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Murder in a Past Life

Dum, dum, dum, dum. Dum, dum, dum, dum.

The noise was like a vibration in my head.

Boom, boom, boom, boom. Dum-de-dum dum. Boom, boom.

The party wall might as well have been a sheet of newspaper for all the good it did. The bass just kept banging. Banging and banging. I would never live in another semi-detached house as long as I lived. And while I might not have a long life ahead of me, I knew with certainty it would be a longer life than my neighbours. The bastards had no consideration and played their music at all hours of the day and night.

I slowly and precisely loaded a Glock 19 with hollowpoints, also called dum-dums. There was a poetic irony to the choice. Dum, dum, dum.

The gun rack sported a number of other options and I finally settled on a Remington model 887 pump-action shotgun. Good spread, effective close-range weapon. I loaded it slowly and precisely.

“That should do it,” I said aloud.

It is a common fallacy that a door lock can be easily destroyed with a bullet, or even a shotgun cartridge. It really can't. At close range there is actually a very real danger of a richochet which will come back to hit the shooter. I wasn't trying to be a movie star and I wasn't looking to shoot myself. The idea of kicking the door in with a swift kick is equally unbelievable in anything but a film, so I simply rammed my neighbour's door with my car.

Jumping quickly onto the bonnet I was able to push the broken door out of the way with my foot. My neighbour was sitting motionless, in shock, staring at me as I stepped through the gap. I raised the Glock and fired three times in rapid succession. I didn't want it to be too quick, so I aimed for his legs and shoulder. He fell backwards and screamed. I holstered the Glock and reached for the Remington strapped to my back. Somebody else was screaming, I guess his girlfriend or wife, and I finished her cleanly and quickly with a shotgun blast to the head. My neighbour was writhing in agony on the floor as I approached him, gun levelled.

“Why?” he asked.

I turned and shot the stereo with the shotgun.

“You have no consideration for other people,” I answered. Before he could respond I shot him in the chest. It tore a huge hole and he died instantly.

The bullet that hit me was totally unexpected. It spun me around but I managed to stay on my feet. “Aargh.” I dropped the shotgun and my right shoulder slumped. Before I could react another shot was fired. Thankfully, it missed.

I turned to face the shooter, pulling the Glock awkwardly from the holster with my left hand. I'm right-handed, but at close range I can generally hit a human target with my left. The shooter was a boy, perhaps 12 or 13 years old. Probably my neighbour's son. He was holding a very large revolver which, despite its weight and his shakiness from the fear I could see etched on his face, was pointing unerringly at my chest.

“Gina,” I snarled, “this is not within the parameters of …”

The boy fired. Luckily for me he missed my heart. The bullet slammed into my right arm and tore a huge exit hole in a spray of arterial blood. Now it was my turn to scream. My head spun and I felt like vomiting. I tried to focus and I distinctly heard the click as the boy cocked the hammer for another shot. This one could kill me. Instinctively, I raised the Glock and emptied the magazine into him. The first shot probably killed him, but I fired the rest as he fell to the floor to make absolutely sure. When the gun was empty I dropped it to the floor.

“Fuck sake, Gina,” I said, “what the hell was that?”

[Sorry, Hermes, I thought you might like the twist of having a child in the fray]. Gina is my virtual agent; she speaks directly to my mind and bypasses the auditory channel (not that I actually have an auditory channel, but that's a conundrum of virtual existence I don't like to think about too much).

“The twist?” I snapped. “It was supposed to be a game. That was too fucking real.”

[Apologies].

I looked down at my bloodied shirt. My injuries were gone but the pain still lingered in my residual memory. “I don't want to have to kill children, ok? Just change your parameters next time to reflect that.”

[What is the difference? I am sorry, Hermes. I believed that killing a child or an adult was the same. Don't worry, I will learn].

“Yes,” I thought ruefully, “I'm playing a game that involves extremely violent murder as a massive overreaction to irritatingly loud music, and I expect an AI to recognise that there are still limits. Who actually needs to learn here?”

I turned and stepped back out of the shattered door onto the front lawn. A man was standing at the edge of the garden looking at me. My first instinct was to dive back into the house for one of the guns, but at second glance I decided this suited figure wasn't part of the scene. He stood silently looking at me, holding a briefcase at his side.

