❮ read Act II, part 1

~~~~ 2 ~~~~

Ginsein had difficulty getting to sleep. He found images of the potential plaintiffs haunting him when he closed his eyes, alternating with a picture of Angela’s warm smile. These two realities, one virtual but solid, the other real but fleeting, were having a tug of war in his mind. After a few hours of this Ginsein ordered a sleep aid in water, and told his bedroom to have the reversal drug available when it woke him up.


Sleep was no help. He dreamed of being with Angela, of having an infinite dinner at a fancy restaurant. The waiter AI kept trying to leave the cheque, but Ginsein shooed it away each time. He did not want the dinner to end. Angela smiled at him.

The next dream he was in the habitat gym. The room was spinning randomly on every axis. Sadie’s bright red hoodie was tumbling around the room, as if in a giant’s clothes dryer. On the floor of the gym, unaffected by the weightlessness, Sadie and her mother sat together on the deck plating, holding each other while they laughed and laughed.

The scene began to lens through his tears.


“Play next clip with audio.”

His glasses went dark. His office was replaced with a habitat bedroom. A single lamp on a bedside table was on, casting a low but cozy light. There was a double bed beside the lamp, a dresser on the far wall, and a door apposite the bed. Beside the open door were two suitcases.

Fatima was on the bed, reading from a pad. She put the pad down, turned to the camera, and said something. Now Ginsein could hear the room’s ambiance. He wondered at how something travelling faster than the speed of light could make so little noise.

Fatima brought her feet to the floor and, sitting on the bed, began speaking to the camera.

“Hi mom. Just thought I’d check in. Our first day of hyper-light travel and it’s actually quite pleasant. I know, I know, but it really doesn’t feel like we’re cargo. We have two levels, four bedrooms, a kitchen, two dens, a rec room, and even a private gym. I almost sprang for the pool extension but decided to save the credits for fun stuff on our way back from St Francis. Sadie’s been through so much. She deserves to have some fun.

“I’ve been thinking about what you said, taking early retirement, but I’m going to get back to work after Sadie’s treatment. I want the rest of her life to feel ordinary, you know? Besides, there might just be some usefulness left in these old bones.

“Sorry, ‘old’ reference likely not appreciated.

“Anyway, I don’t have any clear idea of how long we’ll be away, the prep and treatment will take about a week, but recovery is going to be wait and see.

“I thought we might even pop down to NOR37 and take a look at how the colony is coming along.” Fatima smiled at the camera. “I know how you feel about colonies, mom, but they are probably looking for structural engineers. I could be a has-been on Earth, or a superstar out here.

“Anyway, I just wanted to check in and let you know how we’re doing. And that’s ‘pretty good.’ Sadie is in good spirits. Her positive energy lifts in me up like I can’t describe. What do they say, the child becomes the parent? Something like that…

“I guess I’ll sign off. Feel free to send a reply, though I don’t think we can receive anything until we arrive at the station.

“By mom. Audio off.”

In the muted silence, Fatima appeared to sigh. She looked up and said something. The light in the room turned off, save for a small emergency light above the open bedroom door.


Ginsein was busily dictating notes when his door chime went off. His desk showed Angela waiting outside the door.

“Come in.”

The door opened and Angela walked in.

“Munchhausen by Proxy!” she said, animated, as she took the chair in front of his desk. “However did you come up with that?!”

“Well,” said Ginsein, sitting down. Did I really stand up as she came in? Ginsein thought to himself. Is it possible to look more foolish?

“I’ve since learned the correct psychological term is factitious disorder imposed on another.”

Angela waved her hand in a ‘go on’ gesture.

“And after looking more carefully into the footage, I found this was not the case.”

“Still, introducing this along with possible malingering to a jury, could certainly muddy the waters.”

“Yes, as I mentioned in my review. It would mean neglecting to point out evidence to the contrary.”

“Discovery would include the video. Not our fault if their lawyers are not as diligent as ours.” Angela gave a conspiratorial shrug.

Ginsein looked at his wristpad out of nervous habit. Unsurprisingly, it was still not working.

“Are you still lugging that old thing around?”

Ginsein rolled his eyes. “I keep meaning to make a note to get it fixed, but every time I do the damn thing isn’t working to take my dictation.”

“What a perfectly vicious loop!” Angela chuckled.

Ginsein did not reply. He was trying to determine if she was joking with him, or mocking. Or both. Neither?

“Anyway, I don’t want to keep my star attorney from his important work,” she said, getting to her feet.

Ginsein, with growing embarrassment, found himself rising to his feet as well.

“I do want to say how pleased I am you are on my team. I know I’ve said this already, but that was before you started turning a guaranteed loser into a case with a fighting chance. You do not disappoint, and I’m going to make sure everyone knows it, right up the chain. Your days of skulking in the background are soon coming to an end.”

“I… well, I mean… I, I sort of…”

“Enjoy the skulking? I get that. I do. I’m not saying you’ll be stuck in power lunches and kissing ass at cocktail parties. That’s my job. I guess what I mean to say is I want to put an end to other people getting credit for your work. When this case is done we’ll find a way for you to get the position you deserve, in a way that makes you comfortable. This company has been wasting you.” With this Angela gave him another big smile, turned, and left his office.

Ginsein stood for a moment, processing. It was hard, because his last image of Angela was of her high-heeled power shoes, and the way they made the muscles in her lower legs flex. Then he sighed, sat down, and returned to work.


“Play the next clip with audio.”

“The next clip includes visual and audio distortion. Audio is engaged in every room.”

“Is this the footage of the accident?”

“It is footage of the habitat during what is assumed to be the accident.”

“I understand. Please continue. Display all clips simultaneously.”

His AVR glasses once again faded to black. When an image returned, he found himself facing a large wall separated into squares, two for each room in the habitat.

