The trick to being a good escort, Kai knew, was to make the man she was with feel like he was the only person in the world she’d ever care about. That meant she couldn’t discuss other clients, leave remnants or mementos of other clients around, half-ass her affection, or talk business. For the time she was booked, Kai became her client’s girlfriend, wife, confidant — whatever he wanted. She kept extensive records of each client’s background in a characteristics file in her canvas. Subtle cameras in her apartment and embedded in her retinas recorded every second of their every interaction, and a sophisticated AI algorithm stripped the footage for relevant details.
Client A had three kids. His oldest knew about his dalliances, but didn’t care.
Client B had a cluster of moles on his arm that Kai had once said looked like the constellation Orion, and he’d thought that was delightfully clever.
Client C had insecurities surrounding his manner of dress; she’d once innocently commented on his shoes and incited a mopey incident that it had taken her hours to rescue him from.
Client D liked to fuck her from behind every single time, because he wanted to pretend that she was his wife, who he was desperately attracted to but who’d turned icy after their only child.
When a night with Kai ended, it was like she and the client pressed a giant pause button on their relationship. When the client booked her again, their relationship resumed. They always picked up exactly where they’d left off. An intuitive program in Kai’s canvas even told a ‘bot, through her Beam connection, to arrange the apartment exactly as it had been when the client had last left. A man could leave a half-eaten pizza in Kai’s fridge, then wander back a month later and pull a piece from the fridge as if it were the same pizza. If he’d left crusts in the box, the same number of crusts would still be there, just as his memory told him they would be.
Being a great escort was only half about the sex. Men didn’t just need sex from her. If all they wanted was physical release, they could beat off. Kai knew her clients didn’t come simply to insert tab A into slot B. They came to feel wanted, to feel desired, to feel understood and comfortable. So yes, she had to move as they wanted and do the things that pleased them. But she also had to stock her racks with the towels they liked, have their preferred sheets on the bed (in both thread count and color), and set her walls to project the art most pleasing to their eye. Each client wasn’t just a man. He was a project.
So when Nicolai’s call came through, his identity rang into a small cochlear implant in Kai’s ear, too quiet for her current client — a new man who liked it a little rough — to hear. And because she was busy smacking her new client around, she couldn’t take Nicolai’s call even though she very much wanted to. Nicolai was her favorite… but right now, this man was her boyfriend. And because Kai was her new client’s girlfriend at the moment, she wouldn’t get calls from other men because she was his and his alone. So as Kai’s petite frame sat atop her man’s back in red lingerie with her black hair swinging in her face, she sighed internally as she subtly cocked her head to decline the call.
Her current boyfriend, she thought as she slapped him across the back with a small black crop, was an asshole. And playing coy.
First of all, his name clearly wasn’t Ralph McGuinness, as he’d told her it was. Kai’s AI software had already filtered that name through the Beam servers and found nobody close to his description. Second, the AI had already analyzed the timber of his voice and determined (quite redundantly, in Kai’s opinion) that he was probably lying. None of this was really unusual. All of Kai’s clients were wealthy, and hence were more often than not people of significant standing. Many of them were high-ranking officials within either Enterprise or Directorate. Those kinds of men didn’t want people to know they visited an escort, but it usually didn’t matter because Kai always found them out no matter what bullshit story they fed her. It was her business to know. The more she knew about a client, the better she could satisfy him. If she knew, for instance, that a man who claimed to own a textile company was in fact up for a senate seat, she’d know those days he was in most need of relief and which topics she should and should not broach. Knowing a man’s true identity helped her know which opinions and leanings she should pretend to have, and guess at how empowered or subservient to be.
And of course, if Kai knew a man’s true identity, she could attach video of the acts, infidelities and atrocities they committed together to those identities in her database. A bit of information like “A man calling himself ‘Ron Barber’ likes to dress in young girls’ panties” was of limited use, but “The Commissioner of Such and Such likes to dress in young girls’ panties” was quite valuable indeed. Kai had never, ever, ever revealed any of the millions of secrets she’d collected over the years… but a girl had to have a Plan B (or a nest egg) saved for the inevitable rainy day.
She looked down at her client’s back, then rose up enough to turn him over onto his back. He had a handsome face with a square jaw, with a five o’clock shadow spread across it. He had hazel eyes and sandy blonde hair. His chest and arms were well-muscled. In most ways, he was an ideal client for Kai, if for no other reason than that she would probably have been attracted to him anyway. He’d come at her with such flair and bravado that she’d decided on impulse to quote him twice her normal rate. He hadn’t blinked. So he was rich, and probably connected.
