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A New Man

The office door was shut, the brass slider set to ‘busy’. Susan was certain she had not left it like that. She reached for the door handle, one hand reaching into her pocket for an alert. The last thing they needed was another attempted takeover.

“Enter.” She had not even touched the handle. The voice was male and unfamiliar; slightly flat, clipped, tones with an accent she could not place. Bracing herself and ready for trouble Susan opened the door, composure fully in place and one hand on the alert button in her pocket.

There was a man seated behind her desk looking at her. She raised an eyebrow, returning the once-over. Conservative and expensive suit, dark hair, swarthy skin, and very dark eyes. Good looking by human standards, if not for the stone-cold expression. He steepled his fingers.

“Ms. Wells. Sit down.”

“Thank you for the invitation,” she said dryly as she took a seat in her own office, hands folded in her lap to conceal the beeper. Ms, and she had heard the title clearly, was not in use in this time. Something was wrong.

“Would this be sufficient?” Aside from an odd flat tone the voice was pleasant enough, but something was disturbingly familiar. She looked at him, trying to place the face. He stared back, tilting his head quizzically.

“Should you be in here?” she asked, trying to get more time to think. The blink rate was too low. An android?

“Is there a problem?” he asked, and she knew the inflection immediately. She stood up, taking a step straight towards the desk.

“You, you can -” Susan reached out curiously and the man recoiled. As her hand approached it stopped short, jarring against cold metal in the air. She yanked her hand backwards, clutching stinging fingers. The image fizzed and faded, replaced with the foreboding form of the Cull.

“It is merely holography,” it said, flat translated tones back with full force. She rubbed her hand against her jacket to get feeling back, reminding herself yet again that she knew better than to touch a Cull without warning it.

“Then why haven’t you used that when we are off-world?”

“Because you are good at finding planets with crowds.”

“Contact breaks it,” Susan said, understanding the problem. She watched fascinated as its shape flickered back into the human form, still seated. If they had been able to fool the resistance with these, her people would be dead. There had to be a weakness. “Designed to fool scanners and electronics, correct?”

Aff-Yes,” it said, voice changing disconcertingly halfway through the word. “It requires significant energy to maintain. Would it be adequate?”

She walked round it, carefully allowing extra space for where she guessed the Cull actually was. Peering close she could see individual hairs, the weave of the suit, a tiny touch of wear on the collar. The chair, a perfect twin of the one that she now saw had been pushed back against the wall, was a part of the illusion. Even the shadow was exactly correct.

“Well,” he said sardonically, crossing an ankle across one knee and gripping it as he leaned back in the chair. “Do I pass?”

She walked back in front of the desk and sat, thinking for a moment. It was not just breathing, its breathing matched its speech perfectly. Some social customs could cause complications – signing documents with witnesses could be an issue – but the look was good enough.

“Your physical form is ideal, but we’ll need to use the desk to block contact. Handshakes could be difficult, but then – “

“I am unfriendly. You will compensate.” The vocal inflection was casual, and she laughed.

“And you will have to watch what you say. That comment could be misinterpreted.” It leaned forward, putting an elbow on the desk and actually grinned at her.

“At least you won’t need to worry about me chasing the secretaries.” She blinked, trying to work out whether the elbow on the desk should have broken its illusion, and then she realised what it had said, wondering with a mix of horror and amusement if it was really trying to flirt.

One corner of its mouth quirked up into a full smile, before the face became an expressionless mask once more. It sat up straight and the pretence of human feeling was gone.

“Accomodations will be necessary but this will suffice for limited appearances,” she said, finally. “We will need to get him an identity.”

“Acquired. Top drawer.” He did not move, so she opened the drawer and fished out the documents.

“David Kilgrace. Passport, Military ID, discharge papers…this is all in order.” She leafed through them quickly. “How did you get these so quickly?”

“They are mine.” She swallowed, hiding the reaction behind the papers as she remembered where she had seen the face before, or more precisely part of it, in the Cull’s cryo unit in the basement. The same protests rose, that the man had a family, a life, that this was murder, and she choked them down.

“People will be looking for him.”

“Unlikely. Which identity do you think all of this was acquired using?” She did not want to think about that. It had happened before she arrived, there was nothing she could do, and she still felt guilty. Instead she focused on the practical.

“Your papers state that Kilgrace was a red-head.”

“Complex colourshifts are an unecessary resource drain.” He paused. “It’s dyed.”

“Sensitive about going grey?”

“It’s trying to work with you.” Susan chuckled, folding the papers back together, and suddenly she was all business.

“You’ve got banter down and the social aspects are acceptable. Yes, under the right circumstances you can pass. How long can you keep this up for?”

“An hour,” he said with a smile. “Long enough to excuse myself for exhaustion and let my secretary to take over representing us.”

“Your. Secretary.” Susan kept her voice flat and unimpressed.

“Yes. That way we both win. They take you seriously because you’re representing a man, I don’t have to deal directly with the inferiors.”

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