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All the Parted Pieces of a Heart

It was the motion sickness that woke her—that queasy sense of staring at the walls moving when riding a lift. Foster opened her eyes, expecting to find herself on the ride to the sub-station where they kept suspects for questioning. Instead, a dim featureless room greeted her. It left no impression.

Her system must have malfunctioned and locked her into an internal holding pattern. It had been overheating more and more as the summer turned brutal, the domes on the planet's surface dimmed to keep out the daystar''s unrelenting heat. She reached up to touch the control panel behind her ear and tapped out her personalized reset pattern against the cool glass pad.

No change.

Foster tapped again, and a third time, before the confusion and nauseating sense of movement did her in. She closed her eyes and rubbed her face. When she opened her eyes again, she was face to face with a tall tree. Thin willow branches bent from its peak and trailed on the bottom of the otherwise empty cube. It shifted and jumped like the image in a corrupted file, fading and disintegrating before remaking itself whole again.

The tree that rustled in an unfelt breeze. She took a step back to look it up and down. It was the tree that had grown in her grandmother's backyard on Earth. Foster and her brother had visited it a dozen times as children, the grand old willow host to a hundred whimsical afternoons until their family had moved off-planet. Last Foster had heard, the tree rotted from inside and collapsed.

The tree disappeared and left Foster alone in the holding pattern.

Knowing she was in a holding pattern made sense of the thing, at least. The system had malfunctioned and tucked her consciousness into a nonvolatile spot for safekeeping. Her brain's electrical impulses were still working; she wasn't dead yet. A reboot would likely bring her consciousness and her computer components back into harmony.

If automatic controls weren't going to do it, she would need to do a manual reset. She closed her eyes to pull up the manual input screen. It took a moment, but she recalled the command to force a shutdown.


She tried a second time. She even checked the help prompts to make sure her syntax and flags were correct.


Foster did not try a third time. Instead, she settled onto the ground, as it was, and sat in a meditative pose. She hated meditation, but her therapist insisted on a regime of morning meditation to keep her calm. She needed calm.

What was the last thing she had been doing?

She had checked in for her morning shift. The day before they had finally gotten the court order allowing them to pull surveillance footage from Korina Lang's memories. Foster's plan for the morning had been to prepare Korina for the procedure. It wasn't traumatic, but the young woman had been so rattled by her arrest, so insistent that she had no memory of the day of Alfred Mullins' murder. Foster hadn't wanted Korina to be caught unaware a second time.

On her way to the lift, Foster had received a call on her system. That was her last memory—tapping the control panel to accept the call.

Foster sighed and opened her eyes again. She must have been hit by a telephony overload. Their last system update had introduced a vulnerability to the system; several officers in her precinct had been hit by pranksters. The company had been quick to release a patch, but Foster had been so busy working Korina's case that she hadn't installed it yet. No one had been locked out of their system, as far as Foster knew, but she hadn't been paying attention.

She needed a hacker. She didn't have access to her contacts list, but she knew at least one identifier number well enough to send out an emergency ping. She watched each exclamation point as it popped up on her internal display. Ping received. Ping received. Ping received.

Finally, her display lit up with an incoming call. She accepted it and said, "I need you to reboot my system remotely."

"Hello to you too, Detective Foster," Idris replied with a yawn. "You do know that I'm overnight tech support, right? I'm not on call."

"Jenkins is a moron," she said, tapping her fingers on her knee. That she didn't know Jenkins' number off the top of her head—or even the IT department's—was beside the point. She always called Idris. It was the deal: she wouldn't tell the precinct what she had learned about his off-the-job hacking, and he would help her out when she needed something off the books. "I got hit by a telephony attack this morning, and I can't force a reboot from inside the holding pattern."

Idris yawned again. "Okay, sure. What's your admin password?"

She recited it to him; she would need to visit a tech station to get it changed when this was all said and done. "What's local time?"

"Just after mid-day."

"Be specific."


