Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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Vivian and the Dust

by Ken Kraus


Titan Station Lennier, April 2152

At 2:10 A.M., Lennier Station time, Vivian floated in her cabin, wondering if she could fit through the centimeter wide crack under the door to the hallway. Even with a human body, she sensed that compressing herself as flat as several pin disks was now quite possible.

She dropped down and saw a detail she'd never noticed from her usual five foot two height. Atop each floor tile were raised circular discs, about 2 cm wide, with a star shaped design engraved into the center. They might have been impressions of snowflakes.

Footsