When Penny’s eyes opened again, she was standing in the middle of a windswept field. High above her a flock of virtual geese flew in V formation across the cloudless sky.
Penny called up her portal and a human-sized oval of shimmering light appeared before her. The borders were brilliant light but the inside displayed nothing but endless black.
Penny copied the Headspace’s address from her photo and the blackness rippled like a pond after a thrown stone. In its place the front steps of a stately municipal building began to materialise.
Curious, Penny stepped through the portal.
The borders of shimmering light passed overhead and Penny’s virtual foot touched the first step leading up to the building. It was a grand stone structure, with a rank of Corinthian columns out the front and a white belltower on the roof.
High above the grand oak doors were the words ‘The Court of Public Opinion.’
Penny made her way up the stairs and put her hand on the big double-doors. Something bubbled in her gut but she squashed it down and pushed the heavy door open.
Inside the electric blue receptionist A.I. looked up from the document she was pretending to type and smiled brightly at Penny. She was seated at a neat virtual desk with a little obsolete desktop computer and an in tray filled with papers. It was all for show of course, any data the headspace stored was safely in their servers.
The far wall was taken up entirely by an oversized notice board. The top of which read. ‘We do not tolerate facetious and flippant behaviour here, this is forum for serious discussion. If you want to laugh, our members recommend the following comedy and chill out spaces.’
The list itself was extensive, running almost from the ceiling to the floor.
“Welcome to the Court of Public Opinion.” The secretary beamed and rose from her seat. A clipboard appeared in her hand and she offered it to Penny. “Would you like to see a list of topics our members are currently discussing?”
“No thank you Ma’am.” Penny said waving her off. “I’m here to see a Mr. Rodgers?”
The clipboard vanished and the secretary nodded. “Ah yes, our private booking.”
She gestured down the hall. “I have set the second portal on the right to take you to your desired room. Mr Rodgers is not in yet, but he has left a placeholder you can summon him from.”
Penny raised an imaginary hat at her. “Thank you kindly.”
Penny turned down the corridor and the bubbling in her gut started up again, this time it was followed closely by a chill down her spine.
Penny clenched her fists until both feelings went away. The corridor was lined with portals that had been modelled to resemble hard wood doors. This allowed them to blend in the with the décor. In Penny’s headspace, where there were no walls to apply a door to she had chosen the freestanding shimmering light portal because it was the least obtrusive idea from her options.
Penny reached out for the doorknob, steeled herself again and pushed through.
Rows and rows of uncomfortable looking pews sat before the court. At the far end of the room lay the judges’ box, flanked by the witness stand. Before them were the plaintiff and defence’s desks.
Every seat lay empty, leaving only a black outline of Rodgers’ avatar standing before the Judges’ box. The word ‘Away’ in glowing purple letters hung in the middle of the image.
Penny made her way passed the pews, her boots echoing loudly about the hollow room. She reached out to the silhouette and touched it. ‘Away’ changed to ‘Contacting’ and Penny took a step back.
A moment passed and ‘Contacting’ changed to ‘Signing in’ and in the next moment he appeared.
Rodgers avatar materialised in his civilian clothes, a long brown duster over a pair of jeans and combat boots. The coat was faded and torn in places but the button-up shirt was freshly pressed.
By instinct Penny’s hand rose to her temple. “Rangers lead the way sir.”
Rodgers looked Penny in the eyes and returned the salute sharply. “All the way.”
They lowered their hands slowly. Silence rushed in to fill the void.
Rodgers cleared his throat. “I suppose you’re wonderin’ why I…”
“Why the hell are you here?” Penny blurted. “On Aloysius? With the Black Masks? First word I got you gone rogue was when Seera passed on the order to give you your discharge papers. I couldn’t believe it, I made her repeat it three times. Now I’ve chased you halfway across the spiral arm and I still got no clue what’s going on in that head of yours. None of this makes a lick of sense.”
Rodgers smirked and shook his head. “No I don’t suppose it do to you. You always were a stickler for the rules.”
Penny summoned her digital copy of the Code of the West. “They’re your rules Roy. What happened to them? What happened to ‘Always ride for the brand’?”
Rodgers set his jaw and scowled at her. “It got into a small disagreement with ‘Know where to draw the line’.”
Penny clenched her fists by her side. “Now what does that mean?”
“It means when I was on Monandeag hunting down insurgent leaders I saw a little incident play out. I was travelling with a patrol of marine infantry, getting the lay of the land.