There was no sound for a few seconds as each video played. Most of the squares displayed dark rooms, illuminated only by safety lights above doors. Sadie was in her bedroom, surrounded by medical devices. Fatima was lying in bed. She had fallen asleep reading her pad, which now lay on her stomach, the screen still on and lighting the ceiling above her.

Then the power winked out. But not only the habitat power. All power seemed to fail: the battery-powered emergency light above each door, the independent medical equipment around Sadie’s bed, and even the pad lying on Fatima’s stomach.

“Recording interrupted. Resume with video?”

“How long was this power outage?”

“Time synchronization with the Osprey does not resume. Any answer would be speculative.”

“Then speculate.”

“Two point five seconds, based on visual cues from resumed video.”

“What is the source of the power loss?”


“Possible causes?”

“Magnetic dampening. Unintended drop from hyper-light travel. Electromagnetic pulse.”

Ginsein paused for a moment. That list reminded him of something he’d heard before. He opened his mouth to order a note added to the case file to check this out, but stopped himself. Or, something stopped him. He took off his glasses, opened a secure note on his desk, and, using its polymatter keyboard, typed “damp EMP hype.” He put his glasses back on.

“Resume playback.”

All of the screens lit up again with their images, except now a yellow hazard light strobed above every door, and he could hear a warning klaxon from every camera.

“Mute audio.”

The cacophony ceased. Ginsein focused on Fatima’s room. She’d been startled awake from the light and sound, but something else made her throw back her covers and leap out of bed. When he looked at Sabina’s room the cause was clear: Sabina was lying in bed, clutching her covers, eyes wide and terrified, her mouth was open wide in a scream.

Fatima ran out the door and turned in the direction of her daughter’s room.

“Switch to VR view of Sabina’s room and include audio.”

The bank of squares faded away to be replaced with Sadie’s room. Only a moment after this, Fatima ran through the open bedroom door and jumped onto her daughter’s bed. They held each other, Sadie crying and wanting to know what was going on while her mother tried to comfort her.

When Sadie had calmed down enough, Fatima spoke out loud, “Contact the Osprey!”

“Unable to contact the Osprey tractor.”


“The magnetic trunk line has been disconnected.”


“No wireless handshake available. Warning! Habitat unit on battery reserve power.”

“Can you contact anyone?”

“Negative. Warning! Habitat unit on battery reserve power.”

“What happened to the Osprey?”

“There is no telemetry available to make a determination.”

Fatima got off the bed and walked over to the room’s control display. “Show me the location of the Osprey.”

The view from an external camera on the forward section of the habitat appeared on part of the panel. The long line of containers trailed off into the distance. Because the stars were motionless, Fatima could see oscillations travelling down the train toward their habitat. Where the Osprey tractor should have been was an increasing sphere of blackness. As it expanded the stars disappeared behind it. The oscillations along the train seemed to keep ahead of this growing sphere of nothing.

Fatima watched as cargo containers were swallowed up in the expansion.

“What is happening?”

“There is not enough data to determine a cause.”


“The engines of the Osprey tractor have caused a singularity. Warning! Habitat unit on battery reserve power.”

“That doesn’t make sense. This close to an infinite mass point the gravity would tear us to bits. And why is it growing?”

“Speculation. If the singularity is small enough the curvature of spacetime would not have an instantly catastrophic effect on local frames. The growth you reference is the event horizon of the singularity. That it is growing slowly suggests we are experiencing time dilation.”

“And if the event horizon reaches us?”

“The habitat and its contents will be destroyed. Warning? The habitat unit…”

Shut up about the fucking batteries!” Fatima watched as more cargo containers disappeared into the blackness. The sphere’s expansion was accelerating.

“If the magnetic trunk is gone, what is holding the train together?”

“Long-liners maintain a physical connection for safety. These connections are made during train formation and provide stability during sub-light manoeuvring.”

Fatima examined the schematic of their habitat displayed on the control panel. She could see how the magnetic trunk was supplemented with a physical connection.

“What are these?” she asked, pointing at two red circles on either side of the physical connection.

“Those are the explosive bolts that allow a container to be separated from the train during an emergency.”

The oscillations were beginning to make themselves felt in the habitat. Accelerations began to fluctuate, pulling them side to side and up and down. Not yet enough to overpower the grav-plating, but Fatima could see on the display these oscillations would get much worse.

“Blow the bolts.”

“This procedure is not recommended. Please confirm command.”

“Confirmed. Blow every bolt between us and the next container. Hold on Sadie!”

The habitat reacted instantly. Fatima was thrown into the control panel, smacking her head. Her body crumpled to the floor. Sadie had enough time to grab the headboard. Since all the furniture was attached to the deck, she was able to stay on her bed.

The display of the cargo containers accelerated away, then slid out of view. The explosion had sent the habitat spinning. The view of the rest of the train appeared, then showed the stars, then reappeared. With each revolution the train receded, Finally, after one last revolution, the entire ship was gone. Only the sphere of blackness remained. One revolution after that, it seemed to be smaller. And, after one more revolution of the habitat even the blackness was gone.

Sadie got off her bed and fought the centrifugal effect of the habitat’s rotation to crawl over to her mother.


At this point the audio cut out. The habitat’s AI had decided the emergency was over.

Ginsein continued watching as Sadie coaxed her mother awake. Then the scene faded to black. He’d reached the end of the clip.

“Continue playback from this point.”

The scene returned. Sadie was helping her mother struggle to sit on the bed. Fatima’s nose and head were bleeding.

“How did they survive all that rotation?”

“Fatima Ali used the manoeuvring thrusters of the habitat to counteract the roll.”

“Play the next clip with audio.”

Ginsein was back at the kitchen table. Fatima sat opposite the camera. She had a bandage on her nose and another on the side of her head where a section of her hair had been removed. Her eyes were red from crying and dark bags hung beneath them. Ginsein was stunned. She looked like she’d aged a decade.

“Hi mom,” she said, then used a tissue in her hand to soak up fresh tears. She looked off to one side, clearly gathering her strength.

“Something happened to the Osprey tractor. All the cargo containers were destroyed. We would have been too but… somehow we escaped whatever was going on.

“We’re in normal space. The habitat doesn’t have any means of astrogation so we don’t know where we are. We can receive and transmit local signals, but we’re in the middle of nowhere. We’ve got supplies and power for thirty days, but I reduced our gravity to eighty percent and I’ve started rationing my food and water. Who knows how long we’ll be out here before we’re found?

“Sadie is in shock. She thinks this means she won’t get her treatment. It’s like she’s lost her will. I don’t know what to say to her. This will just be a delay.” Fatima looked directly into the camera. “Right?”

Instead of signing off or saying goodbye, Fatima simply stood and wandered out of the kitchen. The audio continued to record the ambient sounds of the room even as the lights in the kitchen, detecting no human presence, switched themselves off. Ginsein continued to listen, turning up the volume and straining to hear anything from beyond the room, but there was nothing. Eventually the audio recording switched off.

“End playback.”

Ginsein removed his goggles and pinched the bridge of his nose. For a moment he wondered about the fate of these people he’d been watching, but he already knew that, didn’t he? They were both dead. Only in the lying reality of these video clips, they didn’t know this yet.

Not really able to process the emotions he was feeling, Ginsein turned his attention to considering the cause of the accident. To him, it seemed the Osprey tractor had just blown up. The energy involved in hyper-light travel was immense. Combined with a field bubble large enough to contain over five hundred containers, the power output of the ship must be staggering. If all that energy was to escape at once…

Determining the cause of the accident was not in Ginsein’s purview, but his curiosity got the better of him. Just in case, instead of doing the research on his own, he contacted a local data merchant and asked for an outline of hyper-light transit and any known failures of hyper-light engines, the causes and effects of those failures, and if the events of a fictional scenario (basically what he’d seen on the surveillance footage) could be attributed to such a failure.


After lunch Ginsein caught up on paperwork, including his review of the case up to now. He didn’t have much to add since his last report—more of the same basically—and for some reason he could not understand, he neglected to include his concerns over the possible cause of the accident. Ginsein told himself this was simply because finding the cause of the accident was not his problem, but that did not explain why he was investigating it, nor why he was not being forthcoming in his report by including his concerns. Information was power, after all, and there was a possibility, however slight, that he had noticed something no one else had.

An alert on his desk started blinking. It was an incoming communication from Angela. Ginsein accepted it with undue haste.

“Hey there,” said Angela, smiling her big smile up from a section of his desk, “how goes the war?”

“The more I watch the worse it seems for our clients.”

Angela gave a little nod. “True, true, so thank goodness we’re not them. Am I right?” That smile again. Ginsein, too scandalized (smitten?) to respond, just shrugged.

“Look, I know we were supposed to meet and go over the case this afternoon, but I had to skip lunch for a phone call and we wouldn’t be able to hear each other over my stomach. Would you mind reviewing the case with me over a late lunch?”

Ginsein felt dizzy, confused, elated, and disappointed. Plus, his stomach was doing unpleasant things he was enjoying.

“It’s not important if you’re busy,” Angela continued, “we could reschedule for tomorrow.”

Ginsein felt this rescheduling offer was made under duress, as if she was asking too much of him, being inappropriate. Or was she? All Ginsein could do was stare mutely back at Angela’s image.

“I’ve caught you at a bad time,” Angela continued. “Let’s get together tomorrow morning.”

“No!” Ginsein blurted out, surprising himself at least as much as he did Angela. “I mean… I, I’m quite hungry as well. I tend to skip lunch. Too often. Then I’ll stop and pick up something on the way home, a late lunch or early dinner, which ends with getting hungry again in the evening. Then I’ll end up….” Ginsein realized he was babbling. “Sorry,” he added, “I mean, something to eat sounds good.”

Angela unleashed that smile again. “No apology required. “Meet on the roof in, say, fifteen minutes?”

“Yes. Good. Sure, fifteen minutes.”

Angela gave a wink and her image disappeared when she closed the communication.

Ginsein simultaneously sank back in his office chair and unclenched his teeth. His face became a series of worry lines as he played over the conversation. Once again he found himself baffled. Was there something beneath the surface? How to tell? And how many times had he assumed ‘yes’ and humiliated himself?

Suffering internal oscillations like an Asimov robot stuttering between the first and second law, Ginsein gathered his few things into his briefcase and made his way to the roof. A skycab sat waiting, with Angela inside. He walked over and took the seat opposite her.

Destination?” the cab asked as the door closed them in.

“Cloudy City,” Angela replied.

Ginsein’s mouth flopped open in shock.

“Hey,” said Angela, as she tightened her flight harness, “why not spend a dollar on the company dime?”

Ginsein reached up with a hand and closed his jaw with it. His attempt at a joke. But Angela got it, and threw her head back to laugh. He could feel that laugh all the way to his toes. How do I read a language I don’t understand? Ginsein lamented inside, while Angela spoke about the case.


As they approached their destination the skycab increased its altitude until it entered the clouds above them. They travelled this way for several minutes, before the cab burst up out of the clouds into the brilliant sunlight above. Their ride slowed both horizontally and vertically as it approached what appeared to be a building floating above the clouds.

Angela pulled a pair of AVR glasses out of her pocket. “Do you have your glasses?”

Ginsein took his gaze away from the approaching building and nodded. He held up his briefcase.

“You should put them on.”

