❮ read Act I

~~~~ 1 ~~~~

With a pleasant ding the people-mover opened its door to a soft-lit hallway. Roughly half the occupants disembarked, turning right and proceeding with business-like strides to their destinations. All but one, who hesitated outside the door—forcing some to step around him—to examine the small pad attached to a strap on his wrist. Somehow the display had gone blank. One person ventured a near silent “tut” over the shoulder of the person blocking the exit, before moving on in his business-walk way.

Ginsein Maxwell stood before the people-mover’s closed door as the sound of its motor revved up and it whisked the rest of its passengers on to their destinations. Ginsein was taller than average, in a respectable suit with a respectable job. A new respectable job, that is, which was part of the reason he’d stopped suddenly outside the doors when he brought his arm up to view his wristpad and its screen had been blank. What he’d been expecting was a notification showing him which direction he should turn to reach his new office for his new job.

“I am not incompetent!” Ginsein said to himself, unfortunately at precisely the moment when another person walked passed him with a business-like gait. She paused, looked over her shoulder at Ginsein, her straight black hair swaying lightly, looked him up and down, and commented, “No one in this department is. Pretty sure you need to turn left.” She tilted her head back the way she’d come, just in case there was any doubt.

Ginsein stopped fiddling with his wristpad. “Thanks,” he said, pointing to the pad and giving a little shrug. The woman turned to face him.

“I’m Ginsein, Ginsein Maxwell,” he added, holding out his hand. “Today’s my first day with the department.”

“I’m Angela Markell,” the woman replied, taking Ginsein’s hand and giving it a shake. “And I know it’s your first day. I requested you. I’m your supervisor.”

“Yes,” said Ginsein, nodding, hoping he appeared to be noting things he already knew.

“It’s okay, “Angela added, “I requested you for your analytics. If you’re as good as everyone says you are, no one’s going to care if you don’t remember names.”

Ginsein straightened up. “I am that good.” He hoped his voice sounded self-assured, “and thank you for pointing me in the right direction, Miss Markell”

“Call me Angela, please,” said Angela.

“Right,” Ginsein agreed, looking at his wristpad as if he was noticing the time. “I’d better be going. Get to work. For you.” He pointed at his supervisor, then immediately regretted it, then went back to fiddling about with his blank wristpad.

“I’ve left your first case file in your work queue. Could you take a look this morning and come to my office after lunch so we can discuss it?”

“Sure. Sure, after lunch. Your office.” Ginsein looked at his blank wristpad again. It was becoming a nervous tick so Ginsein kicked himself in his mind’s ass.

“Tell you what,” Angela said, noting Ginsein’s reaction to the mention of her office. “Why don’t I come to your office instead, and you can give me your thoughts.”

“Oh. Okay, yes. Certainly.”

Angela looked at him for a few more seconds. Long enough for Ginsein to start feeling uncomfortable.

“I’ll see you after lunch, then,” she added, then turned and continued on her way down the hall.

“Yes, after…” Ginsein said, stopping mid-sentence when he caught himself once again looking at his blank wristpad.


The good news? His office door not only had a number, which he could not recall, and could not look up on his misbehaving wristpad at any rate, but his name as well. And try as he might, he’d never managed to forget his own name.

The display set into his desk woke up when he sat down. He was impressed. It filled most of the desk’s surface and was separated into three equal portions, each of which could be levered up to vertical, leaving a control strip near the edge that used polymatter to grow into things like a physical keyboard if he felt like typing rather than dictating.

Very fancy.

Angela said she’d requested him for her department. Ginsein knew he was an exceptional agent—all of his supervisors had giving him glowing work reviews—but there was no mistaking his social awkwardness. Pre-Claim Auditing was a prestigious department, but it also had a reputation for requiring a lot of teamwork, since their investigations could be massive and complex.

Intrigued, if not a little concerned, Ginsein levered up the centre of his desk interface and used the control strip to open the case file sitting in his queue.

The case was labelled: SPTR Ltd, loss of Long-liner Osprey on 30 November, 2143. Running diagonally across the document was a watermark: “Classified” in an ominous red. Ginsein switched to the first page to read the summary. He skimmed the outline. The Osprey was lost with all hands and one hundred percent of its cargo, which included five hundred and ten cargo containers bound for colony NOR37.

Now why would they give this job to me? Ginsein asked himself. That much cargo would require at least a dozen agents, and besides that, the ship’s loss would likely be ruled accidental, a result of unpredictable conditions. New navigation checks were being developed to prevent any more such accidents, with a space-worthiness directive already issued for all private, commercial, and military traffic.

It was only when Ginsein reached the end of the case outline that he saw Angela had included a note for him.

Your focus is container #210. I have a team on the rest of the cargo. I think you’ll find this one an interesting knot, liability-wise.

Ginsein paused and read the short message a second time, before using the document’s index to open the relevant section: container #210.

On Nov 30, 2143, Space Shipping Supplies & Transport, Ltd, lost the long-liner Osprey, registration #317-559, to an at the time unknown cause. The entire crew was lost. Five hundred and ten cargo containers, destined for colony NOR37, were destroyed. Cargo container #210, registration #24-4480, survived the accident. This container was the last in the liner, at position #511, and was destined for St Francis, a medical facility sent to assist NOR37 colonization efforts. This container drifted for one year and forty-nine days. It was discovered on Jan 18, 2145 by a salvage crew, derelict and captured by the star of the Vega system. Upon inspection the container was found in working order, save a drained battery, and remained capable of sustaining life. Container #210 was a habitation module sold and operated by an SSST subsidiary, Life’s Travels, Ltd. The two occupants of the module, Fatima Ali, and her daughter, Sadie Ali, booked a seven-day passage on the Osprey prior to departure. Their intended destination was the medical facility, St Francis, for Sadie Ali to receive a life-saving medical procedure. When the container was salvaged, both occupants were not on board. The container’s habitation module had life-support endurance for thirty days. For a single inhabitant, that number would be almost double.

Video surveillance, standard inside the container, determined the daughter, Sadie Ali, succumbed to her terminal illness twenty days after the loss of the Osprey, at which point her mother buried the girl in space. Ten days later Fatima Ali appeared to commit suicide by exiting the emergency airlock, retracting it back into the container, and using her suit’s short-range navigation thrusters to accelerate away from the habitat module. An extensive search for both bodies was conducted, but, as their transponders had failed months earlier, recovery operations were unsuccessful.

We have been retained by SSST Ltd. Our goal is to determine our client’s potential liability should a court determine our client was negligent and therefore partially, or completely, responsible for the deaths of these passengers.

Sadie Ali:

The daughter was being transported to the medical facility, St Francis, which was in proximity to NOR37 to support colonization efforts. The medical staff had developed a successful procedure that could cure her illness, at any stage, so long as the patient arrived alive. That is, no postmortem procedures for this illness have been developed. As Sadie Ali died ten days after the accident, which was a total of twelve days since embarkation and a full eight days beyond her scheduled procedure date at the St. Francis facility, our client is potentially open to litigation, as their failure to avoid this accident meant Sadie Ali could have arrived and received treatment well within the time frame necessary for an optimal medical outcome.

Fatima Ali:

Is there exposure for the death of the mother? If so, is the fact she chose to commit suicide while the habitat remained capable of sustaining life a potential mitigation, or negation, of said liability?

For the purposes of your research, assume our client is found liable, in whole or in part, for the accident. Focus on potential liability, and arguments against same, for the compensatory and punitive damages that could be demanded by survivors of the occupants of the habitat.

Ginsein sat back and considered the job he’d been given. On its face, it seemed unlikely their client would be found liable for the accident, which would make any potential liability for the two passengers moot. Still, they expected him to provide a potential liability report, so that is what he would do.

photo credit: Dziana Hasanbekava

For the rest of the morning Ginsein worked to establish a base estimation of compensation for the two subjects. Subject one was a forty-three-year-old single mother from Libya. She had advanced degrees in structural engineering, but had quit work when her partner died six years earlier, to care for their then six-year-old daughter. Subject one lived on UBI support until her trip on the ill-fated Osprey. But even if she had returned to work after the trip, that would leave her less than seven years employment before mandatory retirement. In terms of compensation for her death, the amount would be negligible. Punitive damages were always a concern, so it would be best for their client to offer a generous wrongful death settlement outside of court to avoid any such awards.

Subject two was a twelve-year-old child facing imminent death from a terminal illness. It was true the St Francis facility offered good odds on her survival, meaning her minimum income could have been UBI until the average age of death, which would amount to ninety-five years for her demographic. Employment beyond UBI was speculative, and punitive damages were less likely because her only direct family, her mother, was also deceased. Still, it would be wise for the client to settle for a sweetened lifetime income in order to avoid potential punitive damages. Although not relevant, the sad story a litigating attorney could present, of a mother agonizing over her child’s last days, then burying her body, alone, in the vacuum of space, would be a hard one to overcome.

Ginsein was fiddling with some possible compensation amounts when the door chime to his office sounded. An unused portion of his desk display showed a live video of the person waiting outside. It was Miss Markell—Angela, he reminded himself. He glanced at his wristpad to discover it was still blank. He sighed, then looked at the time display on his desk. He’d worked through lunch. And now he realized he’d skipped lunch, his stomach began to complain. Ginsein sighed again, then keyed his desk to open the door. He got up to greet Angela as she came in, but paused half way. Was this an appropriate response, or should he wait at his desk? Angela came through the open door and nodded at him as she walked to the chair opposite his desk and sat down. Having made his inner confusion moot by walking in and sitting down, Ginsein struggled to find something to do or say that would explain his standing between his desk and the office door.

“Don’t worry about it,” Angela said, motioning towards his desk. “Let’s talk about what you think about the case. “

Ginsein nodded, said “Right,” and made his way over to sit behind his desk. Then he opened his mouth to speak.

Angela held up her hand to stop him and said, “I know you’ll have concerns that any work you do will be wasted because the assumption is the accident was just that and SSST will be found not liable.”

Ginsein settled back in his seat. His mouth slowly hinged closed.

“But there is real concern from our client that this will not be the case, that they will be found fully or partially liable. No one is giving me any details, other than we must assume our client will end up facing liability claims for the accident.”

“I see,” Ginsein said, threading his fingers together in his lap. “Could this liability exacerbate punitive damages on wrongful death claims.”

“Yes, and it might end up in a criminal court as well, if I’m reading the tea correctly.”


Angela smiled. “I had a hunch you’d feel that way. Now you see why I asked for you to work this problem.”

Despite his best efforts, Ginsein found himself squirming in his seat.

“I need your analytical mind on this case,” Angela continued. “There are hours of surveillance footage and it’s tough to watch. We have to find and counter every pull-able heart string in that video. Can I count on you?”

“Yes, of course. I have some preliminary ideas. Should we go over them now?”

“Why don’t you take some time, watch the footage, and expand on those ideas afterwards. If there’s going to be a criminal trial it will likely come first. Either way, you know how criminal and civil verdicts can influence each other. I don’t suppose we’d get lucky enough to have them scheduled simultaneously… At any rate, dive into the footage and let me know when you have something for us to present to our client.” She stood up.

Ginsein stood as well. “Will do. I will go over the CCTV and make a list of bullet points, with counters.”

“Great! I’d like to present civil and criminal in one go, but if it becomes too much work concentrate on the civil trial. That’s the one that could really sting.”

“I will.”

Angela nodded and walked over to the office door. There she paused, put her hand on the door frame, and turned partially back to Ginsein.

“I’m really pleased you’re on my team for this case. If we do things well, we’ll be responsible for putting this company into the top ten litigators in universal law.”

Ginsein, feeling more uncomfortable than ever, simply nodded. Then to his horror, he gave Angela a thumbs-up.

Angela smiled and returned the gesture, then left his office.

Ginsein sat down hard in his chair, hung his head, and sighed.

“Close the door,”‘ he said, his head still drooping. He didn’t look up until he heard the automated click of the door latch. His face was expressionless, but the tension in his jaw was evident. He was grinding his teeth.

“A thumbs up?” he asked the room. “Am I back in primary school?” There was no answer. Even his desk had enough sense to stay quiet, though it had detected two interrogative statements. The tone of his voice suggested a ninety-four percent probability of them being rhetorical and/or emotional expressions not requiring a response.

Ginsein sighed again. He struggled to unpack his interactions with Angela. She was personable, smiled at him, and she did not appear flustered—no, that wasn’t it, she was completely unconcerned by his awkwardness. Not a bit. Most people were. Plus, she clearly admired his work. Did she admire him in other ways? Could he make any determination in one day and two interactions?

