The lights were off when Jackie
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
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
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
"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
"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.
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
"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
"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!
"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
"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,
"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
"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
"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?"
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
"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,"
"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.
"Of course they're locked,"
"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
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
"Thank you," said
the car when it had read Michael's chip. "Authorization
complete. Where would you like to go?"
"To the back station,"
"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
"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
"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
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
"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.
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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,"
"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.
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
"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
"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.
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
"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,"
"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
"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."
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
"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 lifeJohn might
not like to know he wasn't the only one Michael liked to experiment
withand 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
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
"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 yoursmurder, 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?"
"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
"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.