"I know THETA and EPSILON, but who are the others?" she whispered.
"PI and OMEGA are visitor tags," he whispered back.
"And BLACK ALPHA?"
"The word on her is don't even ask. Very, very senior."
With her inspection over Zarvora dismissed the four Black Runners and made for the components' cells. Behind her mask, makeup, indigo lipstick, and with her hair tightly braided and beaded she hoped that she looked anonymous, but she felt as if she was stark naked. Opening a folder she read the personnel evaluations one more time.
FUNCTION 5: too old; FUNCTION 26: seldom washes; FUNCTIONS 214, 646, 614, 620: notorious bores; FUNCTION 587: has pimples; FUNCTIONS 79, 450, 333, 390, 471, 569, 598, 606: have the pox; FUNCTION 247: works well when cornered like a rat in a trap; FUNCTION 9: dangerous security risk; FUNCTION 490: should not be allowed toured; FUNCTION 34: lock up your silver; FUNCTION 92: apart from arithmetic, out of his depth in a puddle of spilt beer.
Zarvora had been hoping for better from the twenty best male FUNCTIONS in the Calculor. All struck her as unpleasant or unsuitable, not the sorts of men that she would willingly share a romantic coffee with while they discussed numerical methodology and optimisation theory. FUNCTION 9 was actually dangerous! Why had he not been shot, she wondered? She selected his brief. His latest exploit had been to reconfigure the register wires to play Happy Birthday ten days earlier. Why was October 17th so familiar . . . ?
"My birthday!" Zarvora gasped.
So, FUNCTION 9 was dangerously clever, but perhaps not dangerous as such. She decided to assess him first. She adjusted her robes, checked what could be seen of her face in a small mirror, swallowed, squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath.
"I command 11, 000 staff and provide services to 14 million souls," she whispered. "Why is this such a problem?"
FUNCTION 9 and his cell mates looked up as a guard unlocked their door, then BLACK ALPHA appeared. She silently pointed to FUNCTION 9 and beckoned. He followed her to the isolation cells. REGULATORS often took components there for discrete dalliance, but ALPHA was carrying a personnel file, not a jar of wine and chocolates.
"Your pranks have been brought to my attention," ALPHA began in an unusually high voice. "They caused disruption."
"I apologise," ventured FUNCTION 9, bracing himself for the worst.
"The Highliber was furious--" Zarvora caught herself. "But was flattered at the birthday greeting."
FUNCTION 9 sighed with relief.
"How did you do it?"
Zarvora swallowed and fought for patience.
"Why did you do something so, so blatantly . . . blatant?"
"To get the Highliber's attention. To show her holes in her security procedures big enough to drive a wind train through."
By now Zarvora had almost forgotten why she was there.
"But-but you are a prisoner!"
"That's no reason not to protect the Calculor. It's a wonderful machine."
Suddenly it dawned on Zarvora like the light of a magnesium flare: this man was at least as exceptional as Nikalan, but in a very different way. Definitely a good prospect-but now what?
"Your loyalty and diligence is impressive, FUNCTION 9. I-we want you to be working with us more directly."
"Uh, thank you."
"I have been studying your file. You are one of REGULATOR 42's five lovers."
"What-five?" he exclaimed, then sat back frowning and shaking his head.
His reaction gratified Zarvora. She has at least known something that he had not.
"On my word your security rating could be regraded to that of a MANAGER and you could be given a pool password. You could be punished, but I, ah, take a personal interest in you and, ah, should you be-that is-attracted to me-that is, my proposal I could, ah, give you those powers and more. That is, of what you want."
FUNCTION 9 could neither follow the thread of her argument, nor deduce her real intentions. He thought he was being interrogated about breaking passwords.
"The pool password is 999POOL, the System Controller's is XX99XX, but the Highliber's is proving harder. Do you want to know how I found out?"
Something inside Zarvora shattered. He knew the passwords. He knew the Calculor better than she did. I have nothing to offer him, she thought. How mortifying.
"Uh, yes. Please prepare a report, mark it for BLACK ALPHA," she stood up, her movements jerky and uncoordinated. "I should go. Thank you. You saved me from public humiliation. I am grateful. More than grateful, you must understand . . . or perhaps not."
Only now did FUNCTION 9 realise what was being played out between them. She was a master of security, but he had made her look like a rank amateur. Now she was being gracious enough to acknowledge it rather than having him shot and trying to cover up the evidence. She was also, possibly, trying to seduce him out of gratitude. Well, I've had a short but interesting life, he thought as he stood up and reached out to take BLACK ALPHA's hand.
"BLACK ALPHA, thank you for shielding me from the Highliber," he declared, looking into the eyes behind the mask. "Your tolerance is almost as attractive as your figure."
He had intended to kiss her hand and hope for the best, but she surged forward and wrapped her arms around him before he could move, clinging to him more out of relief than lust.
"You are a dear, dear man," she said after a long time. "I have been watching you. You are infuriating but . . . cute."
Four hours later Zarvora was in her office, lying on the couch with her hair brushed out and a wet cloth over her eyes. Her lackey knocked.
"It's Vorion, Highliber."
"Highliber, are you not well?" he asked as he caught sight of her.
"I have just had the most harrowing afternoon since my interview with the Mayors for the Highliber appointment," she mumbled.
"Surely not the cataloguers again?" replied the lackey.
"No. There is a man I hold in high esteem. I thought he might despise me, but he treated me with great kindness."
"May the Deity bless him, Highliber."
"So I seduced him."
"You what?" exclaimed Voriao, who had never thought of her as anything other than as neuter and dangerous as a lightning bolt.
"I seduced him, Fras Vorion. What do you say to that?"