Frustrated, Ginsein looked at his wristpad to see the time. It stared back at him, blankly, but with just a hint of a smirk. He unstrapped it and threw the useless thing across the room. It hit the wall and fell to the carpet, its blank face facing back at him as if to say, not only did you just have an emotional tantrum over an inanimate object, I’m still not going to tell you the time.

Ginsein sat for a moment, fantasizing about walking over and stomping his wristpad into a jumble of inanimate bits. But, instead, he sighed for a third time and used his desk to call up the video footage for his claim research. It included twenty days of twenty-four-hour footage after the accident, with two and a half days of footage before that, simultaneously recorded in nine rooms. This meant four thousand, eight hundred and sixty hours to watch. Actually, it was double that, since each room of the habitat module included two cameras.

Ginsein made a decision and said, “Contact Angela Markell and inform her the video footage for the SSST client is almost ten thousand hours, which would take over a year for me to watch. Ask her to please advise.”

“Message sent,” his desk informed him.

“Please queue the first video file, presenting every room simultaneously from a single camera.

The display on his desk divided into eighteen sections. A still image filled each one.

“Play all.”

Each still scene remained still, showing darkened rooms with safety lighting in each space. Suddenly, the lights of one room turned on. Ginsein focused his attention on this section. An entire wall in this room, which looked to be some kind of living space, pulled away from the room, then slid up until its bottom was even with the top of the opening it had created. A man, clearly some sort of technician, entered the room through this opening. He spoke something, but the video did not appear to contain sound.

His desk signalled an incoming video call—he pressed the answer button and Angela’s face occupied a section of his desk.

“Over a year, you say?”

Ginsein shrugged. “I can probably cut that down significantly with parameters… “

“Give me an estimate.”

Ginsein did some quick guesswork in his head. “At least weeks, could be months.”

Angela looked thoughtful for a moment.

“A few more sets of eyes could really speed things up. If this is such an important client…”

Angela looked into his eyes, looking out from the desk display. “No, we’re keeping this part of the case file isolated from the rest of the team. The people sharing your floor are all working on different cases than you.”

Ginsein did not reply, but something in his guts contracted. His face, as awkward as ever, betrayed nothing.

“Anything else?”

“No… no that’s all.” Then he remembered: “Actually, just one last thing. The video does not appear to have audio. Is this deliberate, or some kind of error?”

“Hmm. I’m not sure. Just a moment,” Angela looked away to what must be a different part of her desk, appearing to be typing. Then she turned her attention back to Ginsein. “According to the company’s habitat FAQ, video surveillance is a requirement, but audio will only be engaged during an emergency, or at the request of the occupants, on a per-camera basis.”

“Okay,” said Ginsein, nodding. “That’s good to know.”

Ginsein reached over to disconnect the call, but Angela interrupted him.

“Looks like one more feature is available, through our company tech. There is an AVR option. You can navigate the video, paused or running.”

‘Oh, that’s… interesting “

Angela’s smile widened. “I love it when you say ‘interesting.’ Let’s get together next week and you can update me and let me know about anything getting in your way.”

“Okay,” Ginsein said. Angela’s face disappeared as she ended the chat.

“So,” he said, “let’s get to work.”

“How would you care to begin?” his desk responded.

Ginsein pursed his lips. There would be static scenes where people slept or sat quietly, and scenes where they were active. There could be scenes where a room was empty. There could also be scenes with audio.

“First, take all clips where there are no occupants in a room and copy them to a directory labelled ‘empty’. Then take all clips where people are filmed, but they are motionless for ten seconds or longer. Put those in a directory labelled ‘static’. In a directory labelled ‘motion’ place all clips in which people are in the scene and are in motion with gaps of non-motion less than ten seconds. For the final directory, copy all clips that include audio of any kind. Label this directory ‘audio.’ Confirm.

The desk repeated back his instructions to indicate it understood the task.

As he waited, Ginsein called up information on how the AVR system functioned. He had three options. All of them involved wearing a set of AVR glasses. The most immersive option involved booking time in the VR room, in which polymatter and the large space would allow him to interact with and move about physically in the video. He could also designate his office as the VR space, but he would not be able to interact with the scenes, and his physical movement would be restricted to the dimensions of the room, with controls to “teleport” from point to point beyond that limit. Finally, the last VR option let him sit at his desk, not physically moving or interacting with the scene (beyond leaning in his chair or turning his head), but able to use hand controls to travel virtually within it.

