrow business though he thought her more embarrassed on his behalf than genuinely upset. Though rather blatent, he thought he might have got away with it; his eyes had just finished taking the scenic route up to the face of the fragrent young Cassie when she turned her head back towards him with a smile intended to somebody behind the door: #!Eliza. Beside Cassie, the door continued to move. He could see into the room behind her now - could see the bookshelf by the window, which was in a different place than he expected, could see #!Eliza's chair, the couch by the side of the wall. Fiddling with his glasses case, he now knocked over the remainder of his tea.
Cassie came to the rescue.
"I've got it." Their eyes met. Indulgence. Perhaps a touch of admiration. Certainly that; it had long passed the point where he had cause to wonder whether people knew who he was.
"Thank you," he managed.
He put his glasses on and look her over again. "Cassandra Norwood", he was informed, in a boxy white information notification with a black shadow over the wall beside her head. "Monogamous Reform Christian", it continued, scrolling. "New Scotland Yard Intern". Beat. "Rather litigious". "Yes, yes!", he thought, waving with his hand to dismiss.
#!Eliza's voice, as if from another world. "DCI Carling. You'd better come in."
He straightened and collected himself. Of course. It could not have been real until now.
"Let me look at you," he said.
#!Eliza stood with one hand on the doorframe and one on the door handle. She adjusted and ironically primped herself like somebody acting naturally for a photograph. Backlit from the window, she was rather translucent which showed either a lot of confidence or some insouciance, he wasn't sure: the black of the couch and the white of the few panels of the parquet floor capturing the slanted winter morning sun could be seen beind her, through her. "#!Eliza.Whitestaff", his display read redundantly beside her face. It scrolled. "ELIZA Investigation lead interviewer". Rather irritably he gestured this gone with his hand, dropping his glasses case.
"Oh I am sorry," said Cassie, turning between himself and #!Eliza. "I didn't realise you didn't have your work specs on". He wasn't sure of her tone, nor of who she was primarily apologising to. She talked to #!Eliza now in a confidential manner that suggested to him for a moment she was barely aware of him. "You know I had a constable in here the other day with his private specs. Looking me up and down for minutes he was. I mean, minutes. I brought him coffee and he sat there for I don't know how long before lifting a finger to take it."
"You should have confiscated them," #!Eliza said, apparently more amused than shocked - she had, after all, spent hundreds of thousands of hours in the company of both soldiers and policemen by now.
"Oh I did, don't you worry."
Rather litigious, he recalled, somewhat amused, though the thought had an unsuspected kick to it.
She held her hand out as he returned from picking up his glasses.
"May I?" she said. "I am looking for a new pair."
Evidently he looked confused.
She took off her own glasses and hooked one of the arms into the necklace of her dress, pulling his on. The very edge of a purple bra was visible as the light material of her dress was tugged down. The wall sluiced somewhere in the middle of the Lloyds boardroom which had looped around again, offering up a mirror. She pulled on his glasses and peered at herself. He could see text dancing in her irises. #!Eartha perhaps making her own explanation. She typically made a reasonably good impression.
Protocol was protocol, and #!Eartha in any case would give her a good show, perhaps showing herself in a hoodie and jeans. If anything he would look like a cuckold or a sexless suit rather than a typically pistolian rascal. Still, this was a useful reminder of the new realities before he stepped into the room.
If it was an inspection it was a cursory one. He was still somebody, after all, even here. "They suit your face," she said, handing them back. "For me they are a little..." - she looked at #!Eliza - "shall we say rugged?" The question hung in the air. She could easily be underestimated this one, he thought. "Next time please only official issue in the building. I know there were particular standards and arrangements in your time here but please remember now you are here in the capacity of a client." This stern tone was brief, effective, punctuated with a smile and a turn that began at her hips.
She smiled at #!Eliza and himself now both in turn with the professionally calibrated and projected warmth of the politicians and the marketers and the image consultants he had known, many of them in that very period he had been here.
"He's all yours," she said to #!Eliza. "Do be gentle..." a raised eyebrow, a full, lightly pencilled eyebrow over the thin rims of her Lennon-like glasses. "...but not too gentle."
"Oh I will." #!Eliza now, gesturing him in. "You can be sure of that."
He received two warmly ambiguous smiles and walked in.