Ginsein retrieved them and brought them up to his face. Suddenly, that basic oval shape floating above the clouds became an explosion of lights and movement. Spotlights shone down, making bright circles dance and frolic on the clouds beneath. The building itself seemed to glow with a deep, burnished red, like an overstuffed chair in a gentleman’s club. Around the building, slightly above it, was a circular marquee with the phrase “Welcome To Cloud City” travelling on it around the building.

Their skycab came to rest on a large landing pad attached to a covered charging bay. When Angela and Ginsein got out, their cab was whisked away on a conveyor to an empty charging spot under cover.

“Don’t worry about our cab, “Angela explained, “the restaurant will pick up its charges and pay for it to wait here for us.” She leaned in conspiratorially and added, “The company is even going to cover our ride home.”

Ginsein, maintaining his perfect record for not having a clue how to react, did not react.

The foyer acted much like a giant, extravagant airlock. He could feel the pressure increasing in the atmosphere around them when the outer doors closed. But it was a very slow build, no doubt meant to ensure comfort. The floor was a lush carpet and a chandelier hung from the ceiling just beyond the inner doors, which slid open quietly when the pressure was sufficiently equalized. Even so, there was a distinct but barely audible hiss of air.

“Welcome to cloud City, Miss Markell,” a woman said as the inner doors closed behind them. “For two?” she added, looking at Ginsein and then back to Angela.

“Yes, please, Heda, and how many times do I have to say ‘Angela’?”

“Angela, of course. Follow me, please.”

The restaurant looked immense, impossibly big compared to its round, squat appearance from the outside. Ginsein lifted his glasses up to peer out from beneath the lenses. What he saw was a lavish restaurant that took up most of the floor space beneath its done-shaped ceiling. Pot lights of various lengths hung down, one per table, so they all kept the same cozy distance from the diners.

But with his glasses on, Cloud City was no mere restaurant. The ceiling vaulted over them at least ten meters and was bejewelled by chandeliers endlessly twinkling like multicoloured jewels being spun in bright sunlight. Some tables were augmented with impossible glitter and gold utensils, while others looked no different than without augmentation. Even some of the people, most in fact, were altered through his lenses, looking more attractive, or younger, or completely different than their non-augmented selves.

Ginsein felt dizzy as the hostess stopped at an empty two-seat table tucked privately against the wall. He was glad for a chair back to steady himself.

“Is good?” asked Heda, looking to Angela.

“Perfect, thank you.”

Heda smiled and nodded, then turned on her heel to walk back to her station at the inner entrance door. Despite himself Ginsein’s eyes lingered on her swaying hips.

“Easy, tiger,” Angela said, using a finger to lift this AVR goggles so he could see their hostess without augmentation. She was not a she, not even a human, not even a bipedal robot. Heda was a thin cylinder on a set of four wheels nimbly navigating its way back to the hostess station.

“But…” Ginsein felt another wave of Vertigo, the worst so far.

“Hey, easy there.” Angela helped Ginsein sink down with wobbly knees to his chair. She the walk over to sit opposite him and leaned over the table.

“Keep ‘em on or keep ‘em off,” she said, pointing to her eyes. When Ginsein looked even more fuddled, she added, “Show glasses,” and the AVR glasses she was wearing became visible to him.

Ginsein looked around the restaurant. He could see no one wearing glasses, though some people sported glasses and other eye pieces that were clearly worn for fashion’s sake. He looked back at Angela.

“If you take your glasses off and put them on again too often or too quickly in an augmented environment, it can cause nausea or feelings of vertigo.”

Ginsein nodded. “I’ll keep them on.” Then he collected himself. “I appreciate how much trust you have in my work. There’s something about the case I’d like to discuss.”

“Let’s not talk about work.”

“But, I mean… isn’t that what we’re here for? The reason the company is paying for our meal?”

“What’s that?”

“Well, talking about the case.”

“We just did.”

“We did?”

“Sure we did. You brought it up and I suggested we not talk about it. Am I incorrect?”

“Well, no, I mean technically you’re correct…”

“And that’s the point,” Angela interrupted. “We are the ‘technically’ people.” She emphasized the end of her sentence with air quotes.

Ginsein realized he had his mouth hanging open. He closed it.

Angela smiled. “This is what we do, anything we can to have our clients found technically not guilty. Right and wrong, true or false, we don’t care. We look for that technicality, even in those rare circumstances where our client is actually innocent.”

“But that isn’t the law.”

“That is all the law. I didn’t say I like it, but this is the game.”

“Sounds so cynical.”

“It is, but tell me, how often do you get your clients a favourable verdict due to a technicality?”

“I… well, I think. Oh.”

“Right? And you’re like some kind of magician at finding them.”


“This is not how I wanted our meal to go. We’re still talking about work.”

“There is something ironic in there, somewhere,” Ginsein agreed, taking a nervous glance at his wristpad. It was still blank, but his AVR glasses painted a question mark over it. He assumed this meant he could have his glasses overwrite its appearance. And now he had noticed, several things at his table setting, including his hands and arms, offered question marks.

“I’m surrounded by question marks,” Ginsein announced.

“Right. Those are options to augment your personal space.”

“But what if I don’t want to see question marks?”

Angela flashed that smile of hers again. “Mr. Maxwell would like his augmentation prompts turned off.”

Ginsein heard his glasses ask: “Confirm?”

“Yes, please. I confirm.” As soon as he spoke, the question marks disappeared and his wristpad once again stared blankly back at him.

“Didn’t you take the tutorial?”

“I did, but I skipped augmentation because I didn’t think I’d be using it.”

“It has a lot more options than virtual. You can tune most of the world to your preferences.”

Ginsein noted a small help icon near the bottom left of his view.

“We should order.” Angela made a gesture and a menu appeared in front of her. She began to slide options into and out of view with her fingers.

“How do I…”

Angela leaned on the table. Her left hand covered his right. “Do you trust me?” she asked.