An inventory list of his desk disclosed the location of his set of company-supplied AVR glasses—right-hand side, second drawer from the top. Ginsein took the box they were in out of his desk. It was a fancy, matte-black box with the company’s logo in embossed in glossy black. The company name was beneath the logo, and his own name beneath that.

Very fancy.

As Ginsein replaced the unopened box, his desk alerted him the video adjustments had been completed with a gentle “ding” and a flashing notification.

Ginsein turned off the notification and lifted his arm to examine his bare wrist. No time there. He sighed, looked across his office at his broken wristpad, which still seemed to smirk at him as it stared blankly back from the carpet. Then he looked at the time on his desk and decided it was time to go. After all, he’d skipped lunch and he could always do some work from home. This was one of the benefits of not working in teams. He couldn’t figure out if this was more a benefit to him, or to his employer.

Ginsein retrieved his briefcase and headed for the door. Once there, he paused, then returned to his desk. He took his AVR glasses box and placed it in his briefcase. Then he walked to the door once more, where he paused yet again. This time he went over to his wristpad and fastened it back onto his left wrist. It would look odd to be seen without one, and appearing odd was one of Ginsein’s anxiety triggers.

As it was a bit early to be leaving work, the hallway and elevator were both empty, which was a relief. The lobby of such a large office building was, as always, either bustling or, at the beginning and ending of the day, frenetic. Ginsein’s comfort level began to diminish as he made his way through the lobby to the front door. He imagined he could feel the implacable lenses of the security AI at its position at the reception desk swivel to track his movement. There was no rational reason for him to feel this way—he was about as far from being disruptive as a person could get—it was the mere presence of authority that seemed to generate these feelings.

He thought for a moment of Angela. She had not made him feel that way, even after she’d told him she was his supervisor. He started to parse the interactions they’d had, but the rain was picking up and he was going to be soaked if he didn’t get in a cab.

Yet again he raised his wristpad, this time to ask it to call a skycab. And despite its blank face, he made the request anyway. The wristpad remained blank, and also mute.

Letting out an above-average sigh, turning the heads of several people on the sidewalk nearby, Ginsein walked back inside the building. He found a courtesy phone, tapped it with his ID card, and requested a skycab. When the phone confirmed his order, he hung up and stepped back outside to ride the small glass elevator to the roof. The company owned this building, and for employee convenience had created a skycab parking and recharging station. In practical terms this meant a skycab was ready for him on the takeoff pad before the elevator could whisk him, non-stop, to the roof.

Ginsein hurried through the increasing rain and practically jumped through the opening door. The cab was already winding up its fans to takeoff speed before the automatic door shut, but it hesitated until Ginsein had secured the five point harness in his seat.

“Taking off,” the cab announced. “Winds are south, southwest at fifteen kilometres per hour, with gusts up to twenty. Steady rain in the Greater Vancouver area and Lower Mainland, tapering to showers this evening. Estimated time of arrival in Langley is eleven minutes, at 3:56 pm. Would you care for a broadcast?”

“No thank you.”

The skycab soared into the air, reaching its travel corridor of two thousand feet in a few seconds. The harness pulled him into the seat for this manoeuvre, then loosened once the cab had accelerated to cruising speed.

On the outside of the windows some kind of hydrophobic coating refused to let the rain cling to its surface, allowing Ginsein see in every direction: the tops of the city he was leaving; the suburbs to the north, east, and south, and the blue-grey Pacific ocean just beyond the lush green of Stanley Park. As he looked behind the cab at the brooding ocean, another skycab popped up into their travel corridor, matching their speed and maintaining a safe distance (safe for AI control) of just over a meter from the rear of his cab.

“Would you darken the display, please,” said Ginsein.

“Please specify the percent of opacity you prefer.”


“Confirmed. One hundred percent opacity”

The glass rear, front, sides, top, and bottom of the cab all turned opaque, then began to and glow with a soft white light. As the day eased into twilight outside, the blue in this light was slowly reduced.

