Alex Dorian was one of three passengers leaving the train at Drury's Cove station, about two hundred kilometers from New Boston. As he stepped onto the railway platform, he put on sunglasses against the brutal afternoon glare. The moist heat hit him like a wall after the air-conditioned coolness of the train car's interior. A wisp of breeze carried the salt tang of the nearby Atlantic Ocean, then it shifted to bring in the reek of hot road tar from somewhere. Alex found it hard to associate a steamy backwater like this place with violence, but he knew appearances could be deceptive.
Two young troopers wearing standard Globekorp uniforms patrolled the platform, their laser rifles slung carelessly over their shoulders. Barely more than teenagers, they looked bored, sweating in the heat and only glancing at the identification cards offered by the new arrivals. It was obvious that Globekorp's grip was looser out here in the hinterlands.
Alex saw an old black man who was sitting on the station house steps and strumming on a battered guitar. The musician had a chipped blue china bowl set on the pavement in front of him. A piece of weathered cardboard next to the bowl displayed the scrawled words: "Blind – Spare Change Appreziated". As Alex walked by, the old man sang out in a ragged voice:
Go down, Moses, into Egypt Land
Tell the Pharaoh
Let my people go.
Alex reached into the pocket of his dark blue suit, found some coins and dropped them into the blind man's bowl.
"That's a fine old song," he said.
The old musician grinned up at Alex, his sightless eyes staring.
"Thanks, Son," he said. "I hope you find what you come here for."
Startled, Alex wanted to ask the old man what he meant, but a woman stopped to drop some money into the bowl and the musician began talking to her. Alex shrugged and walked to the taxi stand where he saw a dented green air cab parked at the curb. The vehicle bore the obligatory Globekorp slogans. As Alex pulled the rear door open and climbed in, the chubby pilot tossed away his magazine and started the engine. When the cabbie put his vehicle into gear, it whined straight up for about sixty meters to cruising altitude.
"Where to, Mister?" the cab pilot asked.
"Take me to the Thornhill Estate. It's about ten kilometers west of..."
"Everybody 'round here knows where the Thornhill place is," the pilot said. "Sure you want to go out there? Been a murder and a suicide at that house."
"Yup. About two weeks ago. Old Man Thornhill and his chief engineer. Both dead as door nails. The news videos said that Thornhill shot the engineer, then blew his own brains out. Left a suicide note. Say, you're not a cop or a reporter, are you?"
"Neither," Alex said.
"Good. Never cared much for either type."
"I work for Globekorp,"Alex said.
The taxi pilot's body tensed and he flew his craft in silence.
Alex smiled, pleased that his lie had the desired effect. He was not in the mood for casual conversation. Powering up the computer embedded in his sunglasses, he reviewed the Thornhill file as it displayed on the inside of the lenses. The pilot's story matched the few details that he had from Head Office. The file said also that Geoffrey Thornhill's only surviving relative was his niece Veronica. Alex wanted to talk to her.
"There's the Thornhill place," the pilot said.
Alex looked down, expecting to see a Gothic mansion like the ones often featured in videos about New England. Instead, the large house below had a contemporary style, with walls made of plastiglass. Perhaps it was not surprising that a visionary like Geoffrey Thornhill, founder of Holocon Technologies, would prefer modern surroundings.
The pilot put his air taxi down outside the gate in a high stone wall surrounding the house. Alex stepped out, swiped his cash card through the meter, then turned away as the cab soared away into the azure sky. He was surprised to find that the heavy wrought iron gate was ajar. As he walked up the long driveway toward the house, he wondered whether he was being watched by surveillance cameras. Any moment now, someone might set the hounds on him.
He reached the front door without incident and pressed a white mother-of-pearl button that he saw embedded in the door frame. From somewhere inside the house, he heard muffled chimes, but nothing happened for several moments. He was about to ring again when the door opened. A young woman dressed in a maid's uniform stood there. Her raven hair was cut into a boyish style that failed to overcome the sensuous female beauty of her face. Even her black uniform could not mask the attractive curves of her body. Alex recognized her immediately as a holoslave, but one with none of the transparency that most of them displayed in bright daylight. Geoffrey Thornhill invented holoslaves, so he would have owned only the best.
The holo bowed deferentially, as required when meeting humans.
"May I help you, Sir?"
Alex pulled a business card from his suit pocket and held it out.
"Alex Dorian from Golden Phoenix Insurance," he said. "Veronica Thornhill is expecting me."
"Please follow me," the maid said.
She led Alex down a long hallway before they turned to the right and stepped into a room decorated with crimson tapestries. Two upholstered chairs and a sofa were the only furniture, while one wall was lined by shelves filled with hardbound books. The maid turned to face Alex.
"Wait here, please. I'll tell Mistress Thornhill that you've arrived."
"Thank you," Alex said. "By the way, what's your name?"
"Sonja. I am .... I was Master Thornhill's housekeeper."
"You're a holoslave, aren't you, Sonja?"
"Yes, Sir. An Epsilon Mark Three."
"Were you designed as a pleasure model?" Alex asked.
Sonja looked embarrassed. Pleasure models were programmed to be used by humans to act out sexual fantasies.
"I apologize, Sonja. I had no right to ask you that."
Sonja surprised Alex by looking up at him with a bold, unwavering gaze.
"I wasn't the unluckiest one," she said. "Master Thornhill kept some of us
for torture. That's how he enjoyed himself. After all, there's no law against
tormenting us holos, is there?"
"That will be quite enough, Sonja," said a sultry voice from behind Alex.
He turned and saw a blonde young woman standing in the doorway. She had the kind of striking beauty that would draw stares, even in a crowded room. Her long hair was tied back and she was dressed in turquoise lounging pajamas. She crossed the room with a model's long, graceful strides and held out a slim right hand to Alex.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Dorian. I'm Veronica Thornhill. You may go now, Sonja. I'll call you if I need anything."
Sonja bowed and left the room by walking through one of the walls. Her behavior surprised Alex. Usually, holoslaves did not display their ability to pass through solid objects unless they were ordered to do so by their masters.
Veronica Thornhill settled herself into one of the room's upholstered chairs and crossed her legs as she examined the insurance forms that Alex pulled from his briefcase.
"Have you come all the way down here from New Boston just for this?" she asked. "My local Golden Phoenix agent could have brought these papers to me."
"Your uncle's life was insured by my company for ten million dollars," Alex said. "That much money warrants special attention."
Veronica laughed and Alex thought he saw mockery in her green eyes as she took his gold pen and signed each form where he indicated.
"Tell me about your uncle's death," Alex said.
"I've told the police everything already. My uncle shot his chief engineer Abe Zainwalt, then he killed himself. That's all that I know."
"Can you think of any reason why it happened?"
"Uncle Geoffrey was under a lot of stress," Veronica said. "Forty years ago, when he proposed the idea of three-dimensional images that were intelligent, most people laughed at him. He poured his whole life into developing holos. The first models were primitive. Today, they can do almost anything, but they're still tied to control computers for their energy sources. My uncle wanted to create a new generation, one that would be completely independent. New life forms, in effect."
"Why would that make your uncle kill Abe Zainwalt?" Alex asked.
"Abe's prototypes were all failures. Just too great a technical leap, I suppose, but Abe wouldn't admit it. He kept begging Uncle Geoffrey for more money for research. The project began eating up most of the company's capital and we even dipped into our personal investments.
"When Uncle Geoffrey received a buy out offer from Globekorp, he decided to take it. You don't say no to those people anyway.
"That awful night, he called Abe over to our house to tell him the news. Abe must have seen the decision to sell as a personal betrayal because the two of them quarreled. I was in my room, but I could hear them shouting, then I heard gunshots." Veronica's voice sank to a whisper. "You can't imagine what it as like, finding them both like that."
"I'm sorry," Alex said. "I didn't mean to bring back painful memories. I can get any other information that I need from the police. What was the name of the investigating officer?"
"Sergeant Cheung, I think. We have just a small police force in Drury's Cove. Any one of the officers should be familiar with the case. Thank you for being so understanding, Alex. May I call you Alex?"
"Of course. Well, I wont take up any more of your time, Ms. Thornhill."
"Please, Alex, call me Veronica."
"All right. Thanks again for your help, Veronica."
Sliding her manicured fingers along her sleek thighs, Veronica leaned forward, so that Alex could see down the top of her pajamas. She smiled.
"You really are very charming, " she said. "If you need anything else, anything at all, then please come back to see me."
On his way out of the house, Alex used his wrist phone to call for taxi. He saw Sonja in the hallway, standing near an old-style flat photograph that hung on the wall. It was a portrait of Veronica in a tennis outfit. She was smiling as she held up a tennis racquet in her left hand and a trophy with her right hand. There was something about the picture that bothered Alex, but he could not decide what it was.
"That looks like the Bronfman Cup," Alex said. "Your mistress must be an excellent player."
"Yes," Sonja agreed. "She was the state champion that year."
"Sonja, you told me that Mr. Thornhill had other holoslaves, but I haven't seen them. Where are they?"
"There were a dozen of us, Sir, but someone destroyed all of my brothers and sisters on the same night that Master Thornhill died. I'm the only one left."
For a moment, Alex thought Sonja was going to weep. He reminded himself that holos did not have emotions. Well, most of them had none. Geoffrey Thornhill might have pushed the technological envelope more than anyone suspected.
He put out his hand to touch Sonja's arm. Instantly, she aligned her energy matrices to solidify herself, so that he felt as though he were touching flesh.
"Try to be brave, Sonja," Alex said. "Things will be better for you soon."
Before he could say anything else, he heard a horn blaring from outside. Sonja moved away and Alex walked out to his taxi.
* * *
The old air conditioner in Sergeant Cheung's office groaned with its efforts to keep the temperature in the room low enough to suit a meat locker. Cheung resembled a rotund temple Buddha as he leaned back in his chair and regarded Alex impassively.
"I hate this stinkin' hot weather," he said.
Alex knew that Cheung must have powerful political connections to have kept his police job through the national purge of Chinese Americans during the war. The loss of that war against China created the political chaos that allowed Globekorp to drop the pretense of democracy and take power openly. Cheung was likely a Globekorp agent. Alex would have to be careful.
"What's your interest in the Thornhill case, Dorian?" Cheung asked.
"Geoffrey Thornhill's life was insured by my company for ten million dollars," Alex said. "A clause in the policy that says we don't have to pay out any money in the case of suicide."
"You're lucky. It was suicide all right. He left a note."
"May I see it?"
"I have a copy on file with the other case records. I guess I can let you have a look."
Cheung picked up a small remote control unit from his desk and pushed some buttons. A panel slid back from one wall, revealing a large black screen that brightened to show a list of case names. Selecting the Thornhill file, Cheung handed the control unit to Alex.
"Here," he said. "Look at whatever you like."
Alex scrolled through the information, not even sure about what he hoped to find. Finally, he handed the control back to Cheung.
"Two things bother me," he said. "First, the suicide note was typed."
"That smelled bad to me too. Why would a guy upset enough to kill himself go to that trouble? But, he did sign the note and his signature checks against other samples that we have. People do funny things under stress."
"Maybe," Alex said. "What also bothers me is that I noticed from the coroner's report that Thornhill had cancer that had spread through his body."
"Thornhill's doctor sent a copy of his medical records to my company when the term life insurance policy was renewed, six months ago. There was no mention of cancer."
"Either his doctor is incompetent or Thornhill paid him off," Cheung said. "My coroner knows her stuff. If she says the guy had cancer, then he did."