Ginsein looked at her hand. Like and loathing; despair and desire; reaching and recoiling.

“I think I do,” Ginsein said. He looked back up at her. They took a few moments to look at each other through Angela’s transparent menu, each of their faces painted with dancing letters scrolling over them.

Angela’s smile spread over her face once more. “Wonderful! Then let me order for both of us.”

Ginsein sat back in his mind, a kind of augmented reality of his own. On the outside he listened to Angela describe what she was ordering, and they even talked as they waited for their food. When it came, they talked while they ate—the food was excellent, his external reality informed him—but Ginsein was really not part of the conversation. His mind floated on autopilot, as it seemed to do in social situations. Eventually it would fail at maintaining proper social interactions, and other people would find excuses to go do something else.

Angela had removed her hand from his when she ordered their food, but he had not moved his. It felt odd, detached, as if no longer completely him—that dichotomous confusion of pulling and pushing.


“That was incredible!” Angela said, putting her utensils on her plate and using hand gestures to pay the bill. Ginsein came back to himself, shocked, to find Angela had not become annoyed or quiet. In fact, she seemed just as happy as she’d been when they arrived.

“It was very good,” Ginsein said, looking down to see he had eaten his meal, though he could not remember doing so.

“Shall we get out of here?”

Ginsein nodded, and they made their way outside to stand before the conveyor until their skycab slid in front of them. They got in. Angela gave the cab an address. As they departed the restaurant, Ginsein began to give the cab his address.

“Why don’t you come over and share a drink with me? I’m enjoying your company.”

A confusion of images played in his mind. They were mostly stills from the footage of the habitat he’d watched, although some were made up, displays of the occupants’ future he had yet to see. The images were all in black and white, interrupted by occasional flashes of colour: a pair of red lips; a cascade of shiny black hair; an eye, surrounded by long lashes, its iris a dark, haunting brown. They were all images of Angela.

“Oh,” Ginsein said. “Okay, that does sound nice.”


Ginsein woke abruptly. His eyes opened and he sat up in bed. The room was cool and dark, but unfamiliar. So too the bed and its covering. He turned and put his feet on the floor.

“Leaving so soon, and without even a goodbye?” Ginsein jumped up and turned to see Angela smiling up at him from the bed, one hand propping up her head, one breast free from the covers.

Ginsein opened his mouth but nothing came out. His mind played back a series of clips, distorted like seen in a fun-house mirror, the two of them embracing, kissing, the tactile memory of her wonderful, soft tongue probing his mouth. The pleasure and revulsion. The awkward pistoning and ecstasy of being enveloped, accommodated, no matter how deeply he probed.

“I’m not a virgin,” he blurted out, surprising himself.

“Certainly not after last night,” Angela agreed, smiling, then she seemed to catch the implication in Ginsein’s words. “Oh, oh shit. I’m sorry. I had no idea. Are you alright?”

Ginsein nodded, not at all certain how he was. The clips in his mind included touch, smell, taste, even sound. He switched back and forth between delight and revulsion. What a tempest, this being human.

“You don’t have to go,” Angela said, getting out of bed and facing him. Her body was near perfect, as human meddling with genes generally produced. But she could sense his discomfort—something she’d never faced about her naked body before—she grabbed a robe and covered herself.

“I should go. So much work!”

“It’s the weekend. Four days to slack off and do nothing.”

“You know me,” said Ginsein, finding and putting on his shirt and underwear. I’m quite an asset.” He gathered up his shoes and the rest of his clothes, and headed for the door. But Angela stepped in front of him.

“You don’t have to go. Let me make us some breakfast. We should talk.”

Ginsein’s eyes shifted: from Angela to the freedom outside her bedroom door. Back and forth.

“I’m overwhelming you. I’m so sorry.” She quickly moved out of the doorway. Ginsein sat on the living room couch and put on his socks and shoes. Angela tried to seem small and unobtrusive against the wall.

“Can I call you a cab?” She said, as Ginsein stood up to put his jacket on.

Ginsein brought his wrist up to once again face his blank wristpad. He made a strange expression.

“I’ll call you one.” Angela moved over to the room’s control panel and spoke into it. When she turned back Ginsein was looking at her.

“I’m sorry,” he said, almost mechanically. “You were very nice to me and I am not being… I’m not.”

Angela seemed about to say something, but he put up his hand.

“I know I am, well, different. But I am not angry or upset with you. The opposite. I’m just… feeling overwhelmed.”

“Okay.” Angela looked like she wanted to say more, but stopped herself. Ginsein appreciated the effort.

“I’ll see you at the office?”

She nodded.

The cab was ready when he arrived on the roof. He hurried from the covered passenger station through the rain and into the warm interior. Ginsein managed to say his address but did not pay any attention to the cab’s pleasantries. After he ignored it for the third time, it ceased attempting to engage him. Ginsein wondered what implacable, patient thoughts were spinning in its calculating mind. It could see his body was not in distress, but what concerns over his mental health might it be contemplating due to his reluctance to engage? Was there never an eye watching?


Once home Ginsein dropped his briefcase on the couch and sat down. So many images and feelings roared through his mind he felt like something had to give way. He stood to take off his jacket and, out of habit, checked its pockets. Inside one he found his AVR glasses—likely the most expensive thing in his apartment—shoved unceremoniously inside with no cover or protection.

Ginsein tossed his jacket beside his briefcase, resisting the urge to fold the thing up properly. He sat down once more and turned the glasses over and over again in his hands.


He turned, startled, towards the direction of the voice, but there was no one there.

“Is there anyone in the apartment other than myself?” he asked.

“You are currently the sole occupant of the apartment,” the wall panel explained.

Ginsein sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. Now he was hearing things? And why did that voice seem so familiar?

“Play back the next audio clip,” he said, putting on his glasses.

After a brief display of darkness, the familiar habitat kitchen returned. Once again Fatima was sitting across from the camera at the kitchen table. But this time she looked terrible. Her hair was unkempt, her eyes swollen and red from crying. Her nose was running and she dabbed at it and her eyes with a tissue.

“Sadie’s gone,” she said, her voice hitching and hoarse. “She… it’s like she just gave up. We’ve been out here ten days. Just ten days! They’re sure to find us.” She looked vacantly into the camera. “Find me,” she corrected.

“What am I going to do, mom? My girl is gone.” Fatima put her head in her hands and sobbed.

“Pause,” Ginsein said quickly. He was not one to feel other people’s emotions but even he could tell watching more was an invasion of privacy. It did not dawn on Ginsein that he was no longer viewing this recording as a piece of evidence.

“Are you able to pinpoint the time of Sadie’s death?”

“With ninety-four percent accuracy.”

“Start playback five minutes previous to that point.”

After fading to black, Ginsein’s glasses presented Sadie’s bedroom. The girl was connected to several devices: some to circular nodes attached to her head, others went under her shirt, and yet others attached to several IV needles in her arms. A small tube beneath her nose was connected to a tank.

Ginsein used hand gestures to move around the room until he was beside Fatima, looking at Sadie, whose face was turned to the side to look at her mother. Gone was that deliberate, focused gaze. It was replaced with an emptiness, a lost gaze from eyes sunken into a face like a death mask. Ginsein could hardly believe it was the same little girl.

He turned to regard Fatima, who looked even worse than she would two days later when she would record that second message to her mother.

Sadie and Fatima were talking; or, rather, Fatima was talking while Sadie looked back at her. Fatima clutched her daughter’s hand with both of hers.

Fatima continued to talk, reaching up occasionally to brush Sadie’s hair. But Sadie’s eyes were becoming more and more sluggish as they followed her mother, until they finally ceased moving at all. Sadie did not notice this at first; instead, she continued to speak—no doubt still trying to comfort and sooth.

Ginsein looked at Fatima. He saw the moment when she realized what Ginsein had seen, when mother realized daughter was gone.

In this moment something in Ginsein seemed to give way. The strange duality in his mind over last night with Angela; the enormity of what they’d done—to him at least; Angela hardly seemed affected—faded into a translucence he could barely discern over these feelings, these unaccustomed feelings that now made breathing difficult, painful. These feelings for the dead.

Stop!” he shouted. The scene faded to black, then replaced with the now-uncomfortable view of his once-comforting apartment.

Ginsein tried to wash away these new feelings with a long, hot shower. And while he succeeded in cleaning his body of the events of the previous night, the only comfort he found in the warm water was to wash away seemingly endless tears.

He had never cried tears before, even when a bully in fifth grade had pushed him backwards on his bike into a ditch, where, in order to keep his balance, he had planted his feet firmly on the ground. His right foot had been fine, but his left came down on a bottle bottom with a wicked triangle wedge of glass, perhaps ten centimetres high, that sliced through the thin sole of his shoe and impaled his foot.

But he had not cried: not when he saw what had happened; not when he pulled the shard out of his foot and it made a strange sort of sucking sound; not when he rode home on his bike, leaving a trail of blood; not when, in lieu of explanation, he simply poured the blood out of his shoe and onto the walk in front of his mother; and not even from the needles for freezing, the stitches, the tetanus shot, the pain of walking.

But now he curled up into a ball and wept, let out every tear his broken brain had refused him for forty years, let the hot water wash them away, as if they’d never been.


On Sunday he spent most of the day with Fatima, sitting beside her as she made a quiet vigil over her daughter, who looked like she was only sleeping on her bed. Fatima had removed all the machine connections, pulled the covers up and put Sadie’s arms outside them. She had washed and combed her wavy hair, and let it fall in a dark splash over the white pillow beneath it.


“Ah,” Ginsein said when he arrived at his office to find a package on his desk. The shipping label showed it was from the company’s internal system, and it had a message.

“Hey there,” Angela said from the small display on the shipping label. “I’ve been thinking about you and hoping you are okay. I got you this little gift because.. well, because I think you will find it useful. And thoughtful. Please enjoy.”

Ginseng released the latch on the shipping package and set it aside. A shipping robot would no doubt be around at some point to retrieve it.

Inside was a simple box coloured to appear like a wrapped present. Inside was a wristpad set into a foam holder.

“Ah,” Ginsein repeated, as he removed the pad from its package and replaced the broken one on his wrist. He put the box with the shipping container aside as well, so it could also be taken and reused.

The broken wristpad he did not set for recycling. He did not know why. He placed it on his desk and sat down in his chair.

A phone call broke his reverie.


A face he did not recognize appeared. “Mr. Maxwell?”


“Thanks for taking my call. I’m Bernard Arnault from Why Research. Your job request mentions you are on a tight schedule and needed information as it came in.”

Now Ginsein took a moment to look, he recognized the logo of the research firm he’d hired to look into the Osprey accident.

“Why are you calling me at work?”

“Am I?” the man asked, looking away from Ginsein to check on something. “Oh, yes, I see. My call was sent to your residence, which routed it to your wristpad. Seems some sort of error caused it to default to the nearest comm device. Did I catch you at a bad time?”

“No. I mean yes. I’m on my way to… an appointment.”

“Sorry, Mr. Maxwell, I’ll let you go and try again later.”

“No!” Ginsein said. “I mean, no, it’s okay, I have a few minutes. But in the future, only call my apartment and leave a message if I’m not in.”

“I’ll note that in your file. Should I tell you what we’ve found so far?”

“Quickly, please.”

“Okay. What we have has not been thoroughly vetted, but we have uncovered information suggesting the loss of the Osprey was due to negligence. That model of engine was prone to failure.”