Ginsein put his briefcase on the empty seat beside him. The cab seated eight in two groups of four, two rear-facing with two forward-facing. He was in the forward set. The four seats behind him were darkened. He returned his attention to his briefcase, put his thumbs on the bio-metric readers, and, when the case unlocked, lifted it open to take out the box containing his AVR glasses. He lifted the top of the box and saw what resembled a pair of safety glasses someone might wear to protect their eyes from flying debris. The lenses were transparent, with the arms translucent, giving hints they contained some form of battery, a computer or two, a wireless communication device, and so on.

He opened the arms and put the glasses on. A tiny speaker near his ear welcomed him, by name no less, to the company’s AVR experience. It mention the battery was fully charged and asked if he would like a tour of its services. Ginsein said “yes” and the transparent lenses darkened to black.


A man puts on Augmented Reality glasses.
photo credit: Moose Photos

Once at home, Ginsein had something to eat and then sat in his den to do some work. He made himself comfortable in his chair and put on his glasses.

“Play the first clip with audio,” he said.

The AVR glasses went black. This blackness was quickly replaced by a scene in three-dimensional space. At the top were various meters, including two curious ones labelled video and audio “fidelity”. The tutorial had explained these meters represented the reliability of the extrapolation of the two-dimensional video, taken from two locations, being translated into three-dimensions.

Before him was a kitchen table and beyond that a small kitchen. A door was set into the opposite wall, on the left side. Sitting across the table was a young girl. The left side of the table had an empty chair, as did his own side, pressed up against the table top, and sitting on the right was an older woman. He recognized the two immediately from their pictures in his case file: Fatima Ali and her daughter, Sadie. The mother looked well, though sporting a few more worry lines behind her smile than were evident in the pictures he had. Sadie, in contrast, appeared as if a ghost of herself. Her skin was pale, waxen, and covered in a sheen of perspiration.

“So, Sadie,” her mother prompted, “here we are on our first day. What would you like to say to your classmates back on Earth?”

“Well,” Sadie said, putting her legs on her chair and kneeling. “I’m happy to be on my way to getting better. And, um, well I’m glad Miss Charlie sent me all the work I’m missing, cause I miss school.” She paused.

“What do you want to do when we get back?”

“Oh, yeah, PE. I want to play soccer and touch the roof beam at the top of the rope climb. I got so close last year.” Another pause.

“Tell them about our habitat.”

“Yeah! It’s awesome. Bigger than our apartment. We have four bedrooms and two living rooms, and a den. Plus our own gym!”

The video continued, but Ginsein was no longer paying attention. If he was asked about it later, he’d likely explain away this lack of focus as not having any content related to litigation. But that would not be accurate. This was the kind of footage that would drive a jury to destruction, to find someone to blame and punish. It was worse than having no value, it had negative value for their client. Even so, Ginsein might counter, the ways to counter such emotional manipulation were pretty standard: discredit the victim, remind the jury about their oath to abide by the law, not their emotions, in deciding a verdict—and even to attack his client as greedy, but not wanting to harm anyone.

But none of these legal manoeuvres were going through Ginsein’s mind. Instead he was transfixed by this pair of human beings, so intertwined in one another, as if they did not end at their skin, but rather sent out invisible, ephemeral threads that held fast to one another.

Fatima brought him back to the present when she said, “Okay, now you know how to make your own entries, so you can talk to anyone you’d like.”

“But I don’t want to send this part to Miss Charlie,” Sadie complained.

“Well, we can edit this video before we attach it to a message back to Earth. We can just cut this part out,” Fatima explained as she turned to the camera and said, “Audio off.”

Fatima and Sadie continued to talk at the kitchen table, but now they did so with no audio. Ginsein said to his wristpad? “Engage an expert in lip-reading, preferably with a credentialed AI system.” His wristpad did not confirm his order, and when he looked at it to discover why, that blank smirk looked back at him.

“Did anyone get that?” Ginsein barked. Some gentle dings confirmed at least three of his AI appliances were working, “Well, add it to my notes and set a reminder of it for me for tomorrow morning.”

Again, three confirmation dings.

I’ll probably get three reminders tomorrow, Ginsein thought to himself, as he turned his attention back to the muted video.

“Stop playback.” Ginsein took off his AVR glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Are there any instances of Sadie using the gym?”

A speaker in his glasses answered in the affirmative.

