The door hissed shut behind me and I dropped my bags and flexed my fingers. I was on the fourth floor and the lift wasn’t working, something about a safety inspection. So I had used the stairs. After nearly two days sitting around in space, my legs were trembling with the effort and I wheezed like an eighty-year-old with asthma. I was hot from the effort and the sweat dripped off my nose. I wiped my forehead with my palm, leaving a damp patch on my trouser leg where my hand rested. The ventilator was making a noise not unlike a cement mixer, filling the room with freezing cold air and making the dust sparkle in the harsh lighting. The cold air cooled my sweat-soaked shirt and made me shiver.
A typical cheap hotel room lay before me; with its familiar layout and standard colour scheme it could have been anywhere. The carpet was worn and threadbare and looking down I could see that it didn’t quite reach into one corner. These hotel rooms were mass produced with the furniture installed and shipped in packs; you only had to bolt them together around a metal frame and seal the edges. All the services were pre-installed; after plugging in the electricity and water they were ready to go. At least that meant that I knew where the thermostat was. I reached across and dialled it to minimum. The noise decreased.
Hotels like these were mainly used by manual workers on short term contracts, who were always so tired that they didn’t care where they stopped as long as it had a bed and a supply of beer. I was here because it was cheap and anonymous. And I wanted to stretch my budget.
The furniture was all made of fibreboard; the shiny surface layer that was supposed to look like wood but didn’t was chipped at the edges. The bed at least was inviting, although that may have been due to the fact that I hadn’t slept for thirty-six hours. I should have been here yesterday, but a magnetic storm had made us waste a day in high orbit.
We had spent the time strapped into the hard seats on a shuttle; the liner had departed, taking with it the relative comforts of deep space travel. Normally you spent a maximum of a couple of hours in a shuttle; they had the oxygen for much longer, of course, regulations demanded it, but regulations didn’t say anything about comfort. And on a personal level I had a thing about vacuum. The liner was built to disguise it but the shuttle was less able to hide the fact that I was only a couple of sheets of metal away from a whole lot of nothing.
With a sinking feeling I realised that I could have been in any of the cheap hotels I had ever stopped in. And I’ve stopped in a few recently. In fact my life had been on a downward spiral for a while; work and money had dried up and I was scratching a living on jobs that an intern could handle. Trouble was, the interns were getting the better jobs and I was left in places like this.
There was a short narrow corridor from the doorway, with the bathroom on the right-hand side. This led into the main part of the room. Straight ahead was a large picture window, with stained curtains covering the view. A desk, a chair and the end of the bed were the only visible furnishings. I couldn’t see it from here, but I knew that there was a closet against the bathroom wall.
I caught my reflection in the chipped mirror. Not glass – it would never survive in a place like this – but unbreakable polymer. It had warped a little; I looked back at myself with a strangely hunched body, wearing worn and crumpled clothes and with unruly hair just a touch longer than fashionable. My excuse was that it was my reaction to the prison haircut. Below it was a distorted face, with two days’ stubble and the slightly perplexed expression of someone who was having trouble coming to terms with a fall from grace. Unfortunately, the expression wasn’t due to the warped mirror, but a fact of my recent life. My fall had been two years ago but it still felt like yesterday.
I needed to get in touch with my contact; he must have been wondering where I had got to. I’d sent him a text message from orbit to say that I would be late, but of course I hadn’t known how long I would be. I checked my phone again; he hadn’t replied. I hoped he hadn’t changed his mind – I was on a fixed fee, so the quicker I got finished and left, the better. At least I had my return ticket, so I could always get off of this rock.
But first, I needed a drink. Not necessarily alcoholic, just as long as it was wet it would do the job. The shuttles have toilets but it’s a performance in low gravity and with fourteen on board the shuttle it had soon become unpleasant so I had tried to avoid the need as much as possible. And now I was thirsty. In these rooms there was usually a fridge in the corner between the desk and the window, stocked with refreshments. The fridge was there all right but somewhat predictably it was empty. I sighed; the contents had probably already been added to my bill. A glass of water from the bathroom would have to do.
My breathing had just about returned to normal as I waved my hand over the sensor to open the bathroom door. The light turned green and the door started to slide. There must have been something jamming the trackway, as it only opened an inch or so, then stopped and slid shut with a thump. Strange. I tried it again.
