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She smiled down at him from the top of the building, and for a moment he hated her.  How could he not, after what he had been put through, unwilling and unknowing?  He knew well the arguments used to justify his violation and that of a thousand others like him, his friends and former comrades.  But the knowledge that you were there first, that you had been better than everyone else for the majority of a decade, that you helped develop the most revolutionary technology since hyperdrive, could never repair the damage done.  So he forgave himself the little pangs of disgust, and the bad taste left in his mouth by the new advertising campaign from ABLE Corp.  Sure, the girl was pretty as only computer enhancement could ensure, and the slogan was catchy enough; but nothing could gloss over the fact that the entire enteprise was the child of secrecy and slavery.

Needing a drink to take the edge off of his newly-foul mood, Morg headed to the bar.  The tall, gleaming buildings of central London marched past him in perfect ranks as he made his way through the teeming streets to somewhere he could be sure of good beer and sufficient solitude.

Once firmly settled in a comfortable, dark corner of the downstairs bar with a pint of rich, dark ale in his hand and a forbidding expression on his face, he took to crowd-watching.  Aside from the many familiar faces, there were a good number he didn't recognise - mostly freighter and Navy crews on shore leave, by the look of them.  One group stood out from the rest, though: a small clutch of expensively-dressed business types stood in a tight knot around someone else, who was obscured from Morg's sight by their suited backs.  All of them were talking excitedly, their body language animated and enthusiastic, reminding Morg not a little of puppies at feeding time.  The one nearest to his dark corner turned to shout something patronising at the barman, pretentious blonde ponytail flicking to one side as he did so.  It gave Morg a brief glance at the person in the centre of the circle, a glance that brought the sour taste back to his mouth.

Even without her now-famous and warmly genuine smile, which had been replaced with a look of profound discomfort, his photographic memory placed her delicate features immediately.  It seemed that there hadn't been as much digital manipulation involved in the advert's production as he had thought.  Suddenly, her eyes met his and he averted his gaze without knowing why; he'd hardly been staring, after all.  The reason became clear when his downturned eyes were met with the sight of small feet perfectly nestled in the very latest high-fashion strapless heels.  He considered for a few moments whether to react to her presence or not; she was certainly not the person he most longed to talk to in the entire galaxy, not by a long shot.  But it soon became clear that she was not going to be deterred by a simple unfriendly silence, and he raised his head to look her in the eye.  She was even more beautiful up close, and his inner acknowledgement of that opinion clashed violently with his extreme distaste for the product she promoted.

The outcome of his inner turmoil could have resulted in either a warm invitation to join him or a harsh, rude dismissal, and it was far from clear which until he saw the pleading in her eyes.  She wanted somewhere to hide, and that was something with which Morg felt a great deal of empathy.  His hand was motioning toward the seat opposite his and his mouth upturning almost before he knew it was happening.  He'd have to slow his rate of drinking if he was going to keep careful control of himself in this situation, he decided.  She sank into the deep, comfortable chair, looking for all the world like a shrinking, crowd-shy teenager.  After flashing a brief but stunning smile of gratitude in his direction, her eyes returned and remained fixed on the group of suits she had left behind.  Risking a glance himself, he saw that they were still chattering and gesticulating wildly at one another, and had not seemed to notice her absence.

'My name's Morg, by the way' he informed her, raising his glass in her direction.  'Morg Anfree.'

She nodded absently, and after a few moments added 'Tiko Darren.'  She shot him another heart-melting smile, and Morg wondered idly if she had any idea of the power her beauty granted her; a thought he quickly dismissed as naïve.  The girl was in advertising, after all.

They sat in silence, hers born of distraction and anxiety, his of not trusting himself to say anything polite.  Finally though, his glass was empty and his mouth was dry.  He stood, and shook his glass at her by way of explanation.  She seemed not to notice, crystal-green eyes still focused intently on her former companions.  'Get you anything?' he hazarded, awkwardly.  She shook her head without meeting his eyes, and he headed to the bar.  As he drew closer to the group of suits who had previously been surrounding his new drinking companion, he could start to make out some of what they were saying to one another over the buzz of other conversations permeating the close air of the bar.

It seemed they were celebrating the success of the new advertising campaign, though the majority of the conversation was focused on what they were all planning to spend their commission on, now that they were rich men.  Morg shook his head and wondered if they knew anything of the injustices on which their newfound wealth was built - and if they did, whether they would care.  As he tipped the barman and walked back to his table, fresh pint in hand, he decided that they probably wouldn't.  He knew the type - all they saw were credit chips everywhere they looked.

He sat back down in his chair, noting that Tiko was still staring intently at the group over his right shoulder.  After a few more minutes, he decided he'd had enough, and leaned across the table.  'You know, they're not saying anything remotely interesting.  I heard 'em as I walked past.  All just banging on about their damned credit accounts and how many vintage hovercars they're planning to buy.'

'I know that,' she replied, shaking her head irritably.  'I want to know if they cheated me.  They already talked me into firing my agent, so now it's down to me to check these things out.'  She looked at Morg just long enough to give him a sweetly apologetic smile.  'I don't have what you'd call well-honed business instincts.  I have no idea if what they're paying me is reasonable, so I'm hoping one of them will be stupid enough to let it slip if they screwed me.'

Stifling a double entendre, he looked at her quizzically.  'Well unless you think you can stare them into submission, or you've got a transmitter in that fool's ponytail, you're not going to find out from all the way over here.'  She didn't reply for a few moments, instead keeping her gaze fixed on her targets.  Then she started talking again, at first seeming to make no sense in the context of their conversation.  Suddenly Morg realised what she was doing, and turned to look incredulously at the man who was talking on the other side of the room.  Just a second after he moved his mouth, the words came out of Tiko's.  She was reading his lips, perfectly.

'Is this a trick?' Morg asked.  It was his default assumption when he came across a situation with which he was unfamiliar.  'You got a script, or a transmitter stashed somewhere?  This some kind of scam?'  She looked away long enough to give him a withering look, and remained silent.  It took a few moments for Morg to think through the other possibilities until he came across one that made his stomach jump into knots.  'There's no way you could have learned to lip-read that accurately by your age' he began, 'and EVO-ABLE isn't available to the average joe yet.  Which means one of two things: firstly, ABLE Corp treated you to a sample package for your services - but then why would they give you lip-reading?  Perhaps they were looking for an edge at corporate functions, stealing commercial secrets and the like.  But they're not a poor company; they can get hold of any surveillance equipment they like, most likely with a hefty discount from Unity too.  Which brings us to option two: you're from Opal.'

Her eyes snapped round to meet his.  Her perfect features were drawn into an expression of surprised curiosity; and why not?  How many people knew there was even a connection between ABLE Corp and the paradise world of Opal, let alone the disturbing nature of that connection?  She held his gaze for what seemed an interminable period before finally breaking the silence with a simple question that dripped with subtext.

'Who are you?'
This piece takes place shortly after the end of the "Blind Obedience" storyline, at the time the EVO-ABLE product was becoming available to the public.

More information at the "Ex Nihilo" blog.
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