“Have you had enough?” said Kai.
“Not even close,” he said.
She slapped him across the face. “Speak when spoken to, Ralph,” she said.
He smiled — not at her command, but at the name. He knew she knew, and found it hilarious.
She hit him again, harder.
The smile widened.
He’d hired her for the entire evening and night. Seventeen hours. “Ralph” had picked her up at five, and she was his until ten in the morning. They’d gone to a ridiculously expensive dinner, and he’d become moderately lubricated with a multi-hundred-credit bottle of champagne. Then they’d headed to the Aphora, where they’d watched what Kai felt was perhaps the most raw, heartbreaking performance from Natasha Ryan she’d seen in all the years Kai had spent following her. Then those assholes had started booing, and things had quickly fallen apart. Kai had been totally shocked by the incident, but throughout it all “Ralph” had seemed totally nonplussed. That in itself was a clue to something. Kai wondered what her canvas’s AI would make of it, if anything.
As she straddled her client with her hand cocked back, Kai looked down at the mystery man. She probably didn’t truly need to know who he was. She might never see him again, and he might simply be a horny man with a ton of credits to blow. But Kai didn’t like a puzzle she couldn’t crack, and so far, she hadn’t been able to crack this one. She had a tiny nano-enhancement in the index finger of her right hand that allowed her to read Beam IDs without a scanner, but the man either didn’t have one (unthinkable; he was too conservative-looking to be an Organa) or had had it encrypted. So she’d used another enhancement to sample DNA from a piece of his hair, but again, she came up empty. It made no sense that he’d be off the grid. He had to be hiding something. But how? And why?
“Take off that bra,” he said, reaching up to paw at Kai’s small breasts through the lace.
“I give the orders here,” she said, then slipped her bra off and tied it around her client’s head at the mouth, halfway gagging him.
Kai hid it well, but she was pissed. Or rather, she was indignant. After her years in this business (more years than she’d care to admit, though she looked twenty-five at most), she’d come to see information as an entitlement. “Ralph” wasn’t doing anything overt to keep her out, but the mere fact that he represented an impenetrable wall irked her something fierce. Kai wanted to hit him again to vent her frustration, but he’d like it too much.
Even if she didn’t need to know who he was, she absolutely did.
Kai climbed off her client. He twitched to the side, reaching for her ass. She dodged the hand, then slapped it away. Oh yes, he was quite the character. He couldn’t decide if he was the sub or the dom. Or perhaps he was the bad boy who was an asshole… and hence needed to be taught a lesson.
“Where are you going?” he slurred around the bra in his mouth.
“What fucking business is it of yours?” She gave him the smallest of sexy smiles, to make sure he understood that this was all still just part of the play.
“Come back here,” he said.
Kai turned, fast, and grabbed her client by the chin. “You’re bad,” she said. “You ask too many questions.”
“I’m bad,” he mumbled between his compressed cheeks. Further down, his biology indicated that the way she was treating him wasn’t a problem.
“I’m going to have to punish you.”
“Oh no,” he said, falling back onto the bed.
Kai reached into the endtable and removed a pair of handcuffs. Before closing the drawer, she also palmed a small vial with a tiny sponge on its top.
“I’ll have to restrain you,” she said, securing the first handcuff to the headboard.
“Mercy,” said the man, now smiling openly.
Kai straddled him to reach the second cuff and he responded beneath her. As she raised his arm to secure the second cuff, she discreetly swabbed her neck with the sponge on the vial. Then, as she lowered her face toward his, she tucked the vial under the mattress.
The man inhaled, drawing her scent. As he did, his eyelids fluttered.
“Hey Ralph,” said Kai.
“Hey,” he said. “I’ve been bad.”
“Very bad. Kiss my neck.”
She pushed her neck against his mouth, moaning. It would take at least a half hour for the engineered pheromone to soften his brainwaves, but it didn’t matter. She was a girl of her word, and the man had paid for a service. So she removed the rest of their clothing and delivered.
Afterward, with “Ralph” satisfied and flagging, Kai resumed kissing his neck, giving him more of the pheromone. After a while his movements grew sluggish. His eyelids started to flutter again as he drifted into something between sleep and wakefulness.
“Hey Ralph,” she said.
“Mmm,” he said.
“Mmm,” he repeated.
Kai reached behind him, untied the bra gag, and tossed it aside. She ran a red-painted nail down his chest, idly. “What’s your name, beautiful?”
