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Hiding Place
by Adam-Troy Castro


And you thought human relations were complicated now?

 

The only prisoner in the interrogation room consisted of two women and one man.

The women, Mi and Zi Diyamen, appeared to be identical twins of either the natural or cloned variety. White-haired despite their apparent youth, wispier in form and more delicate in appearance than any of the handful of cylinked people I’d met (who, starting with my lovers the Porrinyards and continuing through the various others I’d encountered in the last few years, had always tended toward the physically robust), they seemed to exist only as pale echoes of the man who sat between them. Their skin was so pale that it was possible to follow the thin trace of veins at their temples, and their eyes were a shade of blue transparent enough to disappear against their irises.

Ernest Harriman, who sat between them, was a bear: round shouldered, ruddy faced, massive without crossing the border into fat, either old enough or sufficiently well-removed from his most recent rejuvenation to look like he could have been father to the two women beside him. His impressive physical presence and the defiant cast of his smile belied the features of an otherwise weak man: watery eyes, flabby cheeks, and a chin that receded from his lower lip as if eager to join the thick curve of his neck.

The Diyamens bracketed Harriman at the table where all three sat, resting their delicate hands on his thicker wrists.
It was impossible to behold this cozy triptych without considering the women nothing more than Harriman’s personal accessories, but I knew enough about the nature of the acquired condition the three shared to know that this was no more than an illusion, one that they might well have been cultivating for psychological advantage over their jailers.
In truth, the three were not only equals but parts of the same person: closer than lovers, closer than siblings, less like separate people than limbs of the same composite organism.
They were three. And they were one.

Oscin and Skye Porrinyard spoke in unison. “They’re not faking.”

The pair, who bracketed me the way the wispy women on the other side of the one-way transparent field bracketed the bear-shaped man, were like the three prisoners, a single cylinked mind sharing one combined personality. When the male Oscin and the female Skye spoke together, as they did much of the time, they balanced the tones of their respective individual voices to create a shared one that didn’t seem to originate from either mouth but rather from some compromise location between them.

This was not something I’d ever gotten used to, years after their entrance into my life. I was no longer thrown by the vocal gymnastics, but they had never lost their delicious ability to jolt.
Unlike the Diyamens, who seemed to court insubstantiality, the Porrinyards were physical paragons: enhanced athletes who upon our first meeting had been employed as high-altitude workers. Nor were they identical like the Diyamens; Oscin was taller and bulkier than the slim, athletically built Skye, and her facial features were elfin whereas his were blocky, almost square. Even so, they still favored each other in many ways, from their preference for clothing that exposed far more skin than it covered, and the close-shaved silvery stubble of their hair, to the fierce shared intelligence in both sets of eyes.

I asked them a stupid question. “Are you certain?”

It was a stupid question because the Porrinyards had never offered me a conclusion unless they were certain.

They said, “Yes, Andrea. I’ve been watching their respiration, their eye movements, even the pulse rates visible in their respective wrists.”

I glanced at both Oscin and Skye in turn—redundant, I know, but I still feel I’m neglecting one if the other gets all the eye contact. “Industrious of you.”

They nodded in unison. “Yes, well. You’ve come to expect it.”

“And?”

“As far as I can tell, they’re in perfect synch. This would of course vary in circumstances where one body was more or less healthy than the others, or engaged in more or less physical activity, but the autonomic functions of cylinked component bodies do tend to approach equilibrium when all other factors are rendered equal. I say they’re what they claim to be: a unit. Not just Mi and Zi Diyamen, who look the part, but this Harriman as well.”

Behind us, Prosecutor Lyra Bengid tapped the tapered green fingernails of her right hand against the bejeweled silver bracelet on her opposite wrist. “That’s pretty much the way we figured it, Andrea, though it took us several days of medical testing to confirm what your friends here were able to discern in minutes.”

“I’m surprised it took you days,” the Porrinyards remarked. “True cylinkage is an almost impossible condition to fake. Most unrehearsed single-minds attempting to synch actions make a serious mistake of some kind within minutes.”
Bengid’s brow knit in annoyance. “Is that what your kind call us? Single-minds?”

They chuckled. “The individual who became Skye and the individual who became Oscin were both single-minds, not so many years ago. The phrase is not intended as a slur, Counselor; just a descriptive.”

Bengid didn’t roll her eyes, not exactly, but she did hold the moment long enough to convey her healthy skepticism.

“Right. In any event, confirming their condition wasn’t quite so easy in their case. They haven’t attempted that chorus-speak of yours. For some reason, they’ll only speak through Harriman.”

“That’s unusual,” the Porrinyards said. “For the most part, cylinked people don’t favor one body unless the other is incapacitated for some reason.”

“Nevertheless,” Bengid said. “Any questions asked of any one of them, even if we place them in separate rooms, are answered through Harriman’s mouth, or not at all.”

I scratched the itchy fuzz on my recently shaved scalp. “Answering questions they’re asked out of earshot seems pretty definitive proof of linkage too.”

Bengid’s gaze flickered toward the top of my head, as it had every five seconds since my arrival; she was clearly dying to ask, but had so far resisted temptation. “Maybe so, but we saw no other way to proceed before you got here other than doing whatever we could to confirm and document the nature of the unusual problem that faces us. Your—” she hesitated, “—relationship with,” she regarded the Porrinyards and hesitated again, “these two . . . ”

She stopped mid sentence, momentarily at a loss.

Sentences involving the cylinked often suffer from a paucity of appropriate pronouns.

The Porrinyards flashed identical tolerant smiles. “Please, Counselor. I’m not sensitive. Use any syntax that makes you comfortable.”

“Thank you,” Bengid said, before turning her attention back to me. “Anyway, Andrea, your personal history with cylinked people makes you the closest thing we have to a local expert in the pitfalls of prosecuting them for murder.”

We were aboard a Confederate Security vessel called the Negev, which had been dispatched some time ago to take Ernest Harriman into custody.

From what I’d gathered, Harriman and the Diyamens were the surviving residents of a four-man research facility operating in deep space, at a fixed point two astronomical units outside the New London system.
The only possible reason to post anybody in that particular spot, as far from the usual shipping routes as it was from centers of population, was an almost pathological concern with isolation. The facility, and the work being done there, just wasn’t supposed to exist.

Harriman and the Diyamens had shared it with the now-deceased Aman al-Afiq, who Harriman had bludgeoned to death.
Given his detailed confession, exactly what qualified the crime as a mystery continued to elude me.
And yet there was something about this situation that the authorities sharing this room with us—which included, in addition to Bengid, a couple of security officers and a small phalanx of assistants—seemed to consider a first-class Gordian Knot.

Whatever it was had been enough for her to draw upon her at best limited currency with me, in order to summon me here from my home in New London not three days into the medical sabbatical that was supposed to have prevented me from being called to duty for any reason.

Her frustration and bafflement were so thick that I’d tasted them the moment the Porrinyards and I stepped off our personal transport.

Thinking about it, I absently ran a hand over the top of my head, wincing again at the two-day stubble there. I was so used to having hair. I’d never worn it long as an adult, except for one brief period as an honored guest on the planet Xana, but the absence of any real weight up there made me feel like my head was about to fly off into space. I could only wonder how bald men can take it. . . .

“Andrea?”

There was more appraisal in Bengid’s expression than I liked, more than I had received from my former law school roommate in years. Never a friend, she still knew me better than anybody other than the Porrinyards and one or two others ever had, and had to be sensing something off about me, something deeper than the cosmetic changes to my appearance.

The only escape from that was the business at hand. “I can understand why you’d think me an expert, Lyra, but I’m really not. To date I haven’t ever prosecuted any cylinked people either.”

“It isn’t that our kind is unusually law-abiding,” the Porrinyards explained, identical half-smiles imparting identical senses of mischief, “but that there still aren’t all that many of us around.”

The procedure that linked multiple minds, proprietary tech of that conglomeration of ancient software intelligences known as the AIsource, was illegal throughout much Confederate Space. There had never been enough linked people around to qualify as more than an oddity; and even where it was not against the law, most so-called civilized people considered the practice unnatural, a perversion.

Still, a discussion of the compensatory benefits wasn’t necessarily relevant to this situation. I said, “I still don’t understand why you think you have a problem. Your three prisoners in there are medically one person. As long as you can get any expert witness to testify to that, you establish that any murder committed by any one of the individual bodies reflects a decision the consensus personality made as a unit. Even if you can’t find a statute that would allow you to prosecute all three for the crime committed by one, there still shouldn’t be any serious impediment to proving that the other two were equal partners in what amounts to a conspiracy.”

Bengid’s deep weariness did not seem natural on a woman who had always struck me as a tireless dynamo. “You would think so. We have a confession. We have a prisoner—three prisoners, if you prefer—in custody. We even have that surveillance holo of Harriman committing the murder.” She took a deep breath. “The only thing we don’t know how to do is separate the innocent from the guilty.”

“There’s only one will between them, Lyra. They’re either all innocent or all guilty.”

“Not in this case.”

I frowned. “Why not?”

“They weren’t a linked trio when they were assigned to the project.”

“The Diyamens—”

“The Diyamens were only a linked pair. Harriman was an entirely separate individual. From what we can gather, the Diyamens joined with Harriman after he committed the murder, but before they reported the crime.”

The one being on the other side of the phased transparency of the wall, and the three individuals who now comprised it, seemed to be smiling.

The Porrinyards said, “Now, this is an interesting moral question.”

I muttered to myself. “Juje.”

 

Bengid escorted us from the Negev’s holding facility to its conference room, a space magisterial enough for the space-faring criminal trials it sometimes housed. The bulkheads here weren’t made of dark woods but had been designed to look like they were, and the wall behind the unoccupied judge’s bench projected the traditional, if gratuitous, image of ancient Blind Justice overlaid with both the seal of the farce known as the Confederacy and the shield that represented the even bigger farce of my specific employers, the Dip Corps.

(And if that strikes you as cynical, you’re right. But the attitude’s not a pose. I came by it honestly, through years of exploitation by those who should have been my protectors.)

A side table bore carafes of bruj, a beverage that tasted like curdled milk but contained enough pure stimulant to erase any threat of me nodding off at any point this millennium, and slabs of a doughy something that the crew of the Negev must have been obliged to consider pastry. Oscin, who had always found it easier to burn calories, took a pastry, which Skye enjoyed along with him without actually ingesting any herself; the two don’t both need to indulge in order to share the taste. I poured myself some bruj, sans any of the flavoring tablets provided.

Lyra Bengid sat down at the head of the prosecutor’s table, unbuckled the tight collar button of her gray suit, and removed the jagged filament comb that had pinned her straw-colored hair into a harsh bun on top of her head. As the locks spilled down to her shoulders, looking shaggy, the rest of her seemed to sag. Her prosecutorial bearing, Dip Corps reserve, and deadly seriousness all gave way to the exhaustion that had been visible since the moment of our arrival.

I could only wonder how long she’d been awake. “Like old times.”

She frowned. “What?”

“All-nighters.”

Her bright blue eyes widened a little at that. I’d never been one for nostalgia or idle conversation or even friendliness, not for as long as she’d known me.

When I was nineteen years old and just entering law school, my Dip Corps handlers decided to assign Bengid as compassionate and understanding roommate. They’d raised me in what amounted to a prison following my eight-year-old self’s involvement in a notorious massacre on the planet Bocai. Now they saw that they were in danger of winding up with an emotional basketcase unstable enough to be dependent upon them her entire life, rather than the valued asset my test scores indicated I could be instead. Bengid, then just beginning her indentured servitude to the civilian justice system, had tested so high for empathy that the Corps had pulled strings with her own contract holders and gotten them to offer her a choice of career assignments as long as she agreed to be the kind and compassionate roommate that they imagined would make their pet child war criminal more social.

In this she had failed. I’d suspected a nefarious agenda and frozen her out in all respects but the academic. She’d gone on to a stellar career in the civilian courts while I’d begun my own career at the end of a Dip Corps leash.
It wasn’t until much later, long after it was too late to do anything about it, that I’d realized the joke was not just on me but on my superiors. Though Bengid had taken the career incentives, her determination to help me had been nothing but genuine.

As I’ve said, we’d never become friends. But she’d also never treated me with anything but courtesy and respect, not then and not in any of our dozen or so professional encounters since, at a number of Dip Corps embassies throughout Confederate space.

I’d been through just enough dramatic changes, of late, to show a little belated warmth.

The only problem was that any conciliatory gesture was such an alien response coming from me that she didn’t know what to make of it. “We never really had any old times, Andrea.”

“They wouldn’t have been any fun, given what I’ve always been like. It didn’t stop you from trying.”

She faltered a little. “It wasn’t exactly like you to notice.”

“I noticed and I should have appreciated it.”

It affected her so visibly that I was surprised her eyes remained dry. Once again, her gaze flickered toward my shaved head. “You’re almost human today. Is there anything I should know about what the hell’s happening with you?”

“Maybe later. Right now I’d like to get to the bottom of your problem.”

“All right,” she said, sharing my palpable relief at being able to return to business. “First: I’m afraid I can’t tell you anything at all about the project these people were working on together. What little I know myself from my own investigation, I’ve been told I’d be charged with capital treason for sharing. Can we just take as given that it was considered of vital importance to the Confederacy, and conducted under conditions of absolute secrecy?”

Bengid didn’t know that I had committed capital treason more than once in my adult life or that some of my crimes were still ongoing. “Go on.”

“When they were first assigned to their project, three years ago, Hom.Sap Mercantile, Harriman and al-Afiq were individuals, the Diyamens a completely separate linked pair designated as both maintenance workers and morale officers. Their combined mission directives included an extraordinary extended moratorium on communication with the outside world, except for progress reports sent to their superiors. Their supply drops were automated, any outgoing personal mail to their loved ones was censored to near-incomprehensibility, and they were all subject to severe professional penalties for quitting at any point before their five-year contract was up. Key to our situation, they were even provided an onboard AIsource Medical kiosk, rather than risk any possibility of an emergency that would oblige them to summon any other assistance from off-station.”

I could only boggle at this latest intelligence. The advanced automated care offered by AIsource Medical was expensive enough to be well outside the reach of some entire planetary civilizations. If whoever bankrolled this particular research project had been willing to underwrite a system that would only be used for the benefit of four people, then the need for secrecy here went beyond profound into the realm of the obsessive.

Bengid tapped her tapered green nails against the tabletop. “al-Afiq’s murder took place fourteen months into their contracted tour of duty, and for a long time went unreported in any of the station’s communications with the people in charge. His name was still among the appended signatures on every progress report the others sent home until just about one month ago, which was when the Diyamens deigned to inform the authorities that he was dead.” She grimaced. “The bastards actually invited us to come and arrest them. Or, if you prefer, ‘dared.’”

“Go on.”

“When we got here, The Diyamens identified themselves, presented us with the holo and other forensic evidence, and stopped talking. Harriman waived counsel and provided us with a full confession confirming that he had with total premeditation and complete malice aforethought flattened his colleague’s skull.” She massaged the bridge of her nose.

“If not for his assurances that he went into the lab that day fully prepared to commit the murder, I’d entertain arguments that it was a crime of passion. The holo we have documents over a hundred blows, most of them long after al-Afiq’s skull shattered to pieces.”

I winced. “That’s not a crime of passion. That’s a total psychotic break.”

“I’m inclined to agree. And, under the circumstances this should have been an open-and-shut case. But then we have our complication: the Diyamens being sufficiently protective of Harriman to make special arrangements for him to remain beyond our reach.”

“Something they could do because there just happened to be an AIsource Medical kiosk on board.”
Bengid saw my fury. “Right.”

The picture she’d painted was almost a thing of beauty. It buried the simple geometry of the crime beneath a tangle of metaphysical questions about how much guilt could still be ascribed to an individual after that individual no longer continued to exist.

Bengid brushed a blond lock away from her eye. “I guess it’s no news to you that the procedure takes about five months.”

“It’s actually a few hundred separate procedures,” the Porrinyards explained, “that must be completed at the rate of one or two a day. But yes, five months is about right.”

Bengid studied their faces. “It sounds like an ordeal.”

“The time investment is so negligible that it can be countered by just waking up fifteen minutes earlier every day.”
Bengid seemed skeptical about this too. “And what happens at the end? Somebody just flicks a switch?”

“You could look at it that way, Counselor. But it’s not traumatic at all. It feels more like waking up than being born.”
She nodded. “In any event, they had the time and the privacy they needed to get it done. But when the procedures were completed, there was no Harriman and there were no Diyamens. There was just this new entity bearing their names, an entity who could remember what it had been like to be both Harriman and the Diyamens but who was now a composite of both.”

“Carrying the weight,” I murmured, “too heavy to be borne by one.”

It was several seconds before I registered that everybody in the room was staring at me; the Porrinyards because they knew me and Lyra Bengid because she still did not know me quite well enough.
Bengid looked puzzled again, but soldiered on anyway. “So that’s the problem we’re faced with. If we charge Harriman alone and throw his ass in prison, then it’s no real punishment for him. He could languish in the most subterranean dungeon in existence and still continue to enjoy freedom by proxy, as long as Diyamens are out in the world, living however they want.” She addressed the Porrinyards. “I am right about that, yes? That there’s no way to cut the link and shield him off from their experiences?”

“No legal way,” the Porrinyards said. “There is only one person in there, even if their separate bodies are doing different things.”

Oscin spoke alone: “The two of me have been thousands of kilometers apart at times.”

Now Skye: “Sometimes more than that.”

Oscin: “My two bodies operate independently all the time.”

Skye: “If they couldn’t, my enhanced condition would offer no net gain.”

They concluded as one: “But in real-world terms, it still amounts to a left hand and a right hand, operating under the control of a mind that is equally adept at using both. Unless one of my bodies is sleeping or, as happened a few months back, seriously incapacitated for some reason, I am always aware of what both Oscin and Skye are doing. And you’re right: You could imprison one of me and it would be little prison at all as long as I could still see and hear and enjoy a full life via the experiences of the other.”

Bengid blinked multiple times. After a second or two, she managed, “That’s a hell of a cabaret act you two have got there.”

“I think so too,” they said. “Unfortunately, Skye’s the only one with a decent singing voice.”

Bengid’s smile was polite but false. “So you see what I’m talking about. It makes no sense to prosecute Harriman alone. And neither can we prosecute all three because if we did, we’d be prosecuting the two-thirds of the collective who were not even present at the time of the murder. I don’t know what to do.”

They asked her, “Are you afraid of being overturned by the appellate court?”

“No,” Bengid snapped. “I’m afraid of being wrong.”

The Porrinyards considered that. “You could always charge Harriman with murder and the Diyamens as accessories after the fact, for keeping the crime a secret for so long. They’d all receive equivalent sentences and no individual body’s sensory input would be capable of providing the gestalt with any significant relief from an incarceration they’d all share.”

Bengid shook her head as she got up to pour herself some of the noxious bruj. “They were well ahead of us there too. The first thing Diyamens showed us was a station log entry, time-stamped only three hours after the murder. In it, they report that they’ve placed Harriman under arrest for murder. They confirm that they’ve collected all pertinent evidence, and placed it in storage for safe-keeping. They also say that while they will let Harriman continue to work on the project, it will only be under very close supervision, to ensure that he doesn’t escape. All of this was entirely above-board—and while it was highly irregular to then not report the crime for months and months, the delay is not out of the question given the ground rules that had been established for them. If they hadn’t done what they also did, arrange to link minds with the murderer, the delay wouldn’t even have been remarked upon, and we wouldn’t be here in this room having this conversation.”

I’d been listening, silent and heavy lidded, for a while, letting the Porrinyards contribute for me, but I stirred now. “I’m sure you also considered just giving up and declaring Harriman, the original singlet Harriman, dead and beyond your reach . . . in effect solving the problem by abdicating it.”

Bengid sipped her bruj, made a disgusted face, and sipped again. “That’s been suggested, at levels higher than you even want to think about. After all, that individual committed personality suicide at the moment he linked with the Diyamens. The man he was, the man who bludgeoned al-Afiq, no longer exists. And I’d almost endorse that judgment myself, just to wipe my hands of this impossible situation. But I can’t live with letting that
. . . letting those . . .”

“Freaks?” the Porrinyards suggested.

She shot them a poisonous look, enraged that they would accuse her of such bigotry. “Please. Murderers. I refuse to let that murderer, those murderers, however the hell you choose to parse the sentence, get away with killing al-Afiq, just because their superiors equipped their workplace with the means to change an I to a we. That would be an obscenity.”

The Porrinyards glanced at each other, a gesture I’d long since come to recognize as, not a moment of consultation it would be for any two singlets, but rather a moment of deep self-examination. When they spoke again, it was with soft humility. “I’m sorry, Counselor Bengid. I misjudged you. You’re right, of course. But not just for the reasons you think.”

“What other reason is there?”

“I don’t know how much you knew about cylinking before this incident,” they told her, “but deciding to join your soul, your self, to another human being’s, and become part of what is in effect an entirely new person, is the ultimate act of faith. In many ways, it is more profound, more life-altering, and to me more sacred, than any known form of matrimony. It requires total sublimation of the prior self, and permanent commitment from every mind contributing to the intended gestalt.”

“So?”

“So reducing that sacred communion to a legal trick, to nothing more than a loophole the unscrupulous can seize for expediency, is as much an obscenity to me as your killing. It lessens everything I am, everything the singlet versions of Oscin and Skye made the conscious decision to become. That gestalt personality in there cannot be allowed to get away with it. I will not let them . . . and neither will Andrea, for exactly the same reason.”

It was the last phrase that clued Bengis in. Until that, she had registered but not quite felt their meaning, as their condition was far too alien to her experience for her to see it as anything but an abstraction.

Her reaction was the same one I expected to experience from others in a few short months. She blinked, narrowed her eyes, sensed the size of the leap she was being asked to make  . . . and then, with stunned shock, made it.
She struggled to reject the epiphany, as if it were some substance her body had identified as poison. And then she stared at my shaved head, and put it together. “Andrea? Are . . . are you . . . ?”

I offered her one of my rare smiles. “No. I’m still alone in this skull, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“B-but you’re . . .”

“That’s what my sabbatical was for. We were about to start the treatments when you sent for me. We only put it off until we can get back to New London. Within a few months, all three of us will be parts of somebody new. Somebody better.”

Her mouth hung open. Her expression was a mixture of shock, amazement, horror, sadness . . . even a degree of hurt and loss that surprised me, coming from someone I had never allowed into my life.

I would likely have to address that before I left here.

But not now.

“Now,” I said, standing, “with your permission, I’d like to talk to your prisoners.”

 

* * *

 

Harriman and the Diyamens had been returned to separate cells for the duration of our briefing. Now, with me already sitting at the questioner’s side of the table, they trudged in again, walking with an exaggerated geriatric gait enforced by the neurological inhibitor collars around their respective necks.

I normally don’t require prisoners called before me to be restrained, as I have enough weaponry hidden on my person to overcome almost anybody. But I appreciated it in this case. Linked pairs—and, by inexorable extension, triads—are known for their extraordinary grace, and are almost impossible for a singlet of any training to defeat in a fight.
Without those collars reducing their physical coordination to the level of an unrejuvenated ninety-year-old, these three would have had no trouble killing me in a single moment of anger.

I allowed myself a moment of grim amusement at the realization that if this trio did manage such a thing, it would at least offer the benefit of solving that pesky prosecution problem.

Once again, the three positioned themselves in what seemed to be their preferred orientation, with Harriman in the center and the two silent women at his sides.

He said, “You’re a new one.”

“Yes, sir, I am. I’m Counselor Andrea Cort. Prosecutor At Large, for the Judge Advocate’s office of the Confederate Diplomatic Corps.”

He raised an eyebrow. “I’ve never heard of that title, ‘Prosecutor At Large.’”

“I’m not surprised. It was invented just for me.”

The infuriating grin tugging at the corners of his lips was not echoed on the pale faces of the Diyamens, who remained impassive beyond their façade of catatonia. “Impressive. But if you’re Dip Corps, you’re also a little out of your jurisdiction, aren’t you? As far as I understand it, there’s nothing about this case that involves any sovereign government other than New London’s.”

“There isn’t,” I said. “Counselor Bengid just called me in to offer my own take on some of the more troubling points of law here. Once they’re resolved, I’ll likely never see you again.”

He glanced at my scalp. “I see. And since it doesn’t take legal expertise of any kind to know that premeditated murder is a crime, I assume that you’ve been called in as an expert on linked personalities.”

“Hardly an expert, sir.”

“I presume that the rest of the sentence would be, ‘not yet.’ But soon enough, eh, Counselor? I thought I sensed the aura of the pilgrim about you. Have you scheduled your treatments yet?”

I’d already learned what it was like to live with lovers who had twice the normal human capacity for forging rapid connections, but the Porrinyards had never used it for anything more threatening to me than puncturing my more dishonest emotional pretenses. I’d encountered one other pair with a somewhat deeper and darker agenda, but they hadn’t been interested in using it against me either. This would be the first time I’d ever have to out think and out-maneuver a criminal who amounted to a human being cubed.

I decided on a strategic retreat. “Yes. We’ll be starting very soon.”

His smile would have been easy to take for genuine warmth. “I envy you your journey. I promise you, it’s not at all what you expect.”

“Oh, really. How so?”

“I can only repeat, not at all. I’m sure that you think you’re just adding yourself to whoever you chose as your partner. But when you forge all those new neural connections, you’re not really adding personalities together; you’re multiplying them. You’re creating the equivalent of a new molecular compound with properties entirely different from those of the individual basic elements that went into it.”

“Like guilt,” I suggested, in an effort to bring this back around to the crime.

He chuckled, almost paternally. “I’ve always been more than willing to admit what I’ve done, and that I remain fully subject to any legal penalty the authorities consider appropriate.”

“You do recognize, of course, that the authorities are having some trouble determining what’s appropriate.”

“Yes, I do. And I’ll even admit that I expected them to. After all, it was Harriman who wielded that spanner, Harriman whose hands were stained by blood. But I’ll abide by whatever the prosecutorial conclusions might be.”
Had there been a hint of sarcastic arrogance in that answer? “I hope you recognize that your future is not a question of what you’re willing to accept. It’s a question of how your case is decided.”

“Still,” he said, “a guilty plea would make that easier for everybody, wouldn’t it?”

I was sure of it, now. This wasn’t remorse or expiation. The bastard—no, the bastards; the Diyamens were so withdrawn for some reason that it was difficult to remember that he was speaking for all three of them—the bastards were running a game on us. But to what end?

“Tell me about it, then.”

He sighed, glanced at the shut-down transparency of the wall behind me, and faced me again. Throughout, the women remained blanks, lost behind their apparent shield of catatonia.

He said, “What would you like to know, Counselor? Why I loathed the toxic son of a bitch with every fiber of my being?”

“If you’d like.”

“Aman al-Afiq was a brilliant man, but he was also a terribly sick one, incapable of relating to other human beings, except to hurt them any way he could. Outside dry shop talk, his sole interest in social interaction seemed to be psychological dissection through verbal cruelty. He reveled in finding the most sensitive exposed nerves and then inserting needles, to maximize any emotional agony he could cause. Within one week of their arrival on this station, the singlet Harriman had already had one screaming match with him; within two, there had already been a fistfight; within three, Harriman was already suffering in silence, struggling to endure long hours of abuse without giving in to the impulse to strangle the unholy prick.”

I’d been accused of being like al-Afiq more than once, myself. “Go on.”

“When the Diyamens threatened to report his behavior, or even quit the project in protest, al-Afiq countered with promises to destroy their own reputations with false counter-charges. He bragged that he had done this many times before, on projects before this one, and went so far as naming the names of those whose careers had been destroyed by lies he’d started.”

“And you didn’t know al-Afiq was like this before you signed on?”

Harriman shook his head. “Harriman had never heard of him before. Neither had the Diyamens.”

“How was that even possible, if they were colleagues?”

“They didn’t initiate the project. It involved a certain cross-fertilization of al-Afiq’s preferred way of looking at a fundamental problem, and Harriman’s take on another. The entire crew consisted of hired guns, previously unknown to each other, and assigned their tasks by a greater mind too busy to participate in the project herself.”

It hurt so much not to know the purpose of all this that I almost had to physically restrain myself from pursuing that line of questioning any further. “And what were the Diyamens there for?”

“Their key responsibility was the maintenance of the station. Also,” he shrugged, “given the years of expected isolation, as morale officers. After all, everybody was going to be locked together for a long time: five years, by the most conservative estimate. The powers that be decided that with four people instead of two—even if two of them were really just different vehicles for one personality—there were more chances for friendships, fewer for poisonous stress.”

I was beginning to see the ugly picture. Assuming there was any truth to Harriman’s version of events—and none of these details offered any particular reason for doubt—the powers behind this project had made the fatal mistake of valuing secrecy over social viability. Had they assigned a crew of fifty, well within the budget of any power capable of paying for AIsource Medical service, a personality as parasitical as al-Afiq’s would have been little more than the common annoyance that united everybody else in their shared resentment. In a crew of four, al-Afiq became unavoidable, a malignant tumor that insisted on burrowing its way into the skulls of anybody forced to be locked up with him.

After a pause, I focused on the two silent women, who stared back at me with eyes as communicative as buttons sewn on cloth. “How did the Diyamens get on with this al-Afiq?”
Harriman continued to answer for them. “His verbal abuse of them was less effective, as they were more emotionally grounded and harder to upset.”

“Did they hate him?”

“Yes, but they didn’t give al-Afiq the satisfaction of showing it. The real problem for them was dealing with the level of tension aboard the station. They had to work themselves to the point of exhaustion just keeping Harriman and al-Afiq separated as much as possible. It was, for all of them, an impossible situation, and if al-Afiq’s vile threats and the potential damage to their careers hadn’t prevented the others from resigning, the slimy bastard might have been working in the solitude he deserved as soon as they could relay their resignations to home base.”
I kept my eyes focused on the Diyamens, who continued to project eerie blankness. “The two of them must have had nothing but sympathy for you.”

“For Harriman,” the man who had been Harriman corrected me, his eyes twinkling with puckish humor at this insistence on precision. “Would you like to hear about the killing now?”

I considered it, but decided not. The killing itself was, by and large, a known quantity. The tormentor had been alive and was now dead; Harriman had killed him and had been honest about killing him. Knowing exactly what hateful words had proven the final incentive, how many blows had rained down and how long it had taken al-Afiq to die, were all matters for Bengid and her team of prosecutors. My sole duty was finding a legal way to separate the inseparable.

I stood. “It’s been a long day. I just arrived here, after all. I believe I’ll check some of your assertions and resume tomorrow morning.”

“Until then,” Harriman said.

I turned and left the three of them behind. But just as the ionic field at the door discorporated for me, he had one more

thing to say. “Counselor?”

I turned to face him.

He said, “I can only hope that you’ve chosen the best partner for your joining.”

I’ve dealt with many sociopaths in my career. Between my past and my ruthless streak I’ve even been accused of the condition myself. I’d long ago learned how to recognize it in others. But it was not what I saw in Harriman. That empathy he projected felt too real to me. I would have bet anything I owned that it was not at all feigned, that the capacity to commit murder had not robbed him, no, them, of the capacity to feel for the concerns of a near-stranger . . . even when, as in this case, that stranger was searching for the means to condemn them to prison.

It didn’t stop me from considering their willingness to use their gestalt as a hiding place for their own guilt the obscenity the Porrinyards had so correctly called it.

I didn’t owe his best wishes enough respect to thank him. I just nodded and left the room without another word.

 

Three hours later, I sat alone in the conference center, paging through hytex files on the principals. I’d told the Porrinyards, who were randy and wanted to turn in, that I needed to go through the respective backgrounds on my own; just why I didn’t ask them to help, I didn’t know, since they were much faster at sifting raw data than I ever could be and could have found me every relevant datum in a fraction of the time. But they’d experienced my occasional need for solitude before and took it for what it was, wishing me a gentle good night before leaving me to my work.
They didn’t need my help to act on their randiness right now. They had each other. It might have been masturbation in the psychological sense, but could not be better in the physical. I had no reason to doubt their assurances that it was even better when I participated, but it wasn’t because I was so brilliant, but because lovemaking is always better when another separate person is involved, and they didn’t have that unless I was there.

Of course, I wouldn’t be “separate” when we were all sharing one mind.

For the triad we’d become, alone in our multiple heads, the dating pool would certainly provide its own share of challenges . . .

I gritted my teeth, put the thought away, and dove into the files.

There was no information on just what fields Harriman and al-Afiq happened to be trained in, but I found plenty on what they were like as human beings.

I don’t know what I’d expected of someone with the name al-Afiq, but the holo attached to his file depicted a slight, wide-eyed Nordic type, with a high forehead and hair the color of spun gold. His smile was as ingratiating as any I’d ever seen. It made friends with the recording technology and suggested a gentle sense of humor he would use on himself long before he ever thought of targeting anybody else.

But his file, or at least those portions of it I could access without pulling rank on the system, told a different story. In the last quarter century the man had been married six times, in each case for less than two years. Of the five women involved, one had killed herself after less than six weeks with him, two others had taken transports to distant systems, and a fourth had followed a mental breakdown with a trip to a nanopsychologist, where she completely wiped the memories of the year and a half she’d endured in her nightmare husband’s company. That last one had led to a cute but infuriating sequel where he sought her out and seduced her into marriage a second time, a scheme that following the inevitable second divorce had come within a hair’s breadth of leading to yet another memory wipe and another trip on the merry-go-round before a protective friend found out what was happening and hustled her away for her own protection.

At least a dozen colleagues who had worked with al-Afiq on past projects had filed preference papers declaring that they’d never work with him again, not for any amount of career compensation. Four others had been fired from their positions either for assaulting him or for charges related to counter-complaints he filed when they tried to report his pattern of escalating mental abuse.

He sounded like a charming guy.

To remain in demand despite all this history, he must have been not only brilliant but indispensable.

Personally, I liked to believe that if I’d ever found himself unfortunate enough to be locked up with the little shit for any extended period of time, I would have broken him long before he found a way to break me. After all, as many people including the Porrinyards had told me, I can be a real bitch when I want to be, and just as frequently when I don’t. It was flattering to believe that the delight this walking slab of vomit took in recreational cruelty might not have been up to my willingness to wield the same skill set upon the deserving. But that was just self-flattery. I was brittle and broke often. As far as I could tell, al-Afiq never had.

Ernest Harriman’s most serious negative citation was an allegation of emotional instability, from an administrator at one of the several universities he’d taught at. Aside from that, he had nothing but laudatory reports, as both a researcher and a team player. There was one subtle trouble sign: a brief sabbatical he’d taken at the behest of one supervisor. The reason given was “exhaustion,” but none of his other colleagues on that project had taken any unscheduled time off except for one who had needed to return home to attend an ailing daughter and another who had needed medical attention for one of the few cancers that could not be cured on site. In context, the terse explanation of “exhaustion” was almost certainly a mercy on the part of a boss reluctant to damage Harriman’s career. An emotional breakdown? A mental collapse?

The reports on him struggled to acknowledge a certain degree of instability without condemning him for it. It was a sign that, whatever his shortcomings, people generally liked the man and wished him well.

It didn’t speak well of this project’s unknown sponsors that they’d assign one man noted for his emotional frailty to work in close quarters with one known to abuse his colleagues without mercy.

The background available on the Diyamens provided no similar overtones of impending doom, which isn’t even remotely the same thing as saying that it offered no surprises. It turned out that Mi and Zi were not the siblings or clones I’d presumed them to be, but two people born light-years apart, on two separate colonies at far ends of Confederate Space. Their previous names meant nothing to me and nothing in their previous lives offered me any path to understanding how they’d been chosen for the project. The big surprise was that Mi had been male and Zi female; and that their pre-enhancement holos portrayed two human beings who failed to resemble each other in any way. After a short period working together on a habitat construction project for Dejahcorp, a company I’d encountered a number of times in the past, they’d fallen in love and for some reason that I can only presume must have made sense to them at the time decided that cylinking offered a better shared future than living together as lovers.


However it was that they’d come to this epiphany, they seemed to be serious about it, as cylinking wasn’t the only change the two had made in themselves. It went beyond altering their appearances to become as identical outside as they now were inside. Apparently, they now weren’t the women I’d taken them for, but surgical neuters, devoid of any sexual equipment either internal or external.

I blinked at this intelligence and thought, This must have made them fun morale officers.
Maybe the project really didn’t have to do with anything Harriman and al-Afiq were doing. Maybe, unknown to themselves, they were the subjects being studied, and the Diyamens were there just to observe the inevitable explosion from the perspective of the ultimate control specimens.
And maybe I’d had too much bruj.  

 

 

Copyright © 2011 Adam-Troy Castro

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