This time it went a little further and I could see a mirror in front of me. I tried to put my head into the gap but the door didn’t open far enough for the light to switch itself on. I couldn’t see what was stopping it. It slid shut again as I ducked back out of the way.
There was not enough room for me to get in and anyway I didn’t fancy getting stuck in there so I called the desk on the internal phone. In an emergency I’m handy enough with the technology, and I knew that all the electronics were in a panel by the door. But I would probably need a special passkey to get in without causing any damage. Not only that, my bill might suffer. It wasn’t an emergency so it was easier to call.
The bored voice of the desk clerk that I had met on the way in told me that someone would be along; this wasn’t the sort of place that had a man poised to cater for the guests’ whims so I would have to wait. I put the phone down and started to unpack, first placing my valuables in the safe under the desk.
I shut the door and set the lock to my thumbprint. Then I unzipped my bag and opened the closet door. At least this one opened, and I saw that the previous occupant had left a jacket in there. It was a classy piece of cloth, by a designer that I used to know socially, and looked about my size. I had owned clothing like this before, but in my present circumstances I could never have afforded one like it. After about a second, I decided that it was coming with me. If I gave it in at the desk, whoever was on duty would probably keep it, so the owner would never see it again either way. My luck might be changing. I hung my stuff in front of it, hiding it behind my cheap copies.
I had a wait, so I thought that I’d just lie down for a moment on the bed. I rolled onto the thin, lumpy mattress and was almost instantly asleep.
I was back on my yacht, a forty-foot ceramic hulled cruiser called True Story. We were anchored off one of the Jigsaw Islands on Centra; it was a warm, cloudless day, the sun shining on a calm sea and there was laughter and wine and happiness with a crowd of people. The barbeque was producing steaks and prawns and there was a trestle table on the poop groaning with good food, served by a white-clad steward. People were jumping into the water and swimming around the hull, having a good time at my expense. But I didn’t care because I knew they were my friends.
I looked over to the stern platform and saw Gaynor climb back on board. She was as sleek as an otter, her long hair, orange this week, plastered to her face and shoulders. As she walked towards me she dripped liquid diamonds on the hardwood deck. She came and put her arm round my waist and I felt the heat beneath the damp as our hips touched. “Come on, Miles,” she whispered in my ear. “Let’s get rid of this lot.”
The scene dissolved and I was answering a knock at my door, back at my apartment. I opened it to the grim faces and uniforms saying, “Mr Goram, will you come with us.” It was raining and a small crowd watched as I was led, handcuffed, into the police car. I could hear the excited whispers as the cameras were waved in my face, flashes blinding me.
Next I heard the words, “Guilty as charged; I sentence you to five years’ imprisonment.” They echoed around the empty courtroom, just me and the prosecutor and the guards.
“It’s a set-up!” I screamed.
“Take him away,” said the prosecutor.
Then the bare metal of the cell door slammed shut behind me and I pounded on it.
The door buzzer woke me with a jolt. Looking at my watch I saw that I had been asleep for almost an hour. “Coming,” I called, thinking it must be the repair man. I was feeling a bit disorientated from the dream so I didn’t look through the spyhole, I just pushed the lock release by the door and stood back.
The door slid open and there were two of them, in crumpled looking suits and wearing worn expressions. I could tell straight away that they weren’t repair men.
“Who are you?” the taller one said, waving an official-looking card at me. His gaze travelled over my shoulder, taking it all in. I had déjà-vu; this was just like it had been in my dream, and before that in my reality.
“I could ask you the same,” I replied, suddenly very awake.
“We’re the police,” said the second man, shorter and more rotund, with dark hair and a beard, “Detectives Flanagan and Chumna. We got a tip-off.”
I had a sinking feeling. “I didn’t call you, I called the desk – I can’t get the bathroom door open.”
They came into the room as I backed down the corridor; the one called Flanagan took a small multi-driver from his inside pocket and levered open the control panel for the room electronics. He fiddled around for a while, and the bathroom door started to slide open. When it reached the obstruction, it didn’t shut; it stopped with a six-inch gap.
The motor kept whirring as the two detectives put latex gloves on and held the edge of the door. They both pulled, grunting with the effort. Whatever was in there wasn’t giving up easily. Slowly the door slid open until Chumna was able to squeeze through the gap. He disappeared. There was a dragging sound and the door opened fully.
The light came on, just as he called out, “Barry, get in here.”
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