Kai laughed girlishly. “No, silly. What is it really?”
Ralph started to snore lightly. She shook him.
“What’s your name, baby?”
“Ralph,” he slurred.
Then he fell asleep. But it was okay. His brainwaves should have loosened even if his tongue hadn’t, and he’d be imperturbably asleep for hours now. She could get what she wanted directly from the source.
“Let’s get you online, ‘Ralph,’ ” she said, picking up her diagnostic tablet and setting it beside him on the bed. Something inside her was sizzling. It shouldn’t bother her so much that she couldn’t get “Ralph’s” identity, but the only people she’d run into before with a level of identity encryption she hadn’t been able to hack like a cheap lock were a few unlucky subjects during her dalliances as an amateur assassin. Usually, when someone was locked up this tight, someone else, somewhere, wanted him dead. What were this man’s secrets? And if she didn’t discover them, might those same secrets come back to haunt her, as a girl who’d once given him a good time?
Kai unfolded her sleeping client’s hand, laid it on the tablet screen, and scanned it. No identity came up. No surprise there, but it wasn’t what she was after. Usually, a person could access their personal array of upgrade diagnostics via their Beam ID, voice recognition, retinal scan, or fingerprint/palmprint, and usually those first-degree cross-pollinations were vulnerable to one such as Kai. “Ralph’s” Beam ID might have been hidden, sure… but unless whoever had done his encryption was especially thorough, his handprint and Beam ID should still both be connected — not to his identity, but to each other — in the lesser-protected protocols within his upgrades.
Kai swiped the surface of the wall behind the bed. A screen appeared. She watched the tablet scan his hand, then began poking around in the diagnostic tools. He’d had a few upgrades (there were several types of nanos in his system and he seemed to have an extra memory buffer, for instance) but she couldn’t access stats on any of them. Kai tried to use his palmprint to identify him to the system, but found she’d need a password.
And… FUCK. There was a firewall between her canvas, the tablet, and the lowest identification protocols. So much for finding his Beam ID through a backdoor.
Kai looked down at the naked man on her bed, lying on his stomach with one strong arm up. She wondered if any of his muscularity was natural, or if it was all the work of nanos. Even as a woman who’d cheated her way to a flat stomach and gravity-defying breasts, she found herself strangely judgmental of Ralph’s muscles. It was probably because she was feeling so resentful about his secrets, but she suddenly thought that if he hadn’t grown those arms himself, he was a fucking pussy.
Yes, she was letting it get to her. But Kai Dreyfus was a girl who always got what she wanted, and she didn’t like this one bit. The idea that someone had put up such a thorough firewall around this man’s true identity made her wary. Who was this man on her bed? What was he up to? Was he just here for a good time, or did he know something about Kai? Did he know the secrets she’d taken over the years — and if so, what might he be planning to do to retrieve them?
She slapped his sleeping face lightly, playfully.
“What are you hiding, buttercup?” she asked him.
Regardless, it would be prudent to wipe his memory. It would be impossible to do a decent job with all the protections in place, but she might be able to force a soft reset with a few nanos who could go in and manually induce some light damage to his hippocampus. She’d have to be careful. Too many nanos and he’d end up burned. She didn’t want him burned, just mildly forgetful. Then she wanted to get him the fuck out of her apartment.
Kai pulled up the diagnostic screen, checked for perimeter protection at his ears, and found none. Then she pulled a small lancet from a sterile pouch, slid it into a doser attached to a nano pack, and gave instructions to six scavengers. She pushed the lancet into the skin behind his ear, tossed it into the garbage, and started to clean. She could have the doorman take him away. She’d owe the doorman a quickie for the favor, but it was okay. The doorman was kind of hot.
Just as Kai was about to retrieve her tablet, something on the screen caught her eye. It looked like a software tag left by the developer who’d put her mystery man’s protections in place. She chuckled. Watch it be Doc. But of course, that was stupid. Doc didn’t deal in upgrades this sophisticated.
But when she looked closer, she saw that it wasn’t an identifier tag at all. It was a prime sequence — a piece of code that was meant to form an interface with another piece from an external source. It meant he was prepped for an upgrade that could be taken on and off of his body, like enhanced glasses. But as much as she tapped her tablet and searched her mind, Kai couldn’t place the prime sequence. It certainly wasn’t for enhanced glasses.
Mystified, she entered the code into her canvas and sent it to her network on The Beam.
The response returned three words that, to Kai, meant nothing but smelled like poison: Stark Centurion Program.