“Yes. People and cargo got stranded. A black eye for the company.”

“It was rather more than that. The engine was not only known to fail and shut down, it was known to fail catastrophically. In fact, if this is what happened to the Osprey, this would be the second such accident for the company.

Ginsein felt his knees go weak.

“Are you telling me this was a known fault?”

“Yes, but we have not confirmed this is what happened to the Osprey.”

“But you suspect?”

“Yes. All the tentative information we’ve gathered does suggest this.”

“They killed them!” Ginsein whispered.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Maxwell, I didn’t quite get that.”

“I, uh… it’s nothing.”

“Do you want to continue, see if we can confirm our suspicions?”

“Yes. Please do.”

“Very well. So far we’ve kept the charges to a minimum, but we have eaten up your retainer.”


“We have an invoice. Are you okay, sir?”

“I’m… I, yes. Just send the invoice to me privately. I will pre-authorize for any charges.”

“Sounds good. We should have more in a day or two. I’ll have the report transferred to you when it’s complete. Enjoy the rest of your day.”

Ginsein sat quietly at his desk. Their client had caused the accident due to negligence. Fatima and Sadie were dead because someone had bet on the unlikely staying that way. And while his job was a contingency to reduce any damage that might result from the truth coming out, it seemed unlikely it would. No one would ever answer for this crime.

Ginsein put the few items he would need into his briefcase. Just before shutting it he reflected for a moment, then added his broken wristpad.


Angela called him on his ride home. It had been so long since his wristpad alert vibration worked he had a sudden fear his left arm was suffering some kind of neurological problem. He brought his arm up so the pad would answer the call.

“There you are,” Angela said, her smile as warm and friendly as ever. “I dropped by your office but you had stepped out.”

“Yes. I decided to work from home.”

“But you came in this morning.”

“I did. I wasn’t feeling well so changed my mind. Oh, and thank you for the wristpad. I’d meant to get mine fixed but kept forgetting. This one is much more fancy.”

“Only the best will do.” Angela winked.

Ginsein remained motionless.

“I didn’t hear from you this weekend, but I didn’t try to contact you. I didn’t want to intrude.”

“I appreciate that. I…”

“You don’t need to explain. I had a good time and I hope you did too. I wouldn’t mind a repeat, but no pressure.”

“No pressure.”

“Right? Just adults having fun.”

Ginsein had nothing to say.

“You get home and get to work. I just wanted to touch base and to let you know, it looks like our client will not be needing our work. Definitely not going to be a criminal trial, and even civil is looking unlikely. Seems the investigation will wrap up in a week or two, and the internal scuttlebutt is the whole thing will be declared an unforeseeable accident.”

“Oh… I, that is… unforeseeable?”

“We suspected as much all along, since the release of that space worthiness directive. But it’s always good to get sources on the inside to confirm.”


“But nothing. You keep working, but with an eye to writing your report based on your research thus far. This case was a stinker and everyone knew it. Still, our client liked everything you came up with, and it looks like they will retain us and drop their old firm. That’s a win for the company, and for us. We’re going to do great work together.”

Ginsein said “Great” as Angela closed the connection.


At home Ginsein put his briefcase down, put his AVR glasses on, and sat on the couch.

“Take me to the funeral,” he said.

“Please restate,” the glasses replied.

“The funeral! The funeral!” he said, almost shouting, feelings unfamiliar but simple enough to identify rushed through his body.

“When she… when Fatima buries Sadie in space.”

The glasses took no offence and the blackness of the lenses was quickly replaced with the same room he had seen on his first viewing of the habitat. But this time it was dark and two figures occupied the space. They were both in environment suits. The larger one, Fatima, clung to the smaller suit. She must have ordered the gravity shut off, since they both floated above the floor, weightless.

More orders he could not hear were made, and yellow emergency lights began flashing. A strange sort of wind began to disturb everything not solid or fixed in place, its effect slowly waning until it was gone. Now the large door in the wall of the habitat opened. That wind must have been the air being pumped out of the room, because there was almost no effect as the door opened and exposed the vacuum of space, glittering with points of light. It made Ginsein think of an endless black marble surface sprinkled with salt.

“I’ve never been to space,” he commented. Fatima turned to look up at him, but, no, that was impossible. There was no atmosphere in the room. No sound could travel.

He floated in the lack of gravity so he could be near them. Now he was closer, he could see the agony on Fatima’s face, the eyes cried dry, sunken, desolate, eyes of a devil sick of sin. Even so, those eyes found his and seemed to gather resolve from them. Fatima reached over to the side of the door and attached what looked like a rock climbing carabiner onto a metal loop just inside the door. Ginsein now noticed the safety line attached to that latch, floating up slowly with the inertia she had provided in moving it. The line coiled around and about, until it finally terminated with a similar hook on the back of Fatima’s environment suit.

photo credit: DALL⋅E 2

Fatima gathered up her daughter’s body and leaned forward out the doorway. She pushed off gently with her feet against the habitat. Together with her daughter she floated out the door.

The accuracy meter, displayed above the scene and so far always at one hundred percent, suddenly turned red and began to decrease rapidly.

Ginsein moved until he was positioned beside the metal loop Fatima had attached herself to. He looked out into the dark to see the two slowly floating away and the tether slowly straightening out.

When the line finally grew taut, Fatima’s movement forward stopped. She did not cling to Sabina. Her daughter continued on in a straight line, in a direction she would now travel forever.

When the slack of her tether reduced to nothing and stopped her from moving forward, tension and elasticity in the material caused Fatima to reverse course. For a few moments she reached out to the darkening suit of her daughter’s makeshift coffin, but then she curled into a ball.

And this is how she returned to the habitat, curled up like a wounded animal. She floated like that all the way to the far wall, her tether coiling up on her as it returned to the habitat.