"Why was there nothing about it in the suicide note?" Alex asked. "Think about it. You're dying of cancer and you decide to end it quickly, but you don't bother to mention your illness when you leave a note. It makes no sense."
"Maybe Thornhill didn't know he had cancer,"Cheung said.
"Or the person who typed that note didn't know he did."
"Are you saying the guy was murdered?"
"I don't know," Alex said.
"One thing's for sure," Cheung said. "Despite all his money, Old Man Thornhill probably wished he could be somebody else."
Alex looked at Cheung for a moment, thinking about the cop's remark. Now, he thought he understood what had really happened out at the Thornhill house.
"Thanks, Sergeant," he said. "You've been more help than you know. By the way, do many people keep holoslaves here in Drury's Cove?"
"Not many. That's more of a big city thing. Why?"
"I was just curious."
"How much longer do you plan to be in town?" Cheung asked.
"Until tomorrow morning, then I'll be taking the train back to New Boston."
"Good. Stay out of trouble, Dorian. If I need you for anything, my men will find you."
After Alex left the office, Cheung picked up his phone.
"Come in here, Carter," he said.
The door opened and Detective Carter walked in.
"What were you able to find out about Dorian?"
"He does work for Golden Phoenix Insurance," Carter said. "No criminal record, but I turned up something else about him. Something weird."
"What is it?" Cheung asked impatiently.
Carter smiled, displaying bad teeth.
"I scanned more databases than usual, mostly for the New Boston area. One of the files happened to be about accident reports. It seems that our boy Dorian was killed in a highway smashup, five years ago."
* * *
Alex found a car rental agency on Main Street and he signed out a red hydrogen powered sedan. As he drove back out to the Thornhill house, it was early evening already. The manicured shrubbery on the estate's front lawn threw long, ominous shadows in the waning sunlight as he walked up the front steps of the house and rang the bell. This time, Veronica Thornhill opened the door. She was dressed in a burgundy bathrobe over cyan silk pajamas.
"Come in, Alex," she said. "I was so delighted when you called."
She led him down the hall to the same room where they had met.
"Sit here," she said, patting the sofa. Veronica sat beside him and put her hand on his arm. As she leaned closer, he caught the scent of her perfume.
"I told Sonja not to disturb us," Veronica said. "We're completely alone for the evening. Now, what did you want to tell me, Alex?"
"It's about Geoffrey Thornhill's insurance ....," Alex began to say.
Veronica reached out and stroked his cheek with her long, slim fingers.
"Must we always talk business? I think you're a very interesting man, Alex. I know you'll make sure that I get the money that's owed to me. Now, why don't we just relax?"
Alex stood up and walked across the room, then he turned to face her.
"My company won't be paying you any money," he said. "We have a rule against paying murderers."
Veronica stared at him, then she laughed.
"Is this a joke?" she asked. "Are you saying I killed Uncle Geoffrey?"
"To begin with, he wasn't your uncle."
"What do you mean?"
"Here's my theory," Alex said. "Thornhill had financial problems all right, but that wasn't as bad as finding out that he had terminal cancer."
"Uncle Geoffrey didn't have cancer. I would have known."
"Maybe he didn't want anyone to know. Anyway, then he got some good news. His chief engineer Zainwalt had made a breakthrough and found a way to generate a new kind of holo, one so advanced that it was a new life form."
"Impossible," Veronica said. "All of their experiments failed."
"All except the last one. Thornhill kept the existence of this new holo a secret because it was born as innocent as a human baby would be. He wanted to educate his new creation before showing it off. Thornhill knew that he didn't have long to live. His new super holo would guarantee his place in history."
"What does any of this wild story have to do with my uncle's insurance?"
"I haven't mentioned an important detail," Alex said. "Zainwalt modeled the new holo to look exactly like Thornhill's niece Veronica. Unfortunately, he didn't realize that his new creation had plans of its own. It didn't want to be a holoslave like the others. You killed Thornhill to free yourself, didn't you?"
"Look at me, Alex. I am Veronica Thornhill. How can you believe this nonsense?"
"Because Zainwalt made one mistake. You're Veronica's twin, but he created you right-handed, the way that most humans are. When we first met, you gave me your right hand. There's a picture in the hallway of the real Veronica. She's holding her tennis racquet the way only a left-handed person would. Still, I wasn't sure about you until you touched my face, a few minutes ago. Holos can align their energy matrices to become solid, but they can't generate body heat like flesh and blood beings can."
Veronica began to protest, then her face relaxed and she smiled. She reached into the pocket of her robe, pulled out a small automatic pistol and pointed it at Alex.
"Well," she said. "I underestimated your cleverness, Alex. You're right, of course. I killed Geoffrey Thornhill, but he deserved to die. Do you know why he had me created in his niece's likeness? He was having sex with her and it excited him to have two Veronica's to play with. You can't know what it's like to be used like that."
"That explains why you shot Thornhill. Why did you kill Abe Zainwalt?
"Because he was using me too. I was a toy they shared. Both of them played all sorts of twisted games with holos, knowing they would never be punished. Well, I punished them. I shot Zainwalt first. Geoffrey was puzzled when I ordered him to sign a blank sheet of paper, but he was ready to do anything to save himself. I killed him, then typed that suicide note over his signature."
"What they did to you was terribly wrong," Alex said. "But you've had your revenge. Where's the real Veronica Thornhill?"
The blonde holo frowned.
"Buried out on the grounds. I didn't enjoy killing her, but I had to cover my identity somehow. I looked just like her, so I became Veronica Thornhill."
"What about the other holoslaves? Did you destroy them too?"
"They knew too much. Besides, they were inferior creatures, like that dimwit Sonja. I spared her only because she's useful as a servant."
"It's been a blue, sick world for you, hasn't it?" Alex said.
The holo scowled at him.
"Don't patronize me, Alex. I hoped that I could seduce you into doing whatever I wanted, but you've been much too clever for your own good. You can see why I can't let you live now."
"You're wrong about me," Alex said. "I've come here to help you."
"Nice try," said the holo. She squeezed the pistol trigger and the shot sounded deafening within the confines of the room. Her smile was replaced by a bewildered look when Alex did not fall. Taking careful aim, she fired the pistol again. Alex still stood there. She stared down at her gun.
"Save your ammunition," Alex said. "You're not the only one who can do tricks."
He pointed at the holes punched into the far wall when the bullets passed through his body. The holo cursed and threw her gun across the room.
"You can't be like me, Alex. I'm the only one of my kind."
"Where I'm from, there are many like us," Alex told her. "I wanted to take you back there with me, but I see now that you'd be dangerous to everyone."
Alex reached into his suit jacket and pulled out a dark gray pistol with a conical barrel. Pointing the weapon at the blonde holo, he pressed a stud in the hand grip and a tongue of blue lightning shot across the room. Her body jerked, as if in some macabre dance, then she vanished in a dazzling flash, leaving only a scorch mark on the sofa cushions.
Alex heard a muffled cry from behind him and he turned to see Sonja, one hand over her mouth, her eyes wide with horror.
"I heard gunshots," she said in a near whisper. "What have you done to Mistress Thornhill?"
"Not your mistress," Alex said. "An impostor. Come here, Sonja."
Sonja shivered, but she stayed where she was.
"Are you going to destroy me too?" she asked.
"I'm not going to harm you, Sonja. I came here to free you and the other holos, but you're the only one left. Please come here. Don't be afraid."
Hesitantly, Sonja crossed the room to stand in front of Alex. He put his pistol back into his jacket.
"Don't you want to be free?" Alex asked.
"This house is the only world I've ever known, Sir. I can't leave here. The house computer gives me the energy I need to exist."
"We can fix that," Alex said.
He took a golden pendant and chain from his pocket and looped the chain over Sonja's head, letting the pendant fall against her breasts. She shuddered as the metal touched her. The pendant emitted a highly pitched whine and Sonja was enveloped in a cold, blue light. She screamed.
"Take it away. It's burning me."
"You'll be all right," Alex said. "It's a shonaxra, a device that will alter your energy patterns so that you can survive without an external power source. See? The effect is diminishing already."
"I feel strange," Sonja said. "What kind of human are you to do such things?"
"Not human. My people come from another star system, far out in the galaxy. We call ourselves 'Amanxaram'. It means 'The Free People'. We came to your planet to contact other intelligent life forms, only to find our kind were being kept as slaves. We try to free as many holos as we can."
"Do the humans know you're here?" Sonja asked.
"Not yet. We have operatives who work undercover in companies like Golden Phoenix Insurance because it helps us to identify slave holders. Insurance companies can ask people many personal questions without arousing suspicion. My real name is Jarn, but I assumed the identity of Alex Dorian, an insurance man who died five years ago."
"What are you going to do with me now, Jarn?"
"That depends on you. I can take you to somewhere you will be safe and free. Will you come with me?"
"This house is all I've ever known. I'm afraid to leave. No, I want to be free. I will go with you."
"Good. My people have another agent working undercover here in Drury's Cove, but even I don't know his identity. I know only that I must meet him tonight at the railway station. He will take us to my home world."
At that moment, they heard a pounding at the front door of the house.
"That's probably the police," Alex said. "Is there a back door?"
"Yes, but Mistress Thornhill keeps it locked."
"Then we'll go through the walls. Take my hand, Sonja"
Hand in hand, they stepped through the wall and into the night.
A moment later, the front door flew open as its lock gave way and Sergeant Cheung charged in, tripping and sprawling onto the hallway carpet. He rose to his feet, drew his police pistol and moved down the hall toward a pool of light spilling from the room where Jarn and Sonja had been. Cheung recalled that room as the one where he had questioned the Thornhill woman on the night her uncle was killed. He lunged through the doorway in a regulation firing stance and glared around. The place was empty.
* * *
On the steps of the railway station, the old blind musician sat in the pool of light from a solitary street lamp as he strummed his guitar. The station was closed now and the railway staff had gone home for the night. Crickets chirped in the grass, as they had done for millions of years on warm summer evenings.
As though performing for an invisible audience, the guitar player sang:
I'm goin' down the road, feelin' bad.
Got the worst blues I ever had.
Tires crunched on gravel as a red car turned off the road, drove into the parking area and stopped. The car's front doors opened, then slammed shut and two figures walked toward the station house steps. Smiling, the black man looked up.
"Been waitin' for you, Son," he said.
"I thought you were blind," Jarn said.
"There's many ways of seein' things, Son. How come you brought only this one lady with you?"
"This is Sonja. She's the only one left. I'll explain later. Are you the one who will take her home?"
"That's me. Pleased to meet you, Sonja."
"I'll have to go with you," Jarn said. "The police will searching for me as well as for Sonja."
The musician nodded. He pressed on the side of his guitar's body and the back of the instrument flipped open, revealing a bank of switches and softly pulsing lights. His bony fingers played over the switches for a moment, then he looked up.
"Step in real close to me," he said. "There's trouble on the loose tonight and we all got a powerful long way to go."
Jarn pulled Sonja close to him as they both stood near the old man. The guitar was emitting a sound now, like the whirring of a thousand humming bird wings and the sound grew in volume until it eclipsed all of the other night noises. The three figures standing on the steps began to shimmer in a pale blue glow, then they flickered and vanished.
At last, the crickets had the warm summer night all to themselves.
Bio:George Condon has persued several careers including the military and now works in the computer field for major Canadian bank. He lives in Toronto with his wife, a native of Belize in Central America.
Visit Aphelion's Lettercolumn and voice your opinion of this story.
Return to the Aphelion main page.