“Gina?”

[This is not a Construct. It is a projection from the Real World. I do not know how he bypassed security protocols].

“I am Reginald Meyers and I am a lawyer,” he said, “and under article 1743.2 of the United Nations Citizenship Act I have a court directive for personal access to the virtual nuh-man known as Hermes Ram.” He smiled. “The court directive basically allows me a subroutine override which doesn't require invitation from you or access from your AI agent.” He lifted his palm and waved it in the direction of my virtual house. “We need to talk.”

Meyers sat in an armchair in the library, which I selected as a replacement for the bloodbath of the house sim. As the new environment coalesced around us I sat opposite him in an overstuffed armchair. I thought the floor to ceiling bookshelves made a more conducive environment for a serious but relaxed conversation.

“How can I help you?” I asked.

Meyers opened his briefcase and pulled out a file. “I'm afraid this is quite a difficult situation. Unprecedented.” He shuffled some papers. “You understand of course that the Citizenship Act gives you the same rights as a natural human?”

I nodded.

“And even though you are officially registered as Hermes Ram, you were a complete brain clone of Marcus Ram at your, erm…shall we say 'birth'?”

“Yes, that is correct.”

Meyers coughed. “Unfortunately, Marcus has now left the solar system on the arkship New Hope, and is unlikely to return to Earth.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “is this something to do with Marcus?”

“I'm afraid that in the eyes of the law you are, to all intents and purposes, Marcus Ram. At least you are, were, Marcus Ram up to the date of your erm… conception.”

“And?”

“And Marcus has been accused of a serious crime which took place sometime before he left the solar system, and before you were conceived. The United Nations court has determined that you, in your legal capacity as Marcus Ram at the time of the offence, should stand trial for the crime.”

“Crime? What crime?”

“Murder.”

Long after Meyers left I sat brooding in the library. Gina tried playing classical music to soothe me, but I made her turn it off. I needed to come up with a plan of action for my defence and I really didn't know where to start.

I had objected at first to Meyer's suggestion. “I have all of Marcus' memories. He hasn't murdered anybody.”

Meyers looked up from his papers. “It's Adele Sauveterre.”

“Adele?” I didn't have to feign surprise. “She died in a plane crash. It was an accident.”

Meyers had flicked through his paperwork. “Yes. Hyperjet prototype RX-74. Built by Ram Aerospace, naturally. Wasn't Sauveterre trying to steal it at the time of the crash?”

“Yes, she appeared to be trying to reach southeast Asia. She was a friend of mine, I mean of Marcus, but she was also an industrial spy. We didn't realise that until it was too late.”

“She lost control of the plane and crashed at extreme velocity somewhere in the Pacific.”

“That's right.”

He held up a photograph of a broad beamed ship. “This is Wave Wanderer II, an oceanographic research vessel. She located and raised RX-74's black box flight recorder three weeks ago.”

“Shit,” I thought. I was sure that it would never be recovered; that it could not have survived the destruction of the RX or it would be too deep to easily allow salvage. I knew what had to be coming next.

“It seems that Marcus had a conversation with Sauveterre shortly before she crashed. He told her to return the plane or suffer the consequences. She refused and shortly afterwards the engines cut out and she crashed.”

I didn't respond. What could I say? I remembered the conversation well.

“It is pretty damning evidence. Marcus threatened her and then obviously carried out that threat by remotely causing the plane to crash.” He closed his file and slid it back into his briefcase. “In short, he murdered her. And in the eyes of the law, you are Marcus.”

“So now what?”

“Now you stand trial for murder. The UN has made a big deal of defending the rights of virtual humans to be given equal treatment to natural humans. They want to make it clear in this case that virtuals are not above the law, especially as most of you come from wealthy backgrounds. I'm afraid they want to make an example of you.”

“I am innocent, you know?”

“I'm not here to judge you, Mr. Ram,” he said, “but I saw the game you were playing when I arrived. You are clearly capable of murder.”

The RX-74 rose majestically above the low lying clouds around San Francisco and headed over the aquamarine waters of the vast Pacific Ocean. It had started the ascent from Nevada at relatively low speeds but had gradually accelerated as it gained in altitude and was now approaching Mach 3. Rapidly approaching from behind were two F-42 Falcon pursuit planes.

“RX-74, this is Air Force Tango-Aztec-One. You are on an unauthorised flight. Please turn to heading two-seven-niner immediately, or you will be fired upon.”

“Best of luck, Tango-Aztec-One,” squawked the response.

The RX-74 scramjet intake rotated open and air rushed in. The engine fired and the plane leapt forward in a burst of speed. The Falcon pursuit planes lost sight of it in seconds.

In the control tower in Nevada, Marcus Ram watched the display screens with a growing sense of despondency. The recorded speed of the RX-74 was now Mach 11, and rising.

“She'll pass Hawaii in eighteen minutes if she keeps accelerating. Less than ninety minutes to Korea or China if she tries for Mach 20,” advised the Controller.

Marcus turned to face Colonel Torres. “Let me talk to her.”

Torres lowered the mini-communicator in his palm. “You have two minutes and then we do things my way.”

“Not SkyLance?”

Colonel Torres nodded. “The RX cannot be allowed to fall into unfriendly hands. Destroying it may be the only option.”

Marcus turned quickly and picked up a transmitter. “Adele, this is Marcus. Talk to me.”

“I'm a little bit busy.” Her voice sounded strained. “This monstrosity you've built flies like an elephant. A very fast elephant with wings.” She laughed weakly at her own joke.

“I want it back, Adele.”

“Sorry, Marcus.”

“You don't really expect to get away with it, do you? Do you think I'm so stupid I wouldn't build in failsafes to stop somebody stealing it?”

“Not stupid, no,” she replied, “but you are arrogant enough.”

“You stupid bitch,” yelled Marcus. “Don't think because it's you that I won't stop you. I'll remotely crash the plane before I let you steal it.” There was no response. “Turn around, Adele. Bring the RX back and I'll keep you safe, I promise. I won't let them lock you up.” No response. “This is your last chance, Adele. You can't survive a crash at that speed if I put you into a nosedive.” Marcus glanced at Torres and could see he was poised with his mini-communicator. “Last chance, Adele. Seriously. I will make you crash.”

“I don't believe you,” she said. “Do your worst.”

“She's still accelerating,” announced the controller, “Mach 17.”

Marcus looked imploringly at Torres. “There has to be another way.”

“There isn't,” he said, then spoke into his mini-comm. “You are authorised to engage SkyLance. Make sure she has passed Hawaii. I don't want any wreckage raining down on tourists.”

Marcus leaned close to the controller's ear. “Is there anything we can do to stop her?”

He shook his head. “We don't have anywhere near the sort of control you suggested to her. The only thing we could do remotely is eject her, but at the speed she's going she would be ripped apart.”

“Wait. That's it,” said Marcus. “When the hyperjet engine is engaged the remote ejection system automatically reverses thrust for a few seconds to slow the plane down. It's perfect.”

“And don't forget the foam. It would give her a slim chance.”

“More chance than getting hit by a kinetic weapon anyway. Go ahead: eject her.”

The controller quickly tapped the keypad while above him in the upper atmosphere the SkyLance satellite manouevered into position with quick thrusts from its steering jets. Its railgun released half a dozen tungsten-tipped lances as it approached from the west of the Hawaian islands at reduced altitude. The lances adjusted course slightly as they descended and recalculated the RX-74's location based on it's rapidly reducing speed and altitude. Ten seconds later the first lance tore through the body of the RX, followed a millisecond later by the second lance which ripped off a wing. The relatively small tungsten lances impacted at such high velocity that their kinetic energy disintegrated any obstacle in their path. By the time the sixth lance arrived half a second later there was nothing substantial remaining of the RX for it to hit. Pieces of wreckage littered down towards the empty ocean below.

Colonel Torres clicked off his mini-comm. “You both know the SkyLance project is above top secret. This did not happen. Sauveterre stole the RX, lost control and crashed. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir,” snapped the controller.

“Yes, I understand,” said Marcus.

Pretty damning evidence indeed.

