by Elena Clark

Jackie comes home one night to find another man in her bed.

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E



The lights were off when Jackie came home.

Normally John would still be up at three in the morning, but he must have decided to have an early night for once. He might even be sober. Jackie bundled up all the dirty clothes and other gear in her arms and struggled out of the car, almost dropping her gun.

"Lock," she commanded, but the car didn't lock. The first thing she was going to get with her new, better paycheck was a new, better car. Meanwhile, Anthony's gang could have this one if they could be bothered to drive off with it. They'd probably prefer the brand-new red one in the space next to it, though. Jackie wondered whose it was. It certainly stood out in this neighborhood.

She hurried across the parking lot, clutching the gun, stunstick, cuffs, and pile of sweaty, slithery track suits that were the result of her week of training. She hoped that John's early bedtime was because he wanted to be rested for her arrival, not because he was passed out from partying.

The front door to the apartment building read her retina and clicked open. She moved up the stairs at what she wanted to be a jog but was really a limp. Police training camp had included daily practice in hand-to-hand combat, a painful shock for a girl who had never done anything more aggressive than a little unauthorized e-entry.

The scanner on their apartment had to try several times before it finally read her retina and let her into the dark hallway. She stumbled over something that clinked. "Lights," she ordered softly. The lights came on, showing her all the beer bottles that had spilled out of the recycling box by the door. John could never manage to take them out in time to prevent a housekeeping disaster.

The living room was strewn with empty pizza boxes and the containers of unrecognizable and probably illegal substances. She had told John he would have to stop doing that kind of thing once she started working for the police. Apparently he had decided to have one last fling before then. She had also told him, more than once, that a steady diet of beer, junk food, and drugs was going to put an end to his acting career before it ever got started, but he never paid attention to that, either.

"John?" she called as she pushed the bedroom door open. Something stirred on the bed. The shape in the darkness seemed wrong, too big for just John.

"John?" she said again, standing uncertainly in the threshold. Her new training told her that she was standing in an illuminated doorway, presenting a perfect target.

"Who's there?" murmured a man with a voice that wasn't John's. He sat up. "Who are you?"

"Who are you? What are you doing in my bed? Where's John?" Jackie tried to make out the other figure on the bed, but it was just a lump under blankets.

"Your bed," repeated the man. He slid out from under the covers and sat on the edge of the bed. He wasn't wearing anything. "John told me he had a girlfriend, but he said she wouldn't be back until Monday morning."

"It is Monday morning," said Jackie. Her voice rang shrilly in her ears.

"So you're the girlfriend, then," said the man. "Lamp!" The bedside lamp flicked on. The man looked her up and down. "I see John liked them boyish, even when they were girls."

"What are you talking about?" Jackie hugged her pile of weapons and dirty clothes to her chest. Her gun dug painfully into her left breast. She suddenly remembered that she had forgotten to unload it. She had been supposed to discharge all the rounds during firing practice, but she hadn't, and then she had forgotten about it, and the instructor hadn't checked because he had assumed he hadn't needed to. She dropped everything else on the floor and held the gun out at arm's length.

"Are you trying to threaten me?" asked the man. He laughed. "A little girl like you, I guess you feel like you need a gun for protection. I guess being flat-chested isn't enough to make you into a real man. Something John mentioned, by the way. It sounds like you might have had the looks, but underneath you didn't have what he was looking for." He stood up.

"Get out," said Jackie. "Just go away."

"Or what? You'll shoot me?"

"Just go away." Jackie backed out of the doorway to give him room to leave. She realized she was crying, which made her cry even more. "Just leave us, okay? Just leave us!"

The man started walking towards her. He was very tall, at least a meter ninety, and big all over. At the training camp they had told Jackie that technique mattered more than size and that even someone as small as she was could take on anyone as long as she did the moves right, but she hadn't really mastered them, so now she didn't have either size or ability. At the time she hadn't thought it mattered. She was only ever going to work in the virtual world, anyway.

"John told me you were about to start working for the police," the man said. "I guess they don't have very high standards. I can't really see you taking on a bad guy. Unless you're going to be in the Children's Department? But some of those delinquent dads can get pretty rough, you know. A little girl like you should be careful."

"Just leave." Jackie had stopped crying, but now her voice was shaking as much as her hands. She had finally figured out what the man was saying. She felt sick. She felt like curling up in a ball on the couch and never speaking to anyone ever again. She was going to do that as soon as the man left. She wouldn't even bother unloading the gun. It didn't matter, because she couldn't remember how to fire it.

"See, I think you should leave," said the man. "See, it's over between you and John. Now that he's had a taste of real manhood, he's not going to want to go back to the fake stuff. He's already told me. So you should just take your toy gun and go."

"You go! This is my apartment! Just go!"

"Make me." The man took another step towards her, reaching out his hands to grab her. He seemed at least two meters tall now. Jackie backed up again, caught her heel on an empty pizza box, and fell down, catching her ribs on the edge of the coffee table.

The man laughed again as she clutched her side. "Thanks for making it easy," he said. "I thought you might try to put up a fight, but I guess not."

Jackie used the couch to pull herself part of the way back up. "Go away! Leave us! Just go! Please, just go!"

"Crying only make me mad," said the man. He drew back his right leg. Jackie's hand clenched convulsively. There was a flash and a bang that left her ears ringing. The man fell over backwards instead of kicking her. He made a horrible groaning noise. Then he made no noise at all.

"What's going on?" John was standing at the bedroom doorway. "Who's there? Michael, is that you? What's going on?"

"You cheated on me with HIM?!" screamed Jackie. She jumped to her feet. "You let me find you in bed with HIM?! Don't you love me anymore? You don't love me anymore!"

"Jackie? What happened? What happened to Michael?" John rushed over and knelt down beside the man. "Jackie, you shot him! You shot him, Jackie!"

"I had to. He came at me. He was so big. He came at me." Jackie dropped to her knees next to John. "Is his heart beating? Is he going to be all right?"

"Jackie." John was feeling around on the man's face. His hands were covered in something dark and wet. The smell of fresh blood and urine cut through the old-pizza-and-smoke apartment air. "Jackie, I think he's dead."

"No. He can't be."

"Jackie. You shot him in the head. It went right through him. Look." John's shaking slippery hands turned the man's face to look at her. There was a small hole in the side of his forehead. Blood was still leaking out from behind his ear and onto the carpet.

"But he can still be saved, right? He can still be brought back? They bring people back from all kinds of things. He can still be brought back."

"Not from this. If you'd gotten him in the chest, sure, but not in the head. He's dead, Jackie."

"Oh God. Oh no. He came at me. He got out of our bed and he said all those things and then he came at me, he wanted to hurt me, he was going to hurt me, he was going to hurt me, he was..."

"So you shot him! You came home and the first thing you did was shoot Michael! You killed him! He wasn't even dressed, and you shot him dead!"

"I had to. I had to. I had to. I found him in our bed, and then he came at me, and I had to, he was going to hurt me, he was going to hurt me, he was..."

"So you killed him!" John jumped back up to his feet. "You bitch! You never wanted me to be happy! You always had to take away everything that was mine! Always nagging, always telling me what I was doing wrong, always taking away everything I wanted, and now you've taken away Michael too! You never loved me! You never cared about me! Michael was the only one who got me, who understood me, and he was better in bed, too! So you had to take him away from me!"

"John." Jackie was still shaking, but John's shouting had snapped her out of her hysteria. "John, we have to do something."

"Yes. You're right. We have to do something." John took a deep breath and started walking up and down the edge of the living room, avoiding the pool of blood that was spreading out from the man's head.

"We have to call the police."

"No!" John stopped walking and stared at her. He looked even more stricken than he had when he saw the hole in the man's head.

"John, we have to."

"No!" John skirted around the dead body and sat down on the couch. "No, you can't, Jackie. They'll take you away and that will be that. You'll never get out. Who knows what they'll do to you! They say that sometimes they read a fake sentence and really sentence you to death and come into your cell in the middle of the night and shoot you in the back of the head, or give you poison that makes it look like got sick, or send you on a suicide mission to Elsewhere, or..."

"John, he's dead. We can't hide something like this."

"Yes we can." He put his face in his hands and rocked back and forth a few times. "No one has to know. No one in this building pays any attention to anything anyone does here. Even if they did notice something, they won't tell anyone about it. And Michael doesn't have anyone who would look for him. He doesn't have any brothers or sisters, and he doesn't talk to his dad anymore, and none of his friends would notice he was gone. All we have to do is get rid of the body. And the blood. If we get rid of it, no one will ever know."

"John, I'm about to start working for the police! I can't go around hiding the bodies of people I've killed!"

"Yes you can! You have to! You can't lose everything just because of Michael!" John paused and looked up for a moment. Something flickered in his eyes, but Jackie couldn't tell what it was. "He's not worth it!"

"You said he was everything to you, and I was nothing! I found him in our bed! And now you're telling me he's not worth it?!"

"I don't know," John mumbled through his hands. "It's just... I've already lost him. I can't lose you too. We've been together for five years now. Please, Jackie. Don't throw yourself away over him. I promise, I'll never tell anyone. It will be our secret. Please. Let's just get rid of him, and it'll be like it never happened."

"Okay," said Jackie. Even as she said it, she couldn't believe what she was doing, but her good sense had gotten paralyzed when the man had gotten up out of her bed. "Okay. What do we need to do?"

"There's..." John's voice cracked. "There's a bunch of trash bags in the kitchen. I got them yesterday. I was... I was going to clean up before you came home. I didn't want you to know what I'd been doing. And I got cleaners, too. They should be able to take the blood and... stuff out of the carpet."

John chattered nervously as they got out rubber gloves and the roll of trash bags and the bottles of cleaners. He stopped talking to run and vomit in the sink when they started wrapping the body in the trash bags, but then he came back and kept working. By the time the body was ready to go and the blood had been scrubbed out of the carpet, Jackie had heard the entire history of the relationship between him and Michael. They had met a few months back at a casting call for a movie. Jackie vaguely remembered hearing about it. John had been trying out for the part of one of the models/prostitutes/crimefighters that the movie was about. Michael was auditioning to be a stuntman for the fight scenes. Neither of them had gotten the job, but according to John, they had "really hit it off. He was the only one who got me. You were gone all the time, and when you were home, you were always on my case about the drugs and stuff, and I'd always wanted to, you know, well, anyway... He really got me. And he couldn't keep his hands off me, and you were never there, and when you were you never seemed to..." John stopped and looked at her mournfully.

"I'm sorry," said Jackie. "Darling, I'm sorry." The thought of John feeling lonely and neglected was making her throat close with tears, like she was watching a stupid old movie in the middle of the night and all of a sudden the words she'd heard a hundred times seemed the saddest thing in the world.

"It doesn't matter now," said John. "Things will be better now, I'm sure." Something Jackie couldn't read flickered in his eyes again. "We need more tape," he said, and went into the kitchen to look for some.

"His car," he said when he came back.

"What about it?"

"It's parked in the parking lot. We have to do something about it."

"Do you have the keycard?"

John shook his head. "It has one of those chip-reading security systems. He just got it a few weeks ago. He got hired as a stuntman for that show, Agent Elsewhere, you know, eight o'clock on Wednesdays, and it was the first thing he went out and bought. We picked it out together. It's really nice. Hey." He paused for a moment. "Do you think we could keep it?"

"If it has a chip-reader, we'd have to get it reprogrammed at the dealer, and they'd know whose it was. You can't get it done unless you have the deed of sale already registered on your chip."

"But maybe through the black market...?"

"People would still wonder how we'd gotten such a nice car."

"Yeah. Still, it's too bad. His clothing's in the bedroom. We'd better get rid of that, too." John went into the bedroom and came back with an armful of clothing. "His wallet's in his pocket. Look." He pulled it out and began going through it. "Hey, it has cash." He began to count it. "Wow. He told me he'd switched over to chip transactions when he got hired by Elsewhere and started getting a steady paycheck, but he's still got a lot in here. I guess he needed it to pick up the stuff for our party tonight. Last night. Most dealers won't take chip credit."

Jackie opened her mouth to say something about John's promise to stop doing drugs in the apartment, but then stopped. Now that she'd killed his boyfriend, she was afraid to criticize him about anything. But when he started taking the cash out of the wallet, she said, "What are you doing!"

"Taking the money! Jackie, we need the money! And no one's going to miss it!"

"We can't take his money!"

"So, what? We're going to just throw it away with him? Let it lie there forever, or let the Federation take it? He doesn't have any relatives for it to go to."

"If they find him, and find his wallet's been gone through, they'll know it's murder."

"They'll know it's murder as soon as they see the hole in his head. And how will they know we've taken the cash? He has a chip account, so they won't expect him to be making cash transactions. If they find out he took out cash—"

"Which they will," said Jackie.

"They won't know where it went. The kind of people who want to be paid in cash aren't going to tell the police about it. No one will know some of it went to us."

"I still think it's a bad idea," said Jackie, but she didn't argue when John took out all the cash and put it in his pocket.

When they tried to lift up the body, they both dropped it. Jackie started to laugh, with a high-pitched, unstoppable laugh that scared her.

"Stop it, Jackie, just stop it," said John. His voice was shaking. "It's not funny! Stop laughing!"

Jackie clenched her jaw, making her teeth rattle together from suppressed laughter. This time they both kept a hold on the body as they carried it down the stairs and out to the parking lot. No one noticed them. The sun was just coming up, so most of the people in this neighborhood were just going to bed.

John took them to the brand-new red car in the space next to Jackie's. They set the body on the ground and tried to open the doors.

"They're locked," said John.

"Of course they're locked," said Jackie.

"They can only be opened by reading Michael's chip."

"Oh." They both looked at the plastic-covered bundle lying at their feet.

"We'll have to get out his hand," said Jackie.

"What if someone comes?"

"We'll be quick."

But they'd wrapped the body extremely thoroughly. They spent several panicked minutes tearing fruitlessly at the plastic before Jackie remembered the nailfile in the purse she'd instinctively slung over her shoulder as they went out the door. She hacked at the plastic while John hissed, "Hurry up, Jackie, for fuck's sake hurry up!"

The arm already felt repulsively cold and resistant when she finally got it out of the plastic and held the wrist against the car door. The door clicked open with an expensive sound. A moment later the interior and exterior lights came on, illuminating the whole parking lot, and the engine began its power-building hum. Jackie was sure they would wake the entire block, but no one seemed to notice as they wrestled the body into the back seat and then climbed into the front themselves.

"Welcome, Michael. Where would you like to go today?"

John and Jackie both shrieked, and then realized it was the car talking.

"Is something wrong?" asked the car. Jackie thought its voice sounded like one of those call-in girls who advertised on the midnight satellite shows. Probably it was.

"No," panted John. "Nothing's wrong. We're, uh, friends of Michael's. He, uh, lent us, uh, you. The car."

"Please give authorization," said the car pleasantly.

"Uh..." said John.

"Michael's here with us," said Jackie quickly. "Right here, in the back seat. He's just letting John drive. Here's his chip." It took the combined strength of her and John to maneuver the arm into position over the dashboard chip reader, but the car made no comment about the struggle going on inside it.

"Thank you," said the car when it had read Michael's chip. "Authorization complete. Where would you like to go?"

"To the back station," said John.

"It will be my pleasure," said the car.

"Why the back station?" whispered Jackie. The back of her head kept telling her she needed to be quiet, even though she knew no one could hear them from outside the car. The effort of wrestling with the body had made her break out into a sweat, but it had also stopped the shaking, and for the first time since she had come home, she could feel herself thinking clearly. Hiding the body still seemed like a bad idea, but at this point turning herself in seemed even worse. She hadn't had any choice except to defend herself and she hadn't meant to kill him, she told herself, but the police wouldn't see it that way. Even if she didn't end up in prison for the rest of her life, or worse, she'd lose her job before she even started it. Sitting in the beautiful brand-new car made a steady paycheck seem even more important. She couldn't stand living in her horrible apartment and driving around in her horrible car any more. She had to turn her life around, and she wasn't going to let Michael get in the way of that. So she had to make sure she didn't get caught.

"Why the back station?" she asked again. The back station was the freight depot on the back side of town. "Stop," she commanded the car, which was reversing out of its parking space. It stopped obediently.

"I thought we could drive the car out onto the tracks and let a train take care of it."

"The crossing-gates have sensors that make them shut whenever something comes too close. And the tracks have sensors that let them know whenever there's something unauthorized in the magnetic field. Even if we can get onto the tracks, they'll automatically shut down the whole train system until they come and clear the car away. They'll find it right away."

"So what should we do?" John was looking around more and more nervously. A car drove by, making him flinch and cover his face, as if someone could see in through the tinted windows. But even though they couldn't see who was in the car, they could still see the car, Jackie reminded herself. It certainly stuck out.

"We need to go somewhere we can get to without using the mag system. They keep track of everyone who drives on it, and where they go. And we have to go somewhere no one's going to find the car for a long time. No matter what we do to it, they'll be able to go through the pieces and find all kinds of evidence. Our best bet is to let time eat away at anything they might find, and hope that when they do find it, they'll decide it was one of the dealers he used. We need to go to... Car, bring up the area map."

"It is my pleasure," said the car in a breathy whisper. The dashboard screen lit up with a map of the town. Mag streets were in red and non-mag streets were in blue. Jackie's neighborhood was in the center of a bunch of blue lines. The town certainly wasn't going to pay to extend the mag system to a place where half the inhabitants walked.

She followed the blue lines out to the only empty spot on the map.

"Let's go there," she said, pointing at the dark hole in the middle of the tangle of roads. "And turn off the autodriver. We need to drive over on our own."


"Just do it, and I'll explain."


"Car, turn off all the automatic systems. We're going to drive ourselves. Just leave on the map."

"It will be my pleasure," purred the car, and shut off everything except the engine and the map.

"Start driving," said Jackie. "We don't want to wait here any longer. People are starting to get up."

"Yeah," said John. He backed slowly and awkwardly out of the parking space, and pulled hesitantly out into the still-empty street. He didn't drive much, and when he did, he always used the autodriver.

"Turn right," Jackie told him. "A lot of the autodrivers record everything that goes on inside the car. I don't want it recording where we're going and what we say. I should have remembered it sooner. I'm supposed to know this kind of stuff."

"Yeah," said John, making a cautious turn. "I feel sick. The smell is making me sick."

Jackie wished he hadn't said that. The smell of the body, like thawing meat only sharper, immediately started making her feel sick too.

Luckily for John, the streets remained mostly empty as they drove out of their neighborhood, past small factories and warehouses, and out to the old quarry at the edge of town. The town council kept talking about turning it into a landfill and then building on top of it when it was full, but so far nothing had been done about that and it was still the only empty place for kilometers around. There was a thin belt of trees around, meaning it was also the only private place for kilometers around. It was fenced, but the gates had been knocked down so many times the town had stopped trying to put them back up. The cliff top on one side was used by low-level dealers, and the other side was a favorite meeting spot for lovers who didn't have anywhere better to go. Jackie scanned the area for potential witnesses, but the early-morning light seemed to have driven everyone away.

"What are we going to do?" asked John.

"I think we should drive the car off the edge of the cliff into the water at the bottom of the quarry," she said.


"I'm going to disable the failsafes in the automatic systems, and then we're going to push it over the edge. Hopefully they'll think a dealer did it."

"Good plan." John drove extremely nervously along the edge of the quarry to the far side. There was a well-worn track, but even so Jackie found herself holding her breath in some of the narrow places between the fence and the edge.

They stopped at a wide place and turned the car nose-in to the quarry. "Wait," said Jackie as they started to get out. "The body."

"What about it?"

"If he got shot here by a dealer, he wouldn't be all wrapped up like this. They'd just shove him into the car and push it over the edge. We need to unwrap him and get rid of the plastic. Hopefully they'll think he was buying something more than drugs when they find him naked."

"Oh. Right."

It took all their strength and Jackie's nailfile to rip the plastic off the increasingly difficult and repulsive body. When they finally managed it, John took the plastic and the clothing to a nearby trash barrel that was half-full of ashes, and set everything on fire with his lighter.

"Couldn't we just burn everything?" he asked when he came back. Jackie had opened the car hood and was trying to deprogram the failsafes that were supposed to keep the car from doing something like getting stolen or rolling off a cliff. She didn't want to turn the interior systems back on and work from the dashboard, and she didn't have either the equipment that would allow her to access the engine computer remotely, or the screwdriver that would allow her to lift it out of the engine, so she was trying to work it by reaching her clumsy gloved hand into the still-hot engine and press the right buttons in the right sequence.

"No," she said once she finally managed it. "People might see it. And it would definitely be found by tonight. We want it to be gone for a while."


"Let's check one more time and make sure we didn't leave anything in the car."

They looked inside the car, which shifted alarmingly now that the failsafes were off. John kept staring at the body, but Jackie couldn't stand to look at it. She was afraid that John was going to say something about wishing farewell to the boyfriend she'd killed, but he didn't.

"Okay," she said. "Let's do it."


The car was surprisingly easy to push. As they got close to the edge, they both lost their nerve and let go simultaneously, but the car kept going. Jackie had almost been expecting the purring voice to protest its destruction, but the car rolled off the cliff without any hesitation. John and Jackie moved cautiously to the edge and watched it plunge the hundred or so meters down into the water. It crashed against the side of the cliff halfway down and flipped over with a sound that made them both jump, and the cracking splash when it hit the water rang out all around the quarry, but only the birds were disturbed. The car floated on top of the water for an agonizingly long time, but in the end it sank. The water was murky enough that it quickly disappeared.

Once it was gone, Jackie walked away from the edge and started poking the fire in the trash barrel with a stick, making sure that everything in it had joined the other ashes. After a while, John came over to her.

"I guess it's just you and me now," he said. "I guess we're in this together."


"I think... I think this could be a new start for us, Jackie. I'll clean up my act, and you'll stop nagging me so much, and things will be better between us. It's like... It's like all our old problems went over the edge with the car, and now they're all gone. Things are going to get better, I'm sure of it."

"Sure," said Jackie, stirring the ashes and looking for any scraps that could serve as evidence.

"How are we going to get back?" asked John. "We don't have a car anymore."

"I guess we'll have to walk. I didn't really think about it. I just wanted to get rid of... everything."

"It's a long walk," said John.

"We don't really have a choice, do we?"

"No, I guess not."

It took them until lunchtime to walk back to the apartment. Sometimes John talked, but Jackie could never answer him.

"You're tired," he said when they finally got home. "You go to bed. I'll take care of everything."

Jackie crawled into bed, still wearing the clothes she had worn home from the training camp. The sheets had a funny smell, but she fell asleep anyway.

* * *

When she woke up that evening, the sheets still smelled strange. She sniffed the pillowcases and realized the smell was Michael. She jumped out of the bed and started stripping it.

He'll never come back, she told herself. He's gone now. He can't ever come back. He can't ever come back. He can't ever come back.

"Yeah, I haven't washed those in a while," said John when he saw her armload of laundry. "Good idea."

When Jackie came back from the laundry room, she saw that John had cleaned the apartment and made supper. The cleaners and the cooking had almost gotten rid of the smell of blood that filled the living room, at least in Jackie's mind, but not quite. Even after she took a shower it still seemed to cling to her hair, her hands, the inside of her nostrils.

* * *

Over the next few days John and Jackie cleaned the apartment from top to bottom and washed everything they owned several times, but without ever saying why. John made a big show of throwing away all the stuff Jackie had been after him to get rid of for months. He started spending several hours at the gym every day, and told her his agent had found him a some auditions. When he was at home, he was pointedly affectionate. Jackie found it difficult to summon up the energy to tell him to leave her alone. She spent a lot of her spare time sleeping. Sometimes she had dreams of suffocating in plastic, but most of the time she slept soundly.

At her new job she tried to keep her ears open for any news of a body found in the quarry. As a traffic systems monitor, she had access to the police network, so she thought she could be sure of seeing anything as soon as it appeared. But it didn't. For weeks there was no mention of the body, and no one seemed to suspect that Jackie was anyone other than the quiet new girl who showed up on time, put in her shift, and went home. After a couple of months she started to feel safe.

* * *


Jackie looked up from the screen she was watching. "Yes, Captain Miller?"

"Shut down your station and come with me. Larry here will cover for you. There's someone who wants to meet you."

"Yes, Captain Miller."

Jackie shut down her station and followed Captain Miller out of the traffic systems room. She tried to guess who would want to meet her, and couldn't.

From a distance, the man who was waiting for her in the lobby seemed perfectly ordinary in every way. He was of medium size. He wasn't wearing a uniform. The cut of his dark-gray hair was neither overtly military nor civilian. But when he looked Jackie in the eye and shook her hand, she started to feel afraid. She wasn't sure why. She just had the feeling that she was facing someone who could outdo her in everything.

"Good to meet you, Adamson," he said. "Whitaker. I've heard lots of interesting things about you. And I know that Miller here thinks highly of your work, even though you've just started. She's told me all about you."

"Adamson's work has been more than satisfactory," agreed Captain Miller. Jackie could tell that Whitaker was making her nervous too.

"Well, I hope you won't mind if I borrow her for a little while," said Whitaker, smiling with his mouth while his eyes continued to flicker over Jackie from head to foot. She was reminded of the way she read data when she was looking for something that might or might not be there. She couldn't read everything, and most of it didn't matter anyway, so she would just relax and let it flow past her until the thing she was looking for jumped out.

"No, of course not," said Captain Miller, although Jackie could tell she did mind.

"Excellent. Come on, Adamson, there's something I want to show you."

Jackie uncertainly followed Whitaker out of the traffic systems building to a sleek gray car parked in front of it. Its doors opened without any apparent command from Whitaker.

"Brain-to-brain interfacing," he said. "You know about that, don't you?" He turned his head, and Jackie saw the tip of a tiny antenna poking through the hair above his left ear.

"Yes," she said. "But I've never met anyone who could afford to have it done."

"The cerebral chip implant isn't so expensive these days," he said. "The problem is finding opportunities to use it. But BBI is becoming more and more common. Would you like to try it sometime?"

"I don't know. I never thought about it."

"I don't believe that," said Whitaker as the car started up on its own and began driving away from the building. A seatbelt suddenly appeared out of nowhere and belted Jackie in before she could react. "A smart girl like you? I bet you've thought about it lots. I bet you're just dying to try it. See, I know all about you. Jackie. I can call you Jackie, can't I? I feel like I know you so well already."

"Um, sure. But why? Why do you care about me? And who are you?"

"I'm Whitaker, like I already told you. And I look for smart people like you."

"Oh." The sound of the car's engine changed as it pulled onto the main road and hooked into the mag system. "Where are we going?"

"Headquarters. Have you ever been there?"

"You mean police headquarters?"

"That's the one."

"No, I haven't. Why are we going there?"

"Because that's where my offices are, and I have some stuff I want to talk to you about. See, I've taken an interest in you, Jackie. I think you're a survivor. Your dad left when you were two. Then your mom left when you were six, and your aunt brought you up. It must have been difficult, being the foster-child of someone who already had four children of her own."

"She did her best," said Jackie.

"Yeah, but it wasn't very good, was it? You already started acquiring a record in junior high: poor grades, cutting class, hanging out with a bad crowd, the suspicion of a few thefts even though nothing was ever proven. And your counselor mentioned that you looked 'poorly-dressed and undernourished.' Her exact words."

"Oh." Jackie didn't know what to say. She didn't like talking about her past, especially with a stranger, but she didn't want to admit that to Whitaker.

"Your juvenile delinquency gets progressively worse throughout high school, until you get arrested when you're seventeen and your aunt refuses to bail you out or take you back, so you move into a juvenile care center and live there while you do your community service and scrape through your last year of high school. It's there that you meet Mary Beth Holloway, isn't it?"


"Mary Beth is a troublemaker on a much grander scale than you are, and she's the one who introduces you to the wonderful world of unauthorized e-entry and ID theft. Only you get caught. This means more community service, but a kindly counselor recommends that you get job training with computers, so you do. Then this same kindly counselor swings you a job managing the care center's data systems. This time you actually manage to stay out of trouble. It doesn't pay well but no one's on your case anymore. You make friends with John Robinson, who also came through the care center. John's a bit more of a loser than you are but he has the good fortune to be born with a talent for deception and the kind of cheekbones that people pay lots of money to take pictures of. You get along alright and end up moving in together. John's acting career takes longer to get off the ground than you expected, but after a few years of staying on the straight and narrow you land a job as a systems monitor for the traffic police. This means a substantial pay raise and a chance to finally achieve the kind of respectability that everybody who doesn't have, wants, but unfortunately John gets lonely and brings home a boyfriend while you're off training, and the boyfriend gets himself shot."

"What!!" shrieked Jackie. "What are you... I don't know what you're talking about," she finished firmly.

"Sure you do, Jackie. The boyfriend gets himself shot, I'm guessing probably by you because you're the injured party here and you're the one with the standard-issue gun, which I notice you imprudently left at your station when you came out to join me, and you decide to cover it up. Even if it was an accident, it still means bye-bye to your new, better life for a long time. So you drive Michael Houlihan's body and his car down to the quarry, and you push them both off the edge and into the water, which luckily for you is deep and dark.

"You know, Jackie, you made a lot of mistakes, but you might have gotten away with it if there hadn't been a shoot-out between rival dealers last week. It involved some undercover agents, so we've kept it pretty quiet. You might not have noticed anything about it in our data streams. Which is why you've got to get BBI capability. That way you could program your chip to monitor stuff even when you're not paying attention. But anyway, while they were fishing bodies out of the quarry after the shoot-out, they discovered an extra one. A much older, naked one, belonging to Michael Houlihan, who was known to be a user but not a dealer. So they started investigating his murder separately. And of course the first thing they did was go through the recordings on his car's security system. And you know what they found?"

"Wh..." Jackie choked and coughed. "What?"

"They found you, Jackie. You were right, you know, a lot of these autodrivers do record everything that goes on inside the car, including Michael's, and you should have remembered it sooner. But even the tardy precautions you took didn't do any good, because Michael's security system was programmed to record everything, even when the autodriver was turned off. A lot of people don't use that function because, you know, a lot of stuff goes on in cars that people don't want recorded, but Michael either didn't know about it or didn't care. When the investigators recovered the recording, they found lots of interesting stuff about Michael's love life and his drug life—John might not like to know he wasn't the only one Michael liked to experiment with—and they also found out all about his last long ride to the quarry. They wanted to arrest the both of you right away, of course, but it was a slow day in my office and I happened to come across the case before they got to you. And I claimed you first. Oh, here we are."

The car stopped in front of a tall glass building with the Federation's law enforcement emblem prominently displayed on the roof. It looked vaguely like a pair of handcuffs, shackling the building to the ground.

"You can get out now," said Whitaker, when Jackie made no move to get out of her seat. The seatbelt retracted suddenly, making her flinch, and the door opened with a threatening click.

"What are you... Where are you taking me?"

"To my offices, like I told you. Or some of them, anyway. I have more in other buildings. But I thought this would be most convenient. This way, you can listen to my offer, and if you don't want to take me up on it, I can just walk you across the hall and hand you straight over to the officers investigating Michael's murder without any fuss at all. Come on, let's go inside. It's chilly out here in the wind."

"What's going to happen to me?" Jackie asked, not moving, even though the wind was cutting through her jacket. That must have been what was making her tremble uncontrollably, she told herself.

"That depends on you, Jackie. We're going to have a discussion, and then we'll see. Come on, let's go inside. You're not dressed for standing around out here."

Jackie had thought that if she got found out, she would be terribly frightened and would either deny everything with all the force she could muster, or break down and confess while crying hysterically, but instead she only followed Whitaker into the building. Her legs didn't want to work right, and once she jammed her knee and stumbled, but Whitaker didn't seem to notice, and Jackie found herself hurrying to keep up with him.

The car drove off on its own as they passed through the imposing glass doors into the main lobby. The security officer at the front desk looked up, but made no acknowledgment of them. Whitaker led Jackie across the lobby and into an elevator. An older man in a chief's uniform came towards them, but Whitaker didn't hold the doors for him, and Jackie thought the chief deliberately slowed his step in order to give them time to close.

Whitaker's offices were near the top of the building. They walked past many doors with names on them, and came to a suite at the end of the corridor. There was no name there, only a woman in workout clothes lounging in a chair like a cat that couldn't decide whether to nap or pounce. Her eyes were half-closed, and for a moment Jackie thought she was on drugs, but as they approached the door she suddenly looked directly at Jackie and said to Whitaker, "I've got her in the system."

"Thanks, Linda. Anything interesting while I was gone?"

"Nope. I wish something would happen."

Whitaker laughed. "Rest while you can, Linda. Pretty soon you'll be healed up and ready to head back out on assignment."

"The sooner the better," said Linda. The doors opened, and Whitaker took Jackie through. As they went past Linda, Jackie saw that she had an antenna poking through the hair above her left ear, and that part of her left calf was missing.

"What happened to her?" she whispered as the doors closed behind them.

"Injured on assignment. Don't worry: it'll all grow back. Come on, let's go in here."

Whitaker's office was large and had a large glass desk. One wall was also glass, so that Jackie could see all the way to the quarry from where she was sitting in the squashy guest chair.

"Now Jackie," said Whitaker pleasantly, once they were both sitting down. "There's no point in denying anything about the Michael affair, but you could set my curiosity to rest about a few things. Who shot him, you or John?"

"Me." Jackie's lips felt numb and stiff, like she'd been out in the cold too long. "It... It was an accident. I came home in the middle of the night, and he got up out of our bed, and he said... he said a lot of mean things about me and John, and then he came at me, and I thought... I thought he was going to try to kill me, and before I knew it, I'd shot him. I didn't even mean to pull the trigger, it just happened."

"Yes, well, these things do happen sometimes. And whose idea was it to hide the body?"

"John's. I wanted to turn myself in, but he talked me out of it. I felt so bad about... about the way I'd treated him before, and about what happened, and... Anyway, I agreed. So we wrapped up the body in trash bags and cleaned up all the blood, and we went down and loaded it up in the car. I... I couldn't believe any of it, I didn't know what I was doing, until we were in the car and John wanted to go to the back station and I all of a sudden knew what I needed to do and I remembered everything I'd learned about car security systems and stuff, so we drove out to the quarry and I disabled the failsafes and we pushed the car into the water and burned all the clothes and plastic, and then we walked home. John seemed really happy afterwards, it was like we'd just gotten together or something, but I just felt numb. I still do. I guess I knew I'd get caught. I just wish I'd been nicer to John beforehand, not been on his case so much about the drugs and stuff, because then none of this would have happened, but I just didn't want him to do anything to ruin my new job. I felt like I was starting a new life, like things were going to work out for me for the first time ever, but they didn't. I guess I wasn't meant to have a new life."

"That's where you're wrong, Jackie," said Whitaker. "It just might not be the new life you were expecting."

"Is this where you tell me I've made some bad choices and I'll have to face the consequences, but I should use this as an opportunity to turn my life around, because lots of people do after they've made mistakes? 'Cause I've already heard that speech." Just the thought of hearing it again was making old resentment flare up.

"Something like that."

"Why, do they have a really great rehab and training program in prison?"

"No, but you don't have to go to prison. You could go somewhere else instead."


"Don't you want to know where?"


"I have to warn you, though, you'll have to shed these last vestiges of the surly teenager. After all, you're 25 now."


"Okay. Do you know what Elsewhere is, Jackie?"

"Sure. It's everything that isn't Here. Just don't ask me to explain it any further."

"Then I will. Although actually even the people who study it aren't too sure what to call it. But let's say it's all the parallel universes scientists have been positing for hundreds of years but could never find. I like to think of Elsewhere as what stands on the other side of the veil between our universe and everything else. All you have to do is twitch aside that veil, and there you are. In Elsewhere."

"Have you been there?" asked Jackie softly. Murder and prison didn't seem to matter so much, if she was really sitting across a desk from someone who had been to Elsewhere.

"Many times, in many different Wheres. That's what I do, Jackie. What we do. My department. We explore and monitor Elsewhere. Technically, the Federation doesn't have any jurisdiction over Elsewhere, but we like to keep an eye on it nonetheless. Some of us watch over the people who have already gone there, and some of us look for new Wheres. And we find them. There are more Wheres than anyone could ever possibly count, but we keep trying."

"Oh. Is that... Is that why I'm here? To help you somehow?" Incredulity was flooding out Jackie's resentment.

"See, I knew you were a smart girl, Jackie. That's exactly it. We have a hard time finding good agents. They have to be smart, and they have to be brave, and they have to have a reason to do this instead of something safer and easier, where they can come home to their families every night."

"I'm not that smart or brave," said Jackie.

"Sure you are. You just don't know it yet. See, when I have the time, I go through the files on all the cases like yours—murder, that is. Looking for a potential candidate. You caught my eye right away. I liked the way you thought when I listened to that recording of you. And I was damn impressed that you disabled those failsafes with your bare hands. So I looked over some of your earlier work, you know, your actual work, with computers, and I was still impressed. So I thought I'd offer you a job. The pay's good, and we'd wipe your record clean of all past, uh, unpleasantnesses. It would be like the thing with Michael never happened. Or, if you're not interested, I'll just walk you down the corridor to the homicide offices, like I said. They'd be glad to take you too."

"Can I think about it?"

"Sure. For a couple of minutes. Quick decision-making is crucial."

"Oh." Jackie got up and walked around the office. Whitaker watched her with interest, but said nothing. She looked out the glass wall to the dark water of the quarry, out on the edge of her view. Soft low clouds covered the sky, like a pillow pressed down on its face.

"Will it be dangerous?" she asked.

"What we have in mind for you probably won't be that dangerous. But there's nothing completely safe about Elsewhere. We'll take care of you, though. We're the best about that."

"Oh. Prison probably isn't that safe either. Would I... Would I have to break up with John?"

"No, although there's a lot of stuff you couldn't tell him, and it's anyone's guess how long he'd stay with you once you start putting in the long hours our agents put in. Or how long you'd stay with him once you start spending time with people who don't spend all their time taking drugs and lying to their girlfriends."

"Oh. Well. I guess I don't really have a choice, do I?"

"Sure you do. Prison, or Elsewhere. You could be bounded in a nutshell, or the queen of infinite space. Either way, you'll probably still have bad dreams. What's it going to be?"

A ray of sun pierced through the clouds and struck the surface of the quarry, turning the murky water to gold and dazzling Jackie's eyes.

"Space," she said.





Copyright © 2008 Elena Clark

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Elena Clark: I am a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill. My current interests include Mikhail Bulgakov's speculative fiction and images of Finland in Russian literature. My stories have most recently appeared in Aphelion, Sorcerous Signals, and The Harrow.

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