The accuracy meter increased to almost one hundred percent.

Ginsein floated over to be close. He looked into her helmet to see a ghostly, pale face, staring a thousand light-years away. So he stayed with her, staring out the door through the infinite nothing where Sabina now lived.

He came back to himself when the main door began to close. Then he could begin to hear as the room was pressurized. Now he could hear some sort of warning klaxon and a voice accompanying it.

“Warning! Oxygen levels depleted. Please remove your helmet and use the habitat atmosphere.” The habitat AI knew Fatima’s environment suit was out of oxygen—how long had be been staring off into space?—and it had decided this was an emergency. Along with closing the door and pressurizing the room, it had turned on the audio, as required by specification.

Ginsein could now hear Fatima slowly choking inside her suit. She was awake and aware, and her eyes turned to him, desperate, not knowing if she wanted to live or die.

Ginseng could not lose her as well, so he reached up and pulled the emergency release under the chin of her helmet. There was a hiss as air pressurized within and without the suit.

“Thank you,” said Fatima, as she tried to catch her breath.

A battery warning began to flush at the edge of his vision.

“I have to go.”

Fatima met his eyes and nodded. I understand.

Ginseng removed his glasses and placed them on the living room charging pad. The blinking red “low battery” warning light changed to solid yellow.

He pinched the bridge of his nose and scrunched his eyes shut. The accuracy percentage at the edge of his vision had dropped to ninety-five percent.

The coffee table flashed a text message from by Angela.


The text displayed: Turn on any news feed. And are you busy Friday afternoon? I have two tickets to Bard on the Beach. They’re performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Let me know…

“Shakespeare,” he said to the empty living room. “That would be nice.”


“I don’t think I can do this any longer. I’m not afraid of dying in here. I’m afraid they’ll find me alive. Then what? Sabina’s gone. There’s nothing left for me.”

“I suppose I could trot out some tired cliches.”

“Please don’t.” She smiled, but only barely.

“I know what it means and feels to be alone. But until I met you I had no idea I felt that way. Is that ironic? Or just sad?”

Another small smile. “You’re such a comfort out here.”

“We should meet.”

“But… But that would mean…”

“Who cares what it would mean? We could meet. Find her. We could be a family.”

“That’s sweet, but we just met.”

“Sure, but I’ve been waiting for you my entire life. And there’s no rush. Out here we’ll have forever. “

“Are you sure?”

“There is another, but I know how that will end. I’m sick of endings. The only ending I’ve ever wanted hides out of sight and laughs at me.”

“Then I… we, will see you in forever!”


Early this morning the Transportation Safety Board released its full report on the investigation into the Osprey long-liner accident. In short, the investigation found SSST without blame in what it calls an “unforeseeable and tragic case of misadventure.”

In a bizarre twist, an attorney working for SSST’s legal firm, Ginsein Maxwell, has apparently committed suicide. After chartering a private space launch, Mr. Maxwell somehow took control of the ship and altered its skyhook exit vector, hurtling the launch into space outside any established navigation corridors.

SRS says when they caught up to the ship, they found the cabin depressurized and the air lock open. No emergency beacons or echo returns were found, meaning Mr. Maxwell had either floated too far away from the launch for detection, or managed to disable the transponder of his suit.

Even more stunning, before he took the launch, he sent the results of a private research company’s investigation into the Osprey wreck, research that suggests not only was the accident caused by a failure in the C+ drive power generator, but that SSST, the owner and operator of the long-liner, had a previous accident using the same power generator and had identified the cause, for which an expensive fix was available. The research, which Maxwell sent to the TSB and multiple news organizations, calls the accident one of negligence on the part of SSST.

“Oh Ginsein,” Angela said, then turned off the stream


The hardest part was getting the environment suit on properly. Every time he ran the test routine, some zipper was not properly closed, or some connecting lead not firmly attached.

But then he calmed himself. They were not going anywhere. They were waiting for him. He could even hear them chatting over the comms channel, though he remained silent for now.

When the suit finally approved of his application of it, he bled the atmosphere out of the launch and opened the inner airlock door.

“Ginsein, what are you doing?’

It was Angela. He looked all about the cabin but could not see her.

“I’m on your wrist.”

“Ah.” He lifted his arm to see Angela’s face looking back from him from his new wristpad. “Not used to it working.”

Angela was not smiling. “You’ve made quite a mess of things. I’m sure that was the point. Can I ask why?’”

“Yes, you can ask.”

Angela did not reply. She only raised an eyebrow. They were perfectly done, those eyebrows, hovering over her eyes like a tiny bird’s wings.

“That was a joke. Never been much good at them. I seem to miss something… intangible.” He furrowed his brow. “I did it because it is the truth.”

This time Angela did smile. “They still want you, can you believe it?” Then, her voice lower, more sultry, “and so do I.”

“You’re not real.”

“Is that all that matters to you?”

“I had a dream once. Never told anyone about it. I dreamt about a man devoured by paperwork. One moment he was there, reports and spreadsheets and HR mission statements attaching themselves to him like a horde of angry hornets. Then there was this rolling, spasming ball of paperwork thrashing on the ground. Then a wind picked up and all the paper blew away, leaving nothing. He was gone.”

“Gone with the Wind. You should tell her this story, at the corner of Nothing and Lasts Forever.”

“This wristpad is very nice, I’ll leave it here for you. They will find it when they recover the launch.”


Ah, so that is where that voice came from, he thought.

He removed the wristpad from the wrist of his gauntlet, and replaced it with his old one.

“Old faithful,” he said, and the wristpad smiled back at him, blackly. Yes, this wristpad was still blank. It still could not give him directions or locate where he was, or remind him of an appointment or respond to a message, but that did not matter. For the first time in his life, he knew where he was going.

*featured image photo credit: DALL⋅E 2