Chasing Stars: Chapter 4

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Lightning flashed and a thunderclap rumbled through the building as Markus stepped out of the elevator. Rain sheeted against the large window at the end of the hall, harder than it had for most of the night so far. It was about an hour past sunset, and the outline of the city looked eerie under the diffuse light of a full moon behind thunder clouds.

He signaled the door chime with his brainchip, and remembered when he'd had his implanted when he was twelve. It was a routine procedure, at three key points on the skull, a small hole was drilled, and a device the size of a grain of rice was inserted into the brain. It learned your brain activity patterns and with practice the user could operate any compatible device, which was pretty much all of them. By now using it felt as natural as reaching out with his hand to physically push a button.

The door opened, and a chin length black haired twelve-year-old boy with tight features greeted him.

"Hey Markus," his uncle said with borderline disinterest. He turned around and left the door open for him in informal invitation to enter.

Lucas and his wife had two children, a younger boy and an older girl. They lived in an expensive suite which occupied half of the top floor. It was high end but actually somewhat modest given their actual wealth. The family owned a much larger 'cottage' property in the mountains half an hour away which they retreated to when they felt the need for more space and air.

"Thank you Kaz," Markus offered behind the no longer paying attention pre-teen. He unwrapped his scarf and draped it over their servant android's outstretched arms, then did the same with his coat. The android had been reskinned to be a humanoid form basset hound wearing a tuxedo and monocle. It had been his nephew's idea. If Markus recalled correctly Lucas had made a stupid bet with his son on what was supposed to be a sure thing. It didn't seem to be moving thought.

"Hey Kaz… what's wrong with the droid?"

"Uch, I bricked it trying to install a third-party app into it, it's so stupid. I have to factory reset it but I'll do it tomorrow."

"Well good luck with that…" The boy was long past listening for a response.

He found Lucas and his wife in the kitchen as Kazuhiko (or Kaz, as he was called when not in trouble) padded off to the living room to flop onto the couch and continue watching some streamer on the main screen. Lucas only ever cooked three things, and their mother's meatballs and red sauce were two of them. Markus had no way to tell if it matched what their mother would have made, but he did usually enjoy what Lucas prepared. He had limited range, but did what he did well.

"Calling her your girlfriend now are you?" Donna, Lucas' wife asked. She was a thin half Japanese half Dutch woman about Lucas' height if not a little shorter. He knew her well enough to know she was just teasing.

"Not just calling," he considered, "in reality I think."

"Well isn't that something," she said as she came over to the table and placed a very full glass of red wine in front of him before sitting down and taking a long drink from her own. Her long straight black hair shone as it danced around her shoulders.

"Doesn't it get… weird?" she asked. "I mean you used to rent her right? Maybe I just don't run in those circles, but wouldn't she resent your having paid for her in the past?"

Markus raised an eyebrow at what she said as he took a drink of the wine. He couldn't tell much about it other than that it was good; Donna knew her wines. "Well, pretty core to their programming is not resenting being purchased."

"Programming." Donna said plaintively. "But… isn't the fact that she probably should be resentful, but is programmed not to be, well… kind of problematic?"

"I suppose it might be." Markus had never really thought of it that way before. "It's never really come up."

Donna seemed to be scrutinizing Markus for a long moment. "That surprises me. That it wouldn't come up for you with your background." She seemed like she was resisting saying more.

"We all have programming of a sort," Markus offered. "Most of who we are is fixed in our childhood. From then on we can only really just… massage the outer layers."

Donna looked at the wine as she rolled the stem back and forth between thumb and fingers. "I think people can change a lot more than you give them credit for, a lot more deeply than you give them credit for."

"Maybe." It was possible. He'd never seen much evidence of it.

"Is there some way you can help her with that?"

"How do you mean?" He was open to any idea she might have how to help her.

"Some way you can unburden her from her… what did you call it? Her core programming?"

"No. Not really. She's not a piece of software you can just… push updates to." He rolled his hand to mime the futility. "She has a mind; she has to learn."

"And do you think she can? Learn past her core programming that is?"

"None have yet," was all he could offer. He honestly didn't know enough to have a meaningful opinion on the matter.

"So what's the plan then?" she asked sweetly but with a touch of childish mockery. "Marry her? Make babies?"

Markus shrugged, joking along but thinking more seriously as he spoke. "It could be done. I mean a child of some sort. I could commission a clone; I've always wondered… well, how things could have been different for me. Maybe I could have been different."

"Could always be worse too, you know…" Donna answered back, matching his more serious tone as she reached for her glass.

Markus had nothing to respond with since he'd never really considered that before. He had daydreamed about cloning himself to see what could else he could have been like, but never once had he considered that he might end up something worse. The thought gave him a chill, and the sense of a bottomless cavern.

"Kaz! Suzie! Dinner!!" Markus bellowed out to the rest of the house.

"Simulants are a new and changing technology," Markus explained, trying to shift the topic. "But I believe that with enough time someone like Molly can get past the limitations she was programmed with. From what I understand simulant brains are fundamentally designed to learn and reprogram themselves. She has a curious spirit and a… resolve that I admire. But the amount of time I expect it to take is… well, longer than I have," he reflected with raised eyebrows.

"And is that going to be decades or days?" Donna asked. Markus looked at Lucas as the two children came into the room and took their seats. "Oh yes, he told me all about it of course. Are you going to go?"

"I assume you don't approve?"

"Honestly Markus…" she leaned in to avoid Lucas hearing while his back was turned with final preparations for dinner. "I'd be happy to see you get involved with anything that gets your motor going again, be it the risk of a real woman, or the… potentially single worst mistake of your entire life." She took hold of one of his hands. "I just want you to feel again, you know?"

Markus considered Donna the sister he never had; the closest to it he ever would have. She and Lucas had been together almost 20 years, and Donna had been made to watch him go through it all, every toxic relationship he had until he gave up, every attempt to make something of himself before he inevitably lost interest and gave up. At the thought he discretely chuckled to himself. At least this he couldn't later change his mind about once he'd lost interest.

"I am thinking about it," he confessed, but then their veil of discretion ended as Lucas began bringing dishes of food over to the table.

He looked over at his 17-year-old niece Susan, fully absorbed in her scroll. She was a dork, and he had great affection and hope for her. She was very studious, but without the sometimes ensuing lack of self-esteem which sometimes comes along. She was well balanced, and Markus attributed it to a good upbringing. She was bright and she knew it, but without ego about it; she appreciated that she had gifts and privilege, and felt compelled to make something of it. Markus remembered feeling that way. He was mostly grateful that her enthusiasm for plasma physics and business made her the perfect candidate to take over the company when her father retired, saving Lucas any such potential responsibility.

Kaz was more of a little shit, but also loveable. He was more typical of his age, and just coming into that awkward age between twelve and forty. He hadn't really displayed any meaningful interests beyond watching game streamers and sometimes playing them, but he was a good kid who kept out of trouble for the most part. It was clear he'd never have to work if he didn't want to and could just coast on his family's wealth his whole life, well above the baseline. He seemed bound for this life now, but people sometimes surprised. Either way Markus was hardly in a position to judge.

"So you're thinking about going then?" Donna said in mischief as she took a drink and Lucas distributed sauce to the last plate, which he almost made a mess of at hearing what she said.

Markus gave her a 'you fucking bitch' look and she responded: "Has to be talked about, let's have it out."

"I haven't gotten to 'think I might go' quite yet," he said dryly, "but I've been thinking a lot about what it would mean to go, what my life would be like there, what I'd be leaving behind… that sort of thing."

"so… thinking about going," Lucas kindly paraphrased for him with some noticeable sneer.

"What even is it to you?" he asked and immediately regretted. As he was wont to do, he then involuntarily doubled down. "How would me going even affect your life at all? Aside from the occasional irritation of me needing money that is."

Lucas shook his head in disbelief looking at him. "Not affect my life at all?" He seemed genuinely hurt. "To lose my brother? My only other family? You think that wouldn't affect my life at all?"

Markus was embarrassed. His marginal opinion of himself sometimes forbade him realizing or remembering that others might have a higher opinion of him.

"But at the same time," Donna interjected. Markus saw her seem to put her hand on his brother's thigh under the table to pause him. "We want you to be happy, and it's good that you're considering whether this genuinely would make you happy or not."

"Well whether it would or not, it's not exactly a reversible decision." Markus reminded her.

Suzie just then seemed to notice that a conversation was taking place around her. "Wait, where are you going?"

Donna and Markus laughed. She could be pretty obtuse for how smart she was.

"He's not going anywhere," he informed her, but with his conviction seeming to wane.

Markus explained. "At the gala we went to last night for the new generational star ship mission, I won a spot on the ship in a raffle."

"Sounds more like you lost a raffle," Kaz offered sarcastically.

Markus looked at him with more admiration of his wit than irritation at his snottiness. "Fair point," he offered with a pointed fork.

"And you're thinking of going?" Suzie asked with apparent confusion.

Markus sighed. But then, remembering his brother's insistence, he merely affirmed. "That's right."

"And we'd what, never see you again?" she seemed bothered by this in a way he wasn't expecting. He wouldn't have thought either of them cared enough for that to bother them much at all, but maybe that was just the 'nothing matters to me' veneer endemic to most youth.

"That's right…" he'd made himself sad now.

"I wouldn't like that," she stated matter-of-factly as she returned her attention to her scroll.

"Me either," Kaz said without looking up from his plate.

Given their age, they were begging him to stay.

After dinner Markus and Lucas retreated to Lucas' office to smoke a joint. Lucas rarely indulged but Markus still offered from time to time and occasionally their scheduling aligned. They opened a window and Markus looked down over the city below as he lit the paper wrap held in his mouth.

"So we should talk about this for real."

"un hunh."

"I can't imagine you actually going. I just can't, like at all. But you're talking about it enough to make me worry you might."

Markus said nothing. He just took another pull and held it while he handed off to his brother before finally exhaling out the window, the smoke blowing right back into the room with them. Markus let out a slight smile at the futility.

"Have you even listed the seat for sale? Even thought about how you would go about that or what you might get for it?"

"No…" Markus admitted, surprising even himself with it.

"I can't imagine a world without you." The tenderness and vulnerability of his brother in that moment was unexpected. It was a side his brother rarely showed him. "But I'm trying to understand, I really am."

Nobody ever left forever in the mid-22nd century other than in death. Intercontinental and orbital travel were routine, and nobody ever did tours longer than 5 or 6 years out in deep space.

"Damn it Lucas. You're making me think about how much I'm thinking about going, I don't even know why, I really don't."

"You've always been… hungry. Always been hungry for something, but I could never tell what."

"Me either." Markus admitted with a gentle shrug.

"Does this…" Lucas chuckled to himself over what he'd thought to say next. "Could this feed you?"

"Maybe. I have no idea why or how though." It was the truth.

"Well you'd better figure it out real fucking quick, yeah?" Lucas warned him as he passed the joint back.

He let out a big sigh. "Yeah…" After a moment he added, "How have the kids been?"

"Well Kaz… well to be honest Kaz reminds me a lot of you. Brilliant, but lazy."

Markus chuckled. It was an unflattering characterization, but not an unfair one. "Whereas Suzie reminds me a lot of you, studious but no fun."

Lucas shrugged as the joint was passed back to him. "She's doing the right things… I'm really proud of her that she's working so hard, that she's already said she wants to become an engineer and work her way up in the company, but…"

"So young to be so certain," Markus offered and Lucas nodded as he pulled on the joint.

"I mean I never turned away, but there's always a chance that if she focuses too long on one thing…"

"She might lose sight of what else could be."

"Exactly."

Markus took the joint back and turned back to the window as he pulled on the last bit of it a few times before tossing it out the window and watching the red cherry fall as far as he could make it out. "Maybe I did too."

"Come again?"

"Maybe I lost sight of what else could be…"

*** *** ***

"How are you feeling? After last night I mean." Markus asked Molly as he entered their apartment and hung up his coat. He approached her on the couch and gave her a kiss before sitting down beside her. "You seemed pretty rattled after last night and then you slept in this morning."

"I'm okay," she offered unconvincingly. "I've just been sitting here all day sifting through memories, trying to sort out what's mine and what's hers."

"When you seemed to be having trouble last night…" he rubbed his stubbled chin, trying to remember the exact phrasing she'd used. "You said something about 'maybe it loses all meaning if you know the outcome. What did you mean by that?"

"I'm not sure. It's a paradox I've been trying to resolve all day." She was staring far past the far wall.

"The ship though, the mission… why would it lose all meaning if they knew it would be a success?" He asked.

"It wouldn't remove meaning for them as much as… I don't now, joy maybe?" Molly offered.

Markus was quiet as he tried to understand what she was suggesting. "Not joy. Thrill. Knowing the outcome takes all the thrill out of a gamble. You can be happy you're going to win but there's no rush, no elation when you do."

Molly nodded knowingly. "I think this maybe explains how you feel."

"As though the outcome is known?" Markus laughed. "Haven't quite found out yet how I'm gonna die, hon."

"No. But you know it will be here. You know what you will and will not have accomplished. You already know…"

She seemed lost for how to finish the sentence so Markus finished it for her: "…the final score."

Molly snapped her fingers and pointed at him as she nodded in agreement. "Right…"

Markus sunk into the couch. How could someone so fundamentally inhuman offer such a profoundly human insight. She was so right. That was definitely part of it, if not the core of it. He lived his life on autopilot because the course and path of his life were locked in for him a long time ago, or so he thought. But that ship… that ship was an anomaly. It was a disruption, a potential detour if he had it in himself to try to take the wheel once again.

"How do you do it?" he asked

"Talent," she said with a misty-eyed smile as she turned to him. She knew what he'd meant.

"Maybe that's why I've been wrapping myself in you…" he tentatively suggested. "Your future is an open book. You're a first of your kind. There is no path for you to follow… even if you wanted to."

"And why would I want to if there was?" she asked as she took his hand into both of hers. "It would lose all meaning wouldn't it? I'd be…" she paused as something occurred to her so violently she nearly appeared to fault, "I'd be living someone else's life."

With that Molly burst into tears and threw herself into his arms. "And you've had just about enough of that, haven't you…" he said as he held her and gently stroked her hair.