"Can you see my call records? I'll need to report the incident when I come to."

"Yeah. You took a call at 9:17 this morning. It lasted almost a half hour, and nothing since."

Foster paused. "Half an hour?"

"Yeah," Idris said, drawing out the word. "A telephony overload should only last a few seconds. You don't remember talking to anyone?"

"No. I answered the call, and that was it. I assumed..." She looked about the featureless room her holding pattern had locked into and felt the sickening sense of motion a second time. As though she was moving when she ought to have been holding still. "Idris, I need you to do some legwork for me."

"I'm not a cop, Foster."

"I don't need you to be a cop. Go into the precinct and ask after me. It's still my work day, and people will be asking questions if I'm not there." It was possible she had collapsed, that they had rushed her to the hospital. But something didn't add up. If she had been on a call for a half-hour, and she didn't remember it, a telephony overload was off the table.

"Okay, fine, I can do that. But first..." He hummed, the pitch turning as she could hear him typing on an external keyboard. She had seen his setup in his pod once. The interface devices he used to connect old peripherals to his internal circuitry looked like something out of a horror film, but he insisted that he liked the tactile sense of connection. "That's not your admin password."

"It is."

"Well, something has changed it then. I'm locked out, but I have an idea. Hang tight, I'm going to try something to boot you out the holding pattern. Maybe it'll wake you up without a reboot."

"You know that I have tighter security than the average civilian."

"Sure, but I know a thing or two about breaking through, uh, government-level security protocols."

Foster inhaled a long, slow breath. "Idris. Keep that sort of thing to yourself, please."

"Right. Hang tight."

It was worth a shot. Foster stood up and prepared herself for a change of some sort. Breaking out of a holding pattern was a disorienting experience at the best of times. It was not the best of times.

In most cases, the holding pattern ceased—she should have jolted into consciousness. Instead, the walls seemed to slip away, thinning and dripping until she was no longer in a room at all.

Once again the tree loomed over her. Her grandmother's ranch-style home was a stone's throw away. The Kentucky bluegrass under Foster's bare legs was as sharp and dry as it had been in the height of summer when watering the grass was both fruitless and forbidden. The police officer's uniform she had been wearing a moment previous had been replaced with the uniform of her young summers: shorts and thin tank tops that made the dry heat that much more bearable.

Under the tree with her, Zachary laid on his back and babbled at the weaving branches of the tree. She remembered the snap and rustle of the vines and the whining of rockets from the nearby spaceport, but she hadn't been able to remember her baby brother's voice in decades. His mouth moved but no noise came out.

Until it did. He turned his head to her and said in the wrong voice, "Well? Are you still in the holding pattern?"

She closed her eyes and tightened her mouth, biting on the inside of her lips to keep her composure until she could speak.


"I don't think so," she said. She knew next to nothing about brain-hacking—did Idris hear her voice quiver? Did he see what she saw? "But I'm in my memories now."

"Huh. That's... unusual. Maybe if I—"

"No." She couldn't bear to keep talking to him while his voice came out of Zachary's mouth. "Something obviously isn't right, and I need you to go find out more in the real world. Maybe I can find a way out."

"That's not really how these things work."

"And yet here we are. Let me try to get out from inside while you try to find me from the outside. Report back when you know more."

The pause was long, filled with abortive noises that never became protests. "Fine. I'll do my best."

When Foster opened her eyes, Zachary was silent. When he laughed, his cheer filled his whole face.

The inside of the house was incomplete. The table had been the same her whole childhood, but the couch had changed every few years. She couldn't really remember her grandmother's face, but she remembered the woman's tight bun and bright red lipstick. Her brain had done its best to fill in details, but much of the house looked like someone had thrown water over a painting, details dripping together.

It made the details Foster remembered all the sharper in comparison. Such as the conversation she had overheard, and the grief choking her mother's voice.

