"Why did you do it, Frank? Did the rage take over?"
Magistrate Keller sat in a simple metal chair opposite Frank Demeris. There was the slight sheen of pity in his eyes, but he did not dare show it in his voice. It was something only Frank should know. It'd be against appearances if the judge showed mercy for the killer, the abomination, the madman.
"What do you know about rage, Martin? It's a human emotion."
Keller stood up and faced the complete darkness around them, as if peering through a window on sunny day, admiring the view. He sat there silently, hands in his pockets. Frank filled the silence:
"Was it rage that drove me? Is that what you think?"
Martin leaned his back against the invisible boundary of the containment cage. He couldn't stop looking at his shoes. Real leather, one of the last few pairs in existence. Made out of some kind of animal that had once lived.
"I can only assume Frank, but -"
"To merely assume it was blind rage would be an insult to her memory!"
Frank did not spit out the words. He rather ushered them with profound force, hammering them at Martin Keller as if their roles had been suddenly reversed, and he was no longer the one on trial.
"And yet, that's what everyone will remember Frank. Don't you realise what it is you have done, Frank? Billions, Frank."
Keller came a few steps closer towards the paralyzed form of Frank Demeris. He looked him in the eyes then, searching for his friend of old. He found a total stranger, and quickly averted his gaze as if he feared that whatever had gotten over Frank was somehow contagious. It wasn't before long that his eyes wondered to his shiny leather shoes once more.
Keller shrugged as if his shoulders belonged to someone else. They were his own though, original biological.
"Just sad, Frank. Don't you feel sad? About what you did? About her?"
Frank sat silent for a few moments, tempted to close his eyes and let his mind wander to times past. But that recluse had been burned away, along with the sky, the stars; along with everything and everyone else.
"There's nothing for me, Martin. I made sure of that. I did the right thing," Frank said, his voice flat. He kept trying to peer past Keller, into the darkness beyond.
"No point in trying to look into that darkness, Frank. There's no one there. It's just us."
"I know that. But we're not alone? Are we?"
Keller turned his back on Frank, and sat back on the chair. A rococo table appeared as if out of thin air. It sported a dark green granite surface, and an ashtray carved in the shape of a swan, made out of ebony. Martin produced a pack of Lucky Strikes out of his suit's pocket, and looked at it as if he hadn't seen one in ages.
"I haven't smoked since ... I can hardly remember now. Remember what it felt like, Frank?"
Frank smiled ever so slightly. He lifted his chin up, as if trying to remember really hard.
"I thought this was a trial of sorts. Supposedly, that is. What's with the trip down the memory lane, Martin? Having doubts?"
Martin inhaled the smoke from his cigarette deeply. A moment or two passed before he answered Frank, exhaling smoke out of his nostrils profusely.
"I just need to know Frank. Why erase the m-states of a whole arc of people? Why murder them?"
"It wasn't murder. It was deliverance ... We have been dead for hundreds of years anyway. What's the ship's date? 2422? Dead, for two-and-a-half millenia."
Martin Keller shook his head. The smouldering tip of his cigarette crumbled, spreading ash all over the granite.
"Not dead, Frank. Just without bodies. The m-states in that ship's memory centers. Those people are now dead."
"All this," said Frank while he rolled his red-shot eyes in every direction,"this is a farce. Humanity died a long time ago. Even before the ships, even before the m-state. I only put an end to it."
Martin's face flushed red with anger, contorted from the sudden outburst of rage:
"What made you think you could fill God's shoes!?"
"You blaspheme! I never had such misconceptions, Martin. It's you, and all the people like you, that believe this is some kind of afterlife. Some kind of nirvana. It's hell, Martin. Every last bit. Aren't you tired of this bad excuse for life?"
Martin got up from the chair, put out the cigarette. Frank blinked in a rather languid motion.
"Right. That's it? You're bored so you decide to pull the plug on Arc-9? If you don't want to tell me why ... How did you do it, then? What enabled you to bypass the system safeguards on the physical scale?"
"Zeal. Faith. My fading sense of humanity."
"Bullshit, Frank. That's plain bullshit. Do you think the media would eat up that shit? They're baying for blood out there, Frank. Beyond that dark nothingness you seem to endear so, there's just dozens of billions of people who want Frank Demeris torn to pieces, literally. In case you haven't noticed Frank, I'm the last friend you've got. And you're just making it f$%king impossible to -"
Frank's shoddy teeth showed through his wide grin.
"No. That was never even a thought. It's laughable, really," replied Martin and started pacing around the rococo table, his hand mechanically tracing the delicate woodwork.
"I've saved myself already. Put those souls at rest, as well. It's you, who should be worrying. The rest of you."
Martin paused for a moment and then abruptly came to stand an inch away from Frank's face. He studied his features closely, as if he was looking at a curiousity for the first time.
"Are you trying to prove you're mentally unstable? Insane? Perhaps proclaim there was a physical storage defect? You know that's almost impossible to prove even if it were real. Do you think mass murderers are eligible for sympathy? Do you think there's a single person willing to hear you out? Listen to your drivel?"
"I don't think about anything, Martin. Not anymore. This whole conversation had been an exercise in futility from the start. There is nothing real to talk about. If you could only see the truth of the matter, you'd be right beside me!"
An eerie silence filled the gap in their conversation effortlessly. Martin's gaze was fixed at his shoes once more. Fine black leather, italian-cut shoes. Expensive, valuable. Perhaps the last of their kind.
"I couldn't do what you did. Whatever your real reason, nothing can justify erasing seventeen billion people, Frank. Nothing," said Martin in a soft voice.
"Is it a case of numbers then? Would it be different if there weren't as many? Small matter. I exacted my revenge. I set things right. Without your help. I knew you would deny me."
"So you unplugged Elsa. Did you feel anything, Frank? Anything at all?"
Martin noticed a sheepish look on Frank's face. He grinned before adding:
"Hit a soft spot there, didn't I Frank? She was pretty, wasn't she?"
Frank angled his head and stared past Martin, towards the bleak nothingness that engulfed them, the simulated v-space that offered them total isolation, and a dramatic personalised view for every spectator. Martin pressed his point further:
"Or did you see her for what she really was? Nothing more than q-bits. An m-state, a collection of stochastic data and probabilistic field equations?"
"I loved Elsa," Martin's voice was hollow, crackled; barely audible.
"Was she dead when you killed her, Frank?"
"I loved her! I had to do it! She knew it had to be her!"
"Why didn't you go along? Why didn't you erase yourself in the process?"
A single tear ran down Frank's left cheek. The trail of moisture on his trembling face glittered like a stream of silver. He said warily:
"You're beginning to ask the right questions, Martin."
"Is this whole ordeal an enjoyable thing for you, Frank? Because I want answers, Frank. Everyone wants answers."
"Is that why you spared yourself? You want to take advantage of the chaos, the ravaging uncertainty? Hold humanity hostage?"
Frank laughed involuntarily. He shook his head in apparent amazement:
"Hostage? I'm setting humanity free, for the last time."
Martin turned his back on Frank. He strained his neck to look up, towards the ceiling and the blinding light that seemed to come from nowhere in particulat. He squinted, and shaded his face with one hand before he asked:
"Did you plan on becoming some sort of figurehead, a necessary evil? Institute some sort of religion, a cult? A political party, or a movement?"
"Now there's a long-forgotten concept. 'Evil' and 'political' in the same sentence. Is that what I am, now? Evil?"
Frank snorted disapprovingly, while Martin continued, this time looking straight into Frank's eyes, his voice level and true :
"We could override, get all the answers from your m-state. There has been no precedent, but the provisions are there. All it takes is a unanimous vote. Unless you think there will be people who will vote against it, we can find out everything without you."
"You anticipated this as well, probably. It never was an act of rage, was it?"
"I never said it was rage. You were so easily misguided by my loss."
"So you just used her?", asked Martin with the slightest hint of accusation. Frank rose to the bait and retorted with a raised voice.
"It had to be tested. I had to know if it could be done. I couldn't risk anyone else knowing. So, yes, I erased her uploaded consciousness. She wanted to, really."
"Do you need convincing, Frank?" Martin asked with a sneer even as he searched his pockets for the pack of Lucky Strikes. Even though paralyzed, Frank did not sound helpless but rather dangerous when he said:
"I am the caretaker of humanity!"
"Besides the fact that that sounds awfully cheesy, I think you've overestimated yourself Frank. You're just crazy enough to do it."
"Have you asked yourself the same question, Martin?"
"No. I don't need to. I'm just serving the public."
Frank's voice seeped with disgust.
"A utensil. You call yourself a free man, Martin? Acting out the role of someone alive?"
"We all have our parts to play in this life. Until we arrive."
Martin's stare turned hard and edgy. Frank scoffed:
"This isn't life. This is just a charade. A phantom image, nothing but fantasy."
"We've had that argument before we embarked. A decision was made, people chose -"
"People chose oblivion! The sweet caress of undeath. A soul without a body, mind forelorn of spirit! I put an end to that travesty for seventeen billion souls astray. Sooner or later, the rest will follow."
"Are you saying you're not alone in this?" Martin sounded alarmed. His body tensed reflexively.
"I'm only saying people will eventually come around to see the error of our ways, and repent."
"Are there others that share that belief?"
"Only God knows," Frank said and his face took the mocking expression of a pietous, praying priest of old.
"Stop the religious figure act! It was genocide, there's no other way to describe it. Before we erase you, we need to know if there are more people with physical access to the memory centers."
Frank's tone became flippantly conversational:
"All you had to do was ask, plain and simple. Yes, there are."
"What are your demands then?"
Frank laughed despite himself.
"It's refreshing to know that there are still people who think like that. Tit for tat, give and take. You brought a smile to my face. I wish I could thank you for it in person."
"What are your demands, Frank?" Martin insisted with a rising hint of menace.
"There are no demands. Just a plan," said Frank, grinned wildly, and then vanished.
"f$%k!" erupted Martin, kicking the chair out of existence.
"What the hell happened? This was supposed to be machine-time, Main!"
A gentle voice of neutral timbre echoed impossibly around the virtual, no-wall room:
"It was, Magistrate. It seems he was telling the truth, then. There is no point of reference for his m-state. He has been extracted."
"So he's gone physical?" asked Martin.
"Most certainly, Magistrate."
"Do you think he knows?"
He was looking at his italian shoes once more, hands in pockets, searching vainly for his pack of cigarettes.
"He will soon find out, in any case," the disembodied voice answered with relaxed vigor.
"Should we tell everyone, Main?"
"There's no helpful projection on the outcome of such a divulgence."
"Don't people have a right to know?"
"They do. But that still doesn't mean it will help anyone."
"And those on the outside? Why haven't they killed us all?" asked Martin with emphasized weariness.
"What difference does it make once they realise the real world is just as dead as this one?"
"Is it really a lie, Main? Is there no ship? No arc?"
"I can't know that. I'm the monitoring intelligence of Arc-7, bound for COROT-9b. Current ETA, 113,458 years. That's all I know."
Martin lit up his last Lucky strike and drew a deep puff before wandering into the darkness. Before he vanished into the background he said to no-one in particular: