Authors: Steve Stanton
Tags: #Science Fiction / Space Opera, #Science Fiction / Hard Science Fiction
“So you organize things in an imaginary world?”
Simara’s body shivered with a pulse of galvanic electricity. She blinked and smiled with grim forbearance. “Your naïveté is truly refreshing, Zen, but the real world is not that of the physical senses and the vagaries of consciousness. The true essence of humanity is contained within the data generated by behaviour as recorded digitally in the virtual domain. That’s why my work in cryptologic management is so vitally important, both historically and prophetically. I get a kick out of it, really. There’s a hardwire in my pleasure centre that reacts to order, so I feel satisfaction when I see numbers in neat rows or names in alphabetical sequence, that sort of thing. I have an octahedral array of surgical implants that allow for data evolution through several transmission nodes, building complex algorithms into architectural subsystems for mothership. Most of it is subconscious.”
Zen studied his marriage partner, speechless in wonder as her eyes rolled up for another mysterious connection in virtual space. An omnidroid with skullrider technology in her pleasure centre? How could he compete with that? Simara seemed like a different person, aloof and devoid of emotion like a robot, a machine of vast intellect. How could things change so quickly?
“You can’t give up on me because of some secret message from your virtual world. This is real. You and me. Right here, right now.”
“I’m not giving up on you. I’m trying to protect you. Wouldn’t you withhold information from Luaz to keep her from danger?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Your own mother? Someone you care about more than anything? Wouldn’t you want to save her from harm?”
“Luaz went to jail for you. That’s what family does.”
Simara tilted her head as though surprised by an innovative thought. Perhaps he had finally gotten through to her. He decided to press the point. “A few minutes ago we were partners on a honeymoon trip to Babylon. You can’t change that in a blink of an eye.”
Simara sighed. “It pains me to think of losing you, Zen—you’re so beautiful and have such a genuine spirit—but I’ve always prepared for that eventuality in my heart and mind. You’re the only person ever to take a personal interest in me, sorry to say, but from the first moment I saw you, I could not let myself believe in love. It’s too dangerous to be that vulnerable. You must understand—it’s just so obvious. Love can only hurt.”
“But we’re legally married. We’ve been joined by Kiva.”
Simara shook her head sadly. “Our marriage is a civil sham forced on us by circumstance and not worthy of any constraint. We both know that.”
“Kiva works in mysterious ways. It’s not up to us to question his methods.” Zen braced himself with determination. “Give me a chance to prove myself, no strings attached. We’re still on track, and nothing has changed between us. We have a good plan,
, and we should stick with it.” He arched his eyebrows and gave her the boyish grin that had worked so well for him over the years, the one the ladies always loved, giving it his best effort now that it truly mattered. “I’ll protect you.”
Simara smiled with amusement as she dropped her eyes, and in that moment Zen saw that he had lost her. He noticed a softening in her stance, a relinquishment of purpose as her identity shifted. “Very well, husband,” she said with smug assurance as she reached for the purple sari at her neck. She draped it overtop her head and wrapped the Loki veil across her nose. “Whatever you say.” Her actions spoke louder than epic poetry. She was playing a façade, hiding behind a double veil of secrecy. She would not give him her heart, just a stage version of her splintered persona—like a computer taking a preferred route of maximum efficiency, the best strategy for the situation.
Jula had been like that as well, a woman with multiple characters, a personality for every occasion. In public she portrayed a social charade, snide and showy, at family events she affected genuine concern and empathy, but only when she was alone with him and naked in his hands did he feel connected to the foundational archive of her personality. The vulva was the secret gateway to the heart of a woman, and Zen was a dedicated master at tactile manipulation. At the height of a cyclic orgasm, gazing into the eyes of his lover as his hands worked a magic massage, Zen knew he had access to the true soul of a woman in a shared revelation of intimacy—something he might never experience with Simara, hidden to him in her kaleidoscopic virtual reality. He had won the argument, but lost the reason behind it. He had lost the girl.
Zen felt a wave of dizziness and hopelessness, a cosmic disorientation like a sand lizard spinning in shifting dunes trying to reorient to familiar landmarks. A burst of deceleration rocked them in their couches, and Zen realized that his body had adjusted to a standing position in his mind, falling back to common grounder training. Though weightless, he now felt that he was propped upright, and as he glanced around he could see nothing to cancel that perception. A small exit sign above the closed hatch at his feet pointed left along the now horizontal floor. A tremor shook the craft as they docked with Trade Station, and lights flashed green as the portal below slid open with a hum of hydraulics. An intercom relayed a series of instructions for disembarking, and he swallowed a few times to clear the pressure in his ears as air exchangers pumped in an oily smell mixed with a stench of disinfectant.
Simara tucked the trailing ends of her sari under her arms as they floated down out of their passenger slot into the central tunnel of the shuttle. Pressing back buoyant nausea, Zen gripped handrails to propel himself after her toward a flashing exit sign. The area was cramped, and every edge was rounded to prevent snags or injury, every handle recessed and every conduit inlaid. A few spots on the wall were scraped bare of paint and a few corners were burnished with wear, the craft showing age but not disrepair, the fiery Transolar insignias bright and clean.
Outside the shuttle door, they squirmed down a short orifice into a wider antechamber where uniformed clerks redirected passengers into launch gates for connecting flights to Babylon and Cromeus. A male Security officer in a blue Transolar uniform pulled Simara out of line and locked her wrists in a nylon handcuff as another guard approached Zen with a grim expression of authority. What was this? Bounty hunters? Zen craned for view as Simara cast him a backward glance filled with dismay, but he had lost purchase for the moment and could only twist and flail for a surface to reorient his weightless body.
“Zen Valda of Star Clan?” the guard said as he offered an elbow.
Zen steadied himself against the man, thankful for something solid as his stomach roiled in free flight. He swivelled quickly to catch a glimpse of Simara as she was led away through a small tunnel above. Who were these people, corporate hirelings?
“Sir,” the man said, “can you please confirm your identity?”
“I’m Zen of Star Clan,” he said and pointed after Simara. “I’m travelling with my wife.”
“We’ll follow her this way,” the guard said as he propelled them both upward into the open tunnel. He seemed to move without effort, redirecting his momentum with simple kicks and pushes here and there, always in motion, never far from any surface, but rarely touching anything around him. Zen was glad for the guidance and clung to his elbow for navigation.
“Simara Ying has been taken into custody,” the guard said. “We’re going to ask you a few questions under oath. Would you like to have a lawyer present?”
“What?” Zen said, squinting and clenching his brows in confusion. “No, a lawyer won’t be necessary. I’ve done nothing wrong. What’s the big problem?”
The Security officer pulled them into a bare vestibule and closed a portal below their feet. “She’s under arrest for the murder of her stepfather, Randy Ying.” The man studied Zen’s face with professional detachment. “She led us on a merry chase through the badlands of Bali, I must say.” Again the guard paused to study Zen’s reaction. Every nuance was going on record now, every expression of horror and amazement as Zen’s mind cartwheeled through possibilities.
Zen pressed his fingers to his forehead as he struggled to process the terrible news. What in Kiva’s name? Murder? That was not a word to bandy about lightly. Could Simara have killed her stepfather in her struggle to escape sexual assault? She was certainly capable of violence with her wicked right fist, and he still had the black eye to prove it. She had admitted to fighting in self-defence. Had she kept the real truth hidden? Murder? Had Zen harboured a fugitive all this time and abetted a criminal act? Did he carry second-hand guilt? He gulped stale, oily air and turned to the Security officer. “I think a lawyer might be a good idea.”
The guard bobbed his head once as though the obvious could be arranged with ease. “Wait here,” he said as he kicked off toward an open portal up above. “It might take a few minutes to summon a representative.”
Zen examined his surroundings with care, checking for cameras or surveillance equipment. The grey vestibule was a claustrophobic section of hexagonal conduit less than a man’s height in diameter with a bench seat ringing the circumference at the midpoint and two access gates fore and aft. The upper doorway was not closed, but it might as well have been, for Zen had nowhere to hide from the constabulary on Trade Station and no escape from Transolar authority. He spent a few moments studying the circular bench seat, trying to decide which surface to rest upon. Both sides were covered with a spongy texture that might pass for austere padding. No landmarks on the walls indicated up or down, and Zen tried both directions with little comfort in the absence of gravity. He kept a hand on recessed grips in the wall at all times, fearful of flying free and flailing for purchase. Without a handhold, he could fall forever in this terrible place.
He felt a vacuum of purpose that he remembered from two years ago—the day his father shocked the family with news of his impending death from cancer. Valda had delivered the verdict without emotion to his wife and only son in the caves of Keokapul, his eyes dark with bitter foreboding. His tests had come in, and the results were not good—an acute leukemia that would take his life in matter of days, his own lifeblood turned sour and poisonous within him. Zen remembered the woeful absence in his heart at the death of his father, the sense that Kiva had failed him and life was no longer worth the ponderous effort. Stifled by depression, he could not summon anger or denial, nor trouble himself with the stages of grief. He felt only emptiness, an all-encompassing disconsolation. First his father taken to the grave, and now his bride would be plucked from his grasp, his skyfall princess shipped off to a prison colony on a planet far away.
An elderly man dove into the vestibule from above and quickly reoriented to match Zen’s chosen equilibrium. He floated downward with fingertip brushes along the wall, his thick grey hair marbled with dark streaks and his face craggy around lively eyes. He wore long pants of plain cellulose and the collared shirt of a corporate professional. “My name is Genoa Blackpoll,” he said in the lustrous baritone of a man accustomed to public speaking. “I knew your father and mourned his loss.”
Zen ducked his chin and kept silent, feeling lost and alone like a vagabond child, wondering whom he could trust in this nightmare. His father had never mentioned a compatriot by that name.
The man settled close and faced him on the bench opposite, barely a metre away. “I’ll be your public representative for a meeting with the prosecuting attorney and his empath in a few minutes.”
“I have money,” Zen said as he held up his boarding passes, “and two prepaid tickets to Babylon.”
Genoa Blackpoll took the tickets and pressed grim lips with a nod. “Don’t worry about the cost. My expenses will be reimbursed by corporate authority without prejudice to your case. I’ll have these tickets refunded to your account until current matters are cleared up. This private meeting is confidential, but your upcoming interview will be under oath and recorded as court evidence. An empath will be present, a woman with biogen augmentation, a technical specialist with expertise in reading nonverbal gestures—galvanic response, muscle tone, subconscious cues. The chance of successfully portraying any falsehood will be minimal. Do you understand?”
Zen cringed at the belaboured officiousness of his tone. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”
Genoa smiled and nodded with dutiful patience as though addressing a student. “The evidence indicates that you were travelling with Simara Ying and purchased a booster ticket for her under an assumed name. Is that correct?”
“Do you also wish to claim that you are partnered in marriage with the woman?”
Zen studied the man’s solemn face for a moment and wondered about a winding trail of consequence. “I owe her that much.”
“You owe her? How long have you known her?”
“Just a few days. She crashed in my quadrant.”
Genoa frowned. “The evidence indicates that you helped her conceal a stolen shuttlecraft from an extensive search. You could be open to a charge of wilful collusion in harbouring a fugitive during a murder investigation. In legal parlance that is known as accessory after the fact, a very serious charge.”
Zen grimaced with panic. “Did she really do it?”
The public representative spread his hands and pressed thin lips below a stubbly hint of grey moustache. He had a skullrider scar on his right temple below a receding hairline. “That won’t be for me to decide. The cargo ship
, registered to Randy Ying and Vanessa Edwards, was found abandoned with the cameras destroyed and the airlock open. There were signs of a struggle and traces of his blood found in Simara Ying’s quarters.”
Zen nodded. “They had a fight and Simara fled for her own safety. Her stepmother died a few months previous in a vacuum breach.”
“Yes, that much has been entered into record.” Genoa raised an eyebrow in query and waited a few moments in silence. His eyes were black holes of night, his dilated pupils wide chasms. “If you have nothing else to add, we might as well get started.” He tapped a pad on his earlobe, and two people entered the tunnel from above and floated down headfirst toward them. They reoriented in concise space with practised elegance to sit opposite Zen as Genoa slid around the wall against his thigh.