“I will make you crash,” said the chief prosecutor. “You have all heard the recording from the black box. The voices have been scientifically proven to belong to Marcus Ram and Adele Sauveterre and experts will testify to that fact. Not that these experts are required, because Marcus will tell you himself that he made that threat: 'I will make you crash'.” The prosecutor pointed in my direction. “This hologram before you, calling himself Hermes Ram, may try to persuade you that he is not, in fact, the same person as Marcus Ram. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, please do not be fooled by this testimony. The man before you may be a virtual human, but he is Marcus Ram. He is also a murderer.” He lowered his arm and turned back to face the jury. “Adele Sauveterre was a thief and an industrial spy. Nobody denies that she was attempting to steal a valuable piece of technology, but let us be clear about one thing, this was not a military secret. It was a prototype plane owned by Ram Aerospace. Yes, Adele Sauveterre was a thief, but she did not deserve to be callously killed for that crime. Marcus,” and he pointed back towards me, “Marcus didn't want to lose his new toy so he caused her to crash with the sure knowledge she would be killed. He is a murderer. And we shall prove that beyond any doubt.”

“It was a military secret, you ass,” I said, “and it most certainly was not a toy.” I didn't say it out loud, of course, or at least not through the avatar hologram in the court room. I watched the proceedings from the comfort of an armchair in my library simulation and allowed Gina to give my avatar the appropriate facial responses; it looked thoughtful and concerned, but definitely not guilty.

“Gina, give me a large Scotch, please.”

[At once, Hermes]. A glass appeared on the table next to me.

In the courtroom my defence lawyer was standing to make his opening remarks. I had engaged a barrister named Adonis Christopolous simply because I liked the sound of his name, not from any prior knowledge of his skills or reputation. After long consideration I had decided that my chances of acquittal were poor and I was likely to face a lengthy virtual incarceration following the trial, so I decided to show my contempt for the process by employing a lawyer selected at random.

Adonis did not live up to his name. He stood five feet tall with a balding head and the early signs of middle age spread. He did have a keen mind though, and in our consultation meetings he was quick to point out the low chances for my acquittal. To his credit, he didn't suggest making a deal for a lesser offence; he believed my innocence and wanted to fight the murder charge. I told him the whole story about the theft of the RX-74, with the exception of the military shooting it down.

“And did Adele survive?” he had asked me.

“I don't know. Her body was never recovered and she has not been reported showing up anywhere in the world, so I suppose she must have been killed and is on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean now.”

“The radar tracking of the plane's deceleration can be used both for us and against us, but we'll use whatever evidence we can. What about the plane's technical details? Can we evidence that the plane could not be remotely controlled except for the ejection system?”

“Absolutely.”

“They won't believe us, of course, but it is something at least.”

It was the only defence I had and Adonis stood up to lay it before the court. We had agreed that there were no grounds for arguing that I am a distinct and different person from Marcus; as far as the court was concerned, that question had already been answered by me being charged in the first place.

“I will make you crash,” said Adonis. “Did Marcus make that threat? Yes, he did, but it was an idle one. Marcus, Hermes, was frustrated by the theft of his prototype and he tried to persuade Adele to return it. She was his friend, after all. When the bonds of friendship failed to sway her, Marcus made a threat born of frustration. A threat he could not deliver.” He turned and thrust a finger towards the table of prosecutors. “They would have you believe that Marcus had some sort of supernatural control over the RX aircraft. He did not. This was not an unmanned vehicle; it requires a pilot. There was no remote control, except an ability to eject the pilot in an emergency.” He turned to the jury. “Marcus, Hermes, did not want anything to happen to Adele. 'I will keep you safe,' he told her. But he didn't want his plane stolen, so he did the only thing he could do, he ejected the pilot. He did not murder Adele. The plane slowed and she was ejected. He wasn't trying to murder her, he was trying to save her life.” He shook his head slightly and glanced in my hologram's direction. “It didn't work. The plane was still going too fast and Adele was tragically lost somewhere over the Pacific. At best, her loss can be described as a tragic accident. Not murder. And the evidence will prove Hermes' innocence beyond any reasonable doubt.”

“Not bad,” I thought.

[He's no Adonis, but he is a good lawyer nevertheless].

I nodded and took a long sip of my Scotch.

The next few weeks of the trial consisted of a boring liturgy of technical facts and expert witnesses. The prosecution had a number of linguistic and voice analysis experts to comment on the black box recording, followed by avionics experts to discuss the practicalities of remote piloting the RX. Interestingly, they didn't call any witnesses who had been directly involved in the RX project, because they knew that it hadn't been capable of remote control. They also knew that they didn't need to prove it; they just needed the jury to believe it.

Adonis for his part called witnesses from Ram Aerospace, including the controller who had actioned the remote ejection. He carefully avoided any reference to the military presence in his testimony about the events of that day, as I expected; he knew that the consequence of revealing too much would be an untimely, and fatal, accident. Whether our expert witnesses were enough to convince the jury that the plane was not controlled remotely was unclear, but it did seem to affect the prosecution's strategy. They began to talk about Adele as a person.

“They want the jury to be sympathetic to her,” explained Adonis in a virtual consultation. “They need to portray her as a sensual, attractive woman. A woman who was forced by circumstance to steal the RX. They want to avoid any suggestion that she was a thief intending to sell the RX to a foreign power for a substantial sum, or that she faked feelings for you in order to gain access.”

“She didn't fake her feelings.”

“Don't be naive,” he snapped. “Of course she manipulated you.”

“No.” I shook my head. “You don't understand. We were friends. It was my brother, Charles … sorry, Marcus' brother, Charles, who she really loved and who really loved her. He was the one she let down.”

“And where is Charles now? Wait, I know, he left on the New Hope with Marcus.”

I nodded.

“So she used your brother to get close to Marcus and hence get close to the RX?”

“Yes.” I shrugged. “Maybe. I don't really know. I always thought her feelings for Charles were real.”

“It doesn't matter. With Charles gone we can't use their relationship to portray Adele as a manipulative bitch, whether that's true or not,” he said, “but you can be damn sure the prosecution will try to portray her as a misunderstood pawn, forced by circumstance to engage in a criminal act. A woman who was murdered as a vengeful act by Marcus to protect the feelings of his own brother.”

“So what do we do now?”

Adonis scratched his balding head. “I'm not sure,” he admitted, “but I think we have to locate Adele. It may be our only real defence.”

“Adele was killed in the ejection from the RX.”

“We both know that isn't true,” said Adonis.

[He's smart].

The prosecution did exactly as Adonis had predicted. They called friends of Adele as witnesses and even a previous employer to testify to her good character. They tried to suggest that she wasn't really an industrial spy or a thief; it was suggested that it was all circumstance that had led her to take the RX. Maybe she simply wanted to test its capabilities. Maybe she was concerned that it could lead to a technological imbalance between world powers so felt the only way to address the situation was to share its tech with the world. Every crackpot theory that would present Adele as the victim was churned out by the prosecution. I thought that it made their case seem less convincing, but the jury seemed to lap it all up and I was concerned that they believed every word.

In response, Adonis tried to slur Adele's character and reputation, of which I did not really approve. He found an acquantance of hers from years earlier who happily described how he believed she had stolen a prototype computer chip from his company which then appeared as a cheap clone a few months later in China. And then there was the woman from her school days who explained that Adele had been voted 'the person most likely to end up in prison' because of her generally dishonest ways.

It was not our finest hour. Whilst I understood the reason for slating her character, I did not agree with it, and I think my reluctance rubbed off on Adonis; his cross examination of the witnesses seemed half-hearted. The result was that the jury seemed disinterested in our evidence and it bolstered the prosecutions stance.

“I don't know why its happening,” he admitted to me one afternoon in court, “but I think we're losing.”

“I know.”

[You seem sad]

“Just thinking,” I said. The wind whipped around my shirt as I dangled my legs over the precipice. I was sitting on a narrow ledge at the top of a snow-capped peak with a mile of empty air beneath me. The mountains surrounding me looked like the high Himalayas, but I knew they didn't really exist in the real world. They were a simulated fantasy; a perfect version of a landscape that could never quite exist in the natural world.

[Do you want to talk?]

I shook my head. “Not really. I was only thinking about what a virtual prison will be like.” I stood up. “I won't be able to come here, you can be sure of that. I imagine I will go crazy with boredom.”

[Real prisoners do get some virtual recreation]

“A couple of hours a week and the rest of the time confined.”

[It won't last forever]

I smiled. “Twenty years will feel like forever. I'm sorry, Gina, I know you're trying to help. I'm just feeling sorry for myself.”

[Have you considered telling Adonis the truth about Adele?]

“Without evidence it would be pointless,” I replied, “and Marcus did everything possible to cover up every possible clue to her existence.”

[So what will you do?]

I tightened the straps on my parachute. “Enjoy the freedom I have left.” I jumped head first from the ledge into nothingness.

“Sato Ichiro,” announced Adonis a week later. He was relaxing in an armchair in my library sim, cradling a large brandy balloon in his hand, and looking extremely pleased with himself.

I tilted my glass in his direction. It said, “go on.”

“Sato Ichiro is a Japanese fisherman. Back in May '74 he was working on a boat called the Ryou-Un Marou somewhere off the coast of Hawaii. They found an aircraft seat floating in a pool of a jelly-like substance.”

“You're joking.”

“You know the jelly was probably hydrogel.”

“Hydrogel foam? It's used to protect pilots when they're ejected at high velocity. The RX had a hydrogel system.”

Adonis nodded. “I know.” He took a sip of his drink. “It's interesting how this works.” He held up the drink. “I'm here in your reality as a virtual guest using a neural link, but I'm drinking this very fine Armagnac and it tastes real. It's an odd sensation. I know deep down that it's only a virtual simulation of the taste of brandy; I'm not really drinking anything. The funny thing is that the last time we did this I had a hangover in the real world the next day. What's that about?”

“Well, I …”

“It was rhetorical.” He held up his hand. “I'm not asking you for an answer, because I already have one: virtual reality and physical reality are equally valid. They are both real if the mind can be suitably convinced. Hence you being on trial for something done by your physical predecessor.”

I nodded. “You were talking about a Japanese fisherman and an aircraft seat.”

“Yes, yes,” he slurred. “Isn't it obvious that the seat they found was from the RX?”

“I suppose.”

“Don't get too excited,” he said sarcastically, taking another long drink. “How many pilots do you think ejected over Hawaii that day?” He waved his datapad at me. “It is a shame that they didn't recover the seat, but what would a fishing boat want with one. It probably sank eventually or washed up on some deserted beach as flotsam. Luckily, I have photos.”

“What? How?”

“Ichiro was excited about his first fishing expedition and he took digital pictures of the entire trip; he had a built-in retinal recording feed. The pictures have been AI verified as genuine and unaltered. This photo,” he told me, pointing at the screen,”includes part of Ram Aerospace's logo in the bottom corner of the chair. The interesting bit for me is here though,” and he stabbed at another part of the pad,”where you can see that the survival raft attaching bracket is closed. Not broken or sheared off. It has been opened to release the raft and then flicked closed. Somebody survived the ejection and escaped in the raft and we both know who that was.”

“Is it enough?” I asked.

“I should think so,” said Adonis. “I'll keep agents looking for Adele, of course, but I think if she was going to show up it would have happened by now. I think this photograph on its own is enough to prove that not only did you force the plane to slow down and eject Adele, but she also survived the landing. You can't be tried for a murder that didn't happen.” He smiled ruefully. “The prosecution could still try for attempted murder, I suppose, but I think it unlikely.”

Adonis was right. The prosecution quickly accepted the verbal and photographic evidence provided by Ichiro; Adele had survived the ejection and there had been no attempt made by Marcus to remotely crash the RX. Adonis had agents looking for other clues around the Pacific Rim but he failed to come up with anything. He had hoped to find someone who had seen Adele when she finally made landfall, or who had found the liferaft with its distinctive Ram logo, but nothing was forthcoming. Shipping schedules were checked to see if another ship had picked her up, but he had no joy with that line of inquiry either.

It didn't matter. As expected since the day Ichiro turned up, I was acquitted.

After the trial we found ourselves once again in my library sim, not unsurprisingly drinking champagne. Adonis flicked through newsfeeds on his datapad with a huge grin on his face. “I have to tell you, Hermes, I never expected to see headlines like these.”

I raised my glass in toast. “To Adonis, nuh-man champion!”

We both took a drink. Adonis set his glass and datapad down beside him. “So are you going to tell me what really happened to Adele Sauvetterre?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“When did Marcus find her? Did he kill her? Is that why you haven't been telling me everything?”

I smiled and took another sip of champagne. “You're a smart man, Adonis, but do you really think after the trouble he took to keep her alive that he would kill her?”

“After causing such heartache to my brother and stealing my multi-million dollar secret prototype and forcing me to destroy it, I think I would have killed her.”

“Marcus didn't kill her,” I said, “but you are right about one thing: she broke Charles' heart. Marcus didn't like that one bit.”

The coffee shop was busy with commuters and a few early-rising tourists ready for a day of tramping around Manhattan. The available seats were all taken and the queue of waiting customers at the counter reached almost to the door.

The two men who stepped through the door were so unexpected that nobody seemed to know how to react. They were dressed in black armoured exosuits similar to those used by the military, but devoid of any markings. Their suits bristled with weapon-pods and full-head masks hid their features. A woman started to rise from her seat, but was hit in the chest with half a dozen micro-darts and slumped back over the table. The man who had fired swung his raised arm menacingly around the coffee shop while his companion lifted the woman over his shoulder and stepped back outside. The shooter lowered his arm and stepped back towards the door. ”Forgedaboudit,” he said in a poor imitation of a New York accent, and was gone.

The woman awoke seated in a chair opposite a large desk. The window behind the desk revealed a cityscape, but not New York. “Where am I?” she asked.

“Chicago,” answered Marcus from his seat behind the desk. “Its been a long time, Adele.”

The woman showed surprise. “Who? My name is …”

“Spare me the bullshit.” Marcus leaned forward. “The surgery has worked perfectly but I still know it's you. I can show you the evidence if you like.” He tapped a holo-keypad and pointed at the HUD display which appeared on the window behind him, partially obscuring the view of the city below. “I have affidavits from the crew of the Hanjin Frisco who picked you up in the Pacific, as well as from port workers in Singapore where you disembarked.” He tapped a few more keys and the screen changed. “Tracking you through Asia was difficult, but then there aren't many surgeons who will undertake cosmetic iris replacement.” He turned back to face her. “I'm surprised you risked coming back to the US though. What are you here to steal this time?”

“I came to see Charles.”

Now it was Marcus who appeared surprised. “I told you not to bullshit me. Do you really think Charles would take you back now?”

Adele's eyes glistened with tears. “No,” she said, “I know I can't stay here. No doubt the military would love to throw me in a jail cell and throw away the key.” She took a deep breath. “I just wanted to see him. Maybe try to explain my reasons.”

“You could start by explaining things to me; it was my plane you stole.” He shook his head. “It doesn't matter. I know why you did it. You are right about the military looking for you, but wrong about them wanting to lock you up. If they find you, they will kill you.”

She nodded. “I didn't really expect anything else. And if you found me then they can.”

“Maybe, maybe not. I've tried to cover your tracks as much as I can.”

“Why?”

“Because Charles is my brother and he loves you to his very core.”

“Still?”

“Yes, still. The bloody lovesick fool is trying his best to track you down as well. He doesn't have my resources though.”

“So now what? Are you going to kill me?”

Marcus laughed. “After going to all of the trouble to keep you hidden? Hardly. We do need to build you a better identity and you are probably going to need a bit more surgery.”

“And then?”

“Then you need to go somewhere the military will never suspect. Somewhere completely free from the possibility of pursuit.”

Adonis nodded to himself. “Of course, I should have known. The New Hope arkship.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “It was phenomenally difficult to get an identity that could pass the selection scrutiny for the crew of the New Hope, but Marcus knew that the only really safe place for Adele was to leave Earth permanently.”

“And Charles was leaving as well?”

“Exactly. It was also the only way they could ever be together. Marcus does have a soft side, you know? When everything is considered, he always thought more about people than he did about material things, even his precious RX. It was always about love and family.”

Adonis lifted his glass. “To love among the stars.”

I laughed. “To love,” I said.

Fiction


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