Chapter 4

Li’s fingers moved with practiced precision across the virtual keyboard. “Specimin B” had offered nothing of value. She’d run probes to locate nexus points in his life attempting to find the defining moments that she could classify the rest of his memory by. She remembered being taught the tricks of speed reading as a child: find the major headings, do a broad-brush breakdown and dig into the text only when more details were needed. Speed-reading a man’s life was no different. So far she’d ascertained that “Specimin B” had a name – Vincent – but his life seemed to be an unending cycle of work, eat, drink and occasionally (_very_ occasionally) get lucky enough to have sex. His life divided neatly between a “before” and an “after” though. She glanced at his prone figure, noting the plain black gloves he wore, and that his life divided between “before” the gloves and “after”. A time “before” he began wearing them all the time and “after” when he wore them everywaking moment. She made a notation in the file “born – [work, eat, shag] – die”. She shut him down, too bored with his life to really dig into the singular event that divided his “before” from his “after”. The processor load graph only rose by 2% as spare cycles were returned to the mainframe. Cables retracted from the inert body. She turned her attention to the more interesting specimin.

“James McMannus, what secrets are you hiding?” she asked.

She didnt expect a reply, in fact, a reply would have been exceptionally bad. An answer would signal James breaking out of the Virtual Environment, contaminating her results. There could be no “catch and release” if he woke up.

She paged through the computer rendering, a timeline with the major events of Jame’s life marked on it. His early years grouped easily under a heading of “poverty”: his father was a tough working class man who avoided working on the docks by taking an apprenticeship as a butcher. His family subsisted on the small amount of money he didnt spend on drink. James lost his mother at age six after she’d received a particularly bad beating from his father. He lost his father a week later when the local Constable arrested him for her murder. As an only child without parents he was consigned to the workhouse.

Li scrolled forward, watching his life unfold, then paged back looking for the driving forces in his life. One event definied him. James had fallen in love with a woman far above his station, they had married. It seemed like his wife brought many intangible benefits that he’d never imagined: they had received a letter from the housing association telling them that their application for residence had been approved, and James finally had been able to move out of the docks into an up-scale apartment. Then had come the promotion, out of the blue, moving him up to the rank of _detective_, ostensibly on the grounds of being the provider for his new family. He knew better, inside he was still blue-collar, the son of a butcher no matter what social trappings he was dressed with.

Li paused, a detective? That could pose a problem. His deductive reasoning together with the memory-mapped segment of the VR might align and break him out of the dream-world. She sighed and made a note to be dilligent as she ran tests.

“James, James. What are we going to do with you?” Li sat back from the console and stretched, working an ache out of her shoulders and upper back. It was slow going. She was losing the thread of where she was going with the investigation and data mining. She needed _something_ to grab hold of her attention and re-focus her mind.

She pressed a single button on the console and spoke one last time, “OK James. Remember… take me somewhere. I dont care where…”

James woke to the sound of someone in the kitchen. Sarah! He sat up and rubbed sleep out of his eyes. A sudden crash pulled him fully alert and he danced out of bed and through to the small kitchen area. Where he’d expected to see Sarah’s long blond hair, her bright smile and green eyes there was nothing but piled-high dirty dishes. A small black cat was trying to look innocent as it licked fragments of fish from its whiskers, sitting on the countertop. On the floor below the countertop were the remains of a dish he’d used 2 days ago. “Tuna casserole” he remembered. He shooed at the cat and picked up the pieces. He piled them in a saucepan that looked about a week old, something green and furry at the bottom. He still expected to walk into a room and find Sarah.

He turned and walked back to the bedroom and threw himself onto the bed again.

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