"The doctors say they can't do anything more to slow it down. It just keeps growing. He can hardly walk. Trena keeps saying, 'It's okay, I can carry him,' and I don't have the heart to tell her."

"You can't save him," Foster said, but it was a memory, and her warning went unnoticed. At the time, barely thirteen, she had hidden, aware that her brother had been dying slowly for years and terrified to hear that the end had come.

"Anthony says that if I try to take Zachary off the planet, he won't come. He swears he'll file for divorce; he'll sue for custody." Her mother took a deep, shaky breath. "You should've heard the things he said to me, Ma."

"Maybe he's got a small point," her grandmother said. "I know how desperately you both wanted Zachary, but maybe it's time to let him lead the way. You've been all over the country to try different doctors, different therapies—to take him off-planet is madness."

"You don't know that! They say that there are different treatments, that the lower gravity might help—that the regulations are different..." She looked up when Foster had accidentally hiccupped while trying to hold in her despair. "Trena, darlin'?"

Instead of waiting around to replay any more of the conversation—where she would lie to her mother, and her mother would lie to her—Foster left. She walked down the wooden stairs her grandfather had built before he passed away, across the driveway, and out into the country road. On one side corn stalks grew tall and brittle; on the other, construction on a home that Foster had never seen completed.

The logical path was forward, away from the home she could no longer visit and the childhood she had tried to forget. Her mother had booked them passage on a ship going to one of the orbital colonies. They would go from there on a jump ship to Eminus, the first planet colonized by The Collective. Foster closed her eyes and tried to remember the small family pod she had shared with her mother after Zachary's death.

"You're not at work."

She swore in her surprise, then opened her eyes. She was in the Earth spaceport with her brother sitting next to her on the bench. He held her hand tight. "What did they tell you?"

When he looked up at her, he spoke in Idris' voice. "Nothing. That you had taken the afternoon off."

"What's local time?"

"13:15 now."

"It doesn't feel like that much time has passed. I was in a memory of about ten minutes, maybe fifteen." Foster looked down at her brother and ran her fingers through his hair. She remembered how wiry and soft it had been against the pads of her fingers. "Can you see into my memories? Your voice keeps coming through... objects within my memory. I don't know what it looks like to you."

"That's just a quirk of your unconscious; it happens a lot if you hack a dreaming brain, too. It's just a voice call on my end. I've got text access to your system as well. Nothing out of the ordinary, as far as I can tell."

Foster and Zachary had been seated beyond the gate, waiting for their turn to board the ship. On the other side of a glass divider, her mother and stepfather argued loudly. Security agents were involved, and her mother threw a thick folder of papers at Zachary's father—the court orders that gave her permission to take Zachary off the planet for medical treatment.

Foster could still hear her mother's promise, the desperation in her voice. I'm bringing him back, you'll see, and then it'll be okay. Just let me take him, and we'll get to keep our son.

Foster forced herself to look away from the scene. "What good is text access to my system?"

"Well, it would be very useful if you didn't have a location blocker installed. But I can keep an eye on your vitals—they're fine, by the way. High. Wherever your body is, you're pretty active. Which explains why my connection is spotty; you might be moving into areas with bad network access. I was able to load up a program to try to break down some of this security. It's slow, and there have been a lot more failures than successes."

"Let it run." Foster tried to focus on anything other than the fracturing of her family. "I'm still not sure what this is, or why I'm stuck here. I'm wondering if it might be related to the case I'm working."

"What is it?"

"A murder. Can you..." She paused and considered her options. Idris would have avenues of information that she couldn't access. It wasn't ethical to ask him, but the other option was to keep living out her hardest memories. "Look into Korina Lang for me. Unofficially. See if she has any connections who might want to start taking out cops working her case."

"Shit, Foster. Don't you think you should call in other cops for that?"

"It'll take days. There'll be tons of paperwork, and I'll be stuck here." She looked over to her parents again. "I can't stay here, Idris."

"Okay. I'll do my best. Just keep calm."

Her stepfather came barreling through the gate, two security officers flanking him as he swept Zachary up in his arms. In hindsight, Foster could see that he knew it was the last time he would hold his son. At the time, his ferocity and naked grief had been terrifying.

"I love you, boy," Anthony said. His voice was hoarse from emotion or from yelling at Foster's mother, or perhaps both. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I love you."

She remembered what Zachary had said, even though she couldn't hear him: "I love you too, Daddy. I'm sorry you can't come, but Mommy says we won't be gone for long."

The guards were kind to let Anthony sit with them while they waited to board—Zachary had talked at length about how excited he was to go to space. "I'm going to be a colonist now. I want to be a space farmer someday!"

When the time came to board, their mother took Zachary gently from his father's arms and carried him through the boarding tube. Trailing behind them, Foster had looked back to see her stepfather break down in his seat.

"So, there's not a lot to Korina Lang," Idris said, his voice cutting into the memory so suddenly that Foster jumped. "But I did catch something interesting about Mullins. Are you investigating another murder?"

"No." Foster took her seat in the spaceship, on the opposite end of the row from Zachary. He had been eager to sit by the windows and watch them leave the Earth behind. "Why?"

"There's a piece in this little niche intranetwork hospital newsletter, mourning their second staff loss this month. Apparently, Mullins did his residency in medical bio-system maintenance at St. Clement's Home, and—"

"St. Clement's here in New Perth?"

"Yeah. Have you heard of it?"

Her brother received the last of his care at St. Clement's—first in a desperate attempt to save his life, until the doctor in charge of Zachary's case had finally convinced their mother to switch Zachary to palliative care. "Yes. When was Mullins there?"

"Um... Wow, forever ago."

"Be specific, Idris."

"He, um, one second... He left twenty-three years ago."

As Foster saw it, there were two likely scenarios.

The first was that Mullins was murdered, and the lead detective on his case was targeted before she could access the records that might prove that Korina had been hijacked by the real killer.

But that didn't feel right. Mullins had worked at St. Clement's and left a year after her brother died. Her subconscious was dragging her through memories of her brother. It couldn't be a coincidence.

"You said this was their second loss?"

"Yeah. It was a throwaway line at the beginning: 'A service is planned for this Sunday to respect the life of Alfred Mullins, who many of us still remember fondly. Also murdered...' It was that 'also' that got me."

"Follow that thread. Get me information on the other victim."

"Are you having any luck finding the partition barrier in there? It may not be a literal wall. I once read a whole book on the various manifestations of computer concepts in visual memory, and—"

"I'm making progress." In her memory, Foster had reached over her mother to take Zachary's hand while the ship prepared for launch.

Foster reached for a memory of St. Clement's—she closed her eyes and tried to visualize the room where her brother had spent the last five months of his life. The bed had been at the far side, with monitors built into the wall behind it. The nurses used to pull curtains over the displays to keep the light from bothering sleeping children, and the readouts from bothering their parents.

Many of the nurses had been nuns, their differences only notable in the quiet signs of their faith—the murmured prayers in the hallway, or the small crosses at their necks tucked under their scrubs. In terms of a place where children died, St. Clement's had been a better choice than their local hospital back on Earth. It had been quieter, more efficient, and kinder. There had been fewer children on the planet back then.

Their mother had rented a one-person pod when they arrived on the planet, and they had taken turns sleeping either at the hospital's fold-out loveseat bed or the pod. Until the end. In the final weeks, Foster visited between classes and homework; her mother had stayed overnight.

Foster opened her eyes, first focusing on the wall across from her. She had no recollection of the color of the walls but remembered how shiny the new curtain rods had been. When Zachary slept, Foster spent most of her time staring at her hands. Her dark nail polish had been smudged and chipped.

The doctor stood out in the hallway with her mother, his hand on her shoulder as they spoke. The doctors at St. Clement's had always been careful not to let the children overhear them.

Zachary had gone deathly thin in that last month. In the final days, he stopped waking up at all. Foster had never been sure if she should have been committing his face to memory, or if it would be a crime against the brother she had known to etch such a sick child into her heart.

"The other victim is a doctor. He was still working at St. Clement's when he died."

"Goddamn it!"

"Are you okay? What can I do?"

Idris' concern made her feel worse for recoiling, her whole body reeling when her brother suddenly moved to speak. In life, it had been days before his death. He could hardly breathe, let alone wake up or speak.

Foster steadied herself. "Your voice keeps coming in through my dead brother."

"Like, after he died? Zombie-like?"

"No. Barely." She turned her back on her brother, as much as it hurt. Even after so long, she regretted not being brave enough to stay at his bedside. "What's the connection?"

"The first victim was Dr. Dinh Phan. He was a—"

"Doctor at St. Clement's." She turned to look at her mother and the doctor in the hallway. Dr. Phan had been an aging man then, short and stocky with dark grey hair clipped close to his head.

"So, your dead brother..." Idris hummed under his breath.

Foster couldn't bear to turn and see Zachary in the bed. Her whole body shook, and clenched her eyes shut to block out the memory. It shouldn't have hurt anymore. It was a distant thing that she had gone years without thinking about. Perhaps that was worse. Distance didn't indicate healing, didn't erase the teenager girl in her who wondered what her family would have looked like if half of it hadn't been so ruthlessly cut away.

"Was your brother at St. Clement's at the same time as Dr. Phan and Mullins?"

"Yes," she said, breathless. "He died the year before Mullins quit."

There was a long silence. "Is there something I can do for you? Maybe I can try to, like, force you out of the memory. You don't sound good."

"I'm fine." The lie didn't work, not when she sounded so much like a wounded animal. She took a steadying breath. "I will be fine. I can handle this. Earlier, you said that the partition might not look like a wall?"

Idris sounded as relieved at the change of topic as she was to offer it. "Everyone experiences computer concepts differently. Their brains try to pull from the familiar as they navigate the unfamiliar bio-system software. People familiar with the architecture, like coders—"

"Or hackers?"

"Yes, or hackers, we tend to see pretty direct metaphors. I think of a partition as a pretty high wall, but I've got a buddy who sees them as deep ravines. Something difficult to get through, but possible if you have the right tools."

"Laymen aren't quite so lucky?"

"It just depends. One guy experienced his system as his childhood home. The partition barrier was the door to his parents' bedroom because he had never been allowed in as a kid. That's wild. How are you experiencing it?"

"I've just been following memories of my brother. There's nothing synonymous to the bio-system that I'm seeing in the pattern."

"Try to think of something that you can't pass. Maybe a place you couldn't go, or a memory you can't quite revisit. I'll try to figure out more about that phone call you received." After a brief pause, he added, "I can't imagine anything harder than the memory of dying brother."

Foster exhaled. "I can."

Foster had just started work with the police force when her mother finally died.

In her lucid moments, Foster's mother had been proud. She kept pictures tacked to her wall, both from when Foster had been young and from when she had graduated: first her general school, then her specialized school, and finally her competency classes to gain admittance into the police force. There had also been pictures of Zachary and Anthony, and a single creased photograph of one of the few times that their family had been whole and happy.

When the dementia was bad, she would grip Foster tight and cry. "Take care of your brother when I'm gone. Don't let him be lonely. Don't let him miss me. Tell him I'm sorry. Tell him I was wrong." Toward the end, it was all she said if she spoke at all. I was wrong echoed perfectly in Foster's head.

Foster had never been able to look into her mother's casket, even after the scant few other mourners had paid their respects and left. Bless the staff, they let her sit in the chapel without saying a word. If they noticed that she never stood to look, they kept it to themselves.

Eventually, Marilee Foster had been taken to cremation and Foster went home with a small box of her mother's effects. The pictures on the wall, the few books she had kept, and a small black file dropbox. Foster had connected the dropbox to her network to wipe the files but had never had the heart to erase the last data her mother held dear enough to store.

"You know, there was a third victim. A nurse."

She looked over to a seat that should have been empty and instead faced her brother. He was older than he should have been. "This isn't part of my memory."

"The brain is a strange place. It doesn't always process logically."

"I suppose." Foster looked him over. She must have imagined him that way dozens of times: gangly still, not strong, but alive and growing. Perhaps her mind was filling in what she could no longer have. "You said the victim was a nurse. Did she also work at St. Clement's?"

"No. She was in charge of Marilee Foster's hospice care."

Foster pressed her hand to her chest, feeling for the beat of her heart, the rise and fall of her chest. Locked inside her own head, she had neither. "Why? It's too many to be a coincidence."

"Perhaps someone feels your family has wronged them."

"But our family did nothing. Until Zachary died, we were devoted to his care. After he died, my mother stopped living. She tried, but she was a shell." Foster looked toward the casket, the lid open and her mother just out of sight. She could have no memory of what her mother would look like inside of it. If that was the place where she had never been able to go, what would she see when she looked inside?

"Foster, there's a problem."

She looked up to a nearby attendant as she arranged flowers around the casket. The woman had spoken in Idris' voice. "Idris? But you're—" She looked at her brother, who smiled, the wide expression foreign and sinister as it stretched his face.

"You didn't receive a standard call this morning. I mean, you did, but it's not from another bio-system; it's a file server."

Zachary said, "I wanted to see you, one last time."

Foster's chest tightened, except she couldn't feel her chest. There was no sense of air around her—and no sense of air within her.

"So I started tracking that. I figure if I can suss out the network address, then I—"

"Quicker, Idris." She stood, unable to look away from Zachary. Goosebumps covered her flesh as she carefully backed away from him.

Zachary shook his head. "Don't look, Foster. You're not strong enough."

Idris broke in: "The signal starts in your home. I looked up the address, and it connects to the network from your location. Foster?"

She tripped over her own feet, desperate to leave, to find her breath. The casket seemed a hundred miles away and growing farther, but she pushed. She grasped the warm wood and looked into the casket.

The next moment, she was underwater—she flailed and gripped the edges of her tub, hauling herself up to break the surface of the water. She gasped and sputtered. She inhaled deep and gagged on water filling her lungs.

His voice was still in her head. She said you were going to take care of me because she couldn't anymore. I told her I didn't need anyone.

Gooseflesh prickled her arms as she realized that she wasn't alone. In the corner of her heads-up display, Foster could see the timestamp for the connected call; the open connection had been ticking away for hours. Water rattled in her chest as she exhaled and inhaled. Her heart beat a mad tempo. She shook with the joy of knowing she was present in her own body, even if she wasn't the only one in her head.

"That was clever. None of the others figured out that they were partitioned. Most of them waited patiently in holding."

She twitched at his voice in her head, a voice she had so long ago forgotten that it could have belonged to anyone. Had Zachary always sounded so young and nasally? "Why are you impersonating my brother?"

"Don't play dumb, Trena. You don't really believe that."

"But my brother died a long time ago." She tried to trace the call, only to find it blocked. How had Idris known the signal originated from her home? "My brother was a sweet boy. He cried for days when our canary died. You couldn't be him."

"Reality disappoints all of us, doesn't it? If anyone had asked me, this isn't what I would have chosen."

A ping drew Foster deeper into her system, a simple text message in the corner of her display. Are you back? I lost your signal.

Foster exhaled suddenly, quick to send a message back: I'm in control. Dead brother is communicating with me.

Dead brother?


He can't be your dead brother. He's lying.

The connection to Zachary was still live, even though he had gone silent. Foster watched the seconds tick by, gripping the sides of her tub for the certainty of knowing she was alive. "How?" she said, finally. "Where are you?"

"Here, of course. With you. I'm not exactly alive. Though I've recently found a bit of a loophole."

She thought about her mother's small file dropbox. That litany, that final plea. She felt the rush of blood as her heart beat faster, and tears pricked her eyes. "Oh, sweet boy. Tell me they didn't try to save you."

"Momma begged and pleaded with an intern doing system work in the hospital."

She pulled up her text messages again. My mother had Mullins crack my brother's consciousness and put it on a dropbox.

Bullshit. It's never worked.

Foster climbed carefully from the tub, water sloshing over the edge and dripping from her soaked clothes as she rushed to her hall closet.

"Have you been lonely?" she asked, her voice unsteady. She stood on tiptoes to yank the blankets and boxes from the top shelf. The box of her mother's things was buried in the back, hardly larger than a shoebox. "Momma never told me."

"Momma only ever told her nurse, when her mind began to fail. Do you know what the nurse told her?"


"That it was dementia. Over and over, until eventually Momma believed her."

Foster? I'm coming over.

Don't. I'm destroying the dropbox.

"I'm so sorry, Zachary." The picture of their family sat atop the dropbox. They smiled back at her from so long ago that it might as well have been a dream.

"I don't want your sympathy. Pity is useless to me now."

"What do you want?" She took the dropbox into her kitchen, touching it as little as possible while she held it. It seemed wrong, that something so small contained the whole that had once been her brother.

"Justice. Clearly, that's run in the family. If the doctor had been able to save me. If Mullins had denied Momma's pleas to save my mind. If the nurse hadn't convinced my mother that I wasn't real." He paused. "Though I have to admit that it was nice to control a body again. I had conversations with real people, face to face. It had been so long." He laughed.

For a moment Foster's heart softened. How had she forgotten the sound of his laugh?

"How did you learn to control people?" She thought about that motion sickness; her stomach reeled to imagine her body in locomotion while her mind had been trapped away.

"Practice. It's all electrical, you know. Just ones and zeros, once we put the computers in there; doesn't matter if the consciousness running the show is a ghost."

Foster steadied the dropbox on the counter and retrieved the hammer from her junk drawer. Her hands shook as she readied it. He shouldn't have had to go mad alone. He shouldn't have had to die a second time. She shouldn't have had to do it. "Why did you want to kill me?"

"You lived."

She clenched her eyes shut and slammed the hammer down, again and again. The plastic chassis snapped under the force. The chips and boards cracked into pieces and scattered across the counter, dropping to the floor and skittering past her feet. When she finally set the hammer aside, the sound of her labored sobs seemed to fill the whole room.

"Did you think I'd stay in a dropbox after you connected me to the network?"

Her knees gave way, and she hunched, finally unable to contain the grief and horror that knotted in her stomach. Her breath caught in her chest each time she tried to find a mooring in the real world.

She managed to send a message to Idris. He's online. I can't stop him.

Shit. There was a long pause, and then another message: But maybe I can.


If we can get him contained maybe I can lock him in? I don't know. With enough encryption, maybe... Draw him in. I'll try to lock him down.

She sat up, wiping tears from her cheeks. "Zachary, what if we compromise?"

His laugh was not so innocent, despite its childish lilt. "You tried to destroy me, Trena."

"You tried to drown me. Siblings squabble."

"And how to you suppose we compromise from here?"

She licked her lips. "Let's meet on neutral terms, face to face. Because as an officer, I can't have you killing more people. Not even me." She touched the system button behind her ear that shut down her vision and put her deep into system space. It was bland at first, unformed until she constructed their grandmother's backyard.

A gentle breeze lifted the trailing edges of the willow trees. After a moment, Zachary appeared from within the canopy of the willow, the older version of himself that he had projected into her memory of their mother's funeral.

"Is this how you imagine you would have looked as a teenager?"

He shrugged. "I didn't want to look like a child anymore when I talked to people online."

"Have you been talking to a lot of people online?"

"After Mom stopped talking to me, yeah."

Her heart ached every time she imagined the decades her mother spent clinging to her dead son, alone both with her secret and her pain. "I can't have you running around the network. You're... unique. An anomaly. So, since I know you can control a body, why not have mine?"

I'm trying to convince him to use my body.

Draw him into a partition.

"Partition me off. You did it once."

He tilted his head, then paced the circle of the tree. When he had made the full round, he came up close to her. "I don't believe you."

"If you kill me, it's lights out. But if you control my body and lock me in a partition, we both win. I won't have to die, and you'll have a body. I'll be able to understand what you've gone through. It's a good compromise."

At the distance he stood, she should have felt his breath on her face, should have smelled the familiar scent of sunscreen and sweat that had made up their summers. But inside her system, there was nothing at all.

"Show me my funeral. I want to lock you in the worst possible place."

She closed her eyes to remember it. It had been attended mostly by the nurses who cared for Zachary in his final months, each of them talking about how gentle and kind a boy he had been. His casket had been far too big for him; in a box for an adult, he hardly filled half of it.

Within the memory, she left his casket closed. It had been open at the time.

How much longer?

I don't know. He's building the partition around you both. Keep him distracted so he won't notice me.

Zachary stood walked the aisles, his attention on the mourners in attendance. "Did they really cry this much?"

"You were seven. It was an unbearable tragedy to lose you."

"You seem to have borne it." He stood in front of their mother, where she sat in the front row with her face buried in her hands. She had cried for hours, for days. Their mother had hardly been able to speak during the funeral. "What was she so sad for? She always used to tell me that I had been saved."

"She still couldn't hold you. She mourned the loss of your heartbeat, the air in your lungs, the bones that never grew."

Foster, I don't think I can do this. He's just—it's not what I expected. I don't think I can lock it up without trapping you both. You need to look for an exit.

Foster searched the room until she saw the exit at the back. The double doors were open with no scene beyond them. Looking over her shoulder, she walked toward them while Zachary stood over their mother.

"But I didn't go. She spoke to me. Why would she cry? Trena!"

She skidded to a sudden stop as the doors slammed shut. Turning, she found Zachary glowering at the other end of the aisle.

Foster! Get out!

"I thought we were compromising, Trena." He stalked toward her, his shoulders set and his fists balled.

Looking to her brother and his casket beyond, Foster made a choice: I can't. Force my system into emergency sleep mode and disconnect us from the network.

No! That's not an acceptable solution.

It's the only solution.

Foster walked toward Zachary, her hands out in a placating gesture. Her real focus was on the casket. It needed to be open, and it was her memory. She only had to make it so.

"I was just exploring," she said as they reached each other. She set her hands flat against his chest. In his anger, he seemed to have inflated, broader than before and looming like the angry specter he was. But in her memory, in her space, he should have been small. He was just a child. With her hands on him, she said, "You shouldn't have gone through this, Zachary."

It was a space between seconds he became the child she remembered. Foster lifted him in her arms despite his sudden protests. "You can't make me small!"

"I'm not making you small. You are. Just because you dreamt yourself big doesn't make it true." She held him tight to her chest, containing his flailing limbs, and took him to the casket. In a text to Idris and aloud to her brother, Foster said, "You shouldn't have to be alone, Zachary. It was cruel of Momma to think this was a life."

Zachary screamed, shrill and afraid as she climbed into the casket with him cocooned against her chest.

The casket had been much too big for him then, but the place she made for them together was just right. She shushed him softly and stroked the thin curls of his hair. She had to close her eyes to ignore the casket around them. She trembled.

Wake me up when you can come up with a better solution.

To her brother, in the most soothing voice she could muster, Foster said, "Don't be scared. I'll be right here with you."

About the Author
Ashley M. Hill is a Kansas transplant who divides her days between work, family, and fiction. She found her voice when her interest in technology coupled with her love of writing. She collects old computer parts in the back of her closet—in fact, she's never met a computer she didn't want to fix. You can follow her tweets at @CleverlyTitled.