“Start playing the first one,” said Ginsein. He replaced the glasses on his face.

Now he was in the habitat’s personal gym. Sadie and her mother walked into the room and looked around. Sadie moved from machine to machine, each time looking at her mother, who appeared to be describing how each one functioned. Sadie settled on the free weights area, and Fatima figured out how to release them from their low-gravity safety locks. Sadie grabbed the largest pair and pulled at them. Individually they likely weighed more than Sadie did, so they did not budge when she pulled; instead, her hands slipped off them and she fell backwards, landing on her bottom. Mother and daughter look at each other in shock for a moment, then they burst out laughing. Sadie rolled around on the floor while Fatima, tears in her eyes, crumpled to her knees beside her daughter.

Once again Ginsein was transfixed. He wondered what that would feel like. He knew feelings like this did not happen for him—they had a fancy name for his condition at the Health Office—but he thought of it as a feeling of loneliness imposed upon him by a deformation of his personality.

In other words, he was a weirdo that made other people uncomfortable, and any attempts to be socially adept only made things worse.

“Stop playback. Play next gym clip.”

The scene faded to black, then the gym returned. It was empty once more. The door opened and Sadie came in, alone, sporting a bright red hoodie. She walked over to a control panel set into the wall and made some adjustments, which Ginsein could not hear as the scene was muted. But Sadie must have ordered the audio to record because he could now hear the ambient noise of the room, as well as the sounds of Sadie’s shoes on the deck plating.

She walked over to the free weights, removed her red hoodie, and threw it to the floor. She released the low-gravity safety bar. Then, with one defiant last glance at the camera, she grabbed those same two weights she had before, and lifted them effortlessly above her head.

“I am Sadie! Hear me roar!” She let out a roar that would have been impressive enough coming from an adult, never mind a little girl with a terminal illness.

“Pause playback.” Ginsein was intrigued. If this illness was some kind of trick, a feign meant to benefit Sadie or her mother, it would likely destroy any chance for punitive damages, for either death, even if the accident was ruled one hundred percent their client’s fault.

“Hand controls,” said Ginsein, and he used the hand gestures he’d learned in the tutorial to float about the room. At first he avoided objects, but when his shoulder happened to pass through a machine with no bump or pain, as he’d expected, he remembered the “virtual” part of VR.

Once positioned directly before Sadie he examined her in detail. She certainly looked ill. Her face was pasty, with a sheen of sweat on it, despite the wall monitor displaying a cool sixteen degrees. But it would be a simple thing to use drugs to fake such symptoms, either with Sadie’s knowledge, or snuck into her food by her mother. In fact, there was a psychological condition like that. Ginsein couldn’t recall its name.

“Note possibility of illness being faked, with this timestamp. Find out psychological condition where a parent gets a child sick on purpose.” Ginsein took some more time to look around the scene. Something about it was not right. He floated lower to examine the deck plating around Sadie’s feet. He noticed she was standing on her toes. In fact, one foot was a few centimetres off the deck. He moved up to examine the two dumbbells in her hands. Both were labelled fifty kilos.

“Rewind to entry and play.”

The scene faded, then returned to Sadie entering the room. She walked over to the control panel and gave some instructions, after which the audio came on. But she did more than just tell the panel to record audio.

“More forward to when Sadie takes off her hoodie, and play.”

After a brief fade-out Sadie appeared before him. She was looking with resolve at the camera and removing her hoodie with deliberate motions. Then she threw the hoodie to the ground.


Ginsein floated down to examine the hoodie. Sadie had hurtled it at the ground, and it had landed quickly on the floor, but some of it seemed to bounce back into the air. Just a bit. Not enough to see unless your nose was right there.

One foot in the air? Cloth bouncing? Ginsein put a teleport reticle next to the control panel and the glasses snapped him there instantly. He examined the panel. Audio on, temperature set to sixteen degrees, lights on, grave-plating set to point one g.

So that’s how she’d done it. She’d adjusted the grav-plating to a tenth of Earth standard gravity. No wonder she could hoist one hundred kilos over her head. To her each dumbbell weighed five kilos.

“Clever girl!”

“Please restate.”

“Never mind. End playback.”

His glasses went black, then the lenses returned to transparent.

*featured image photo credit: imustbedead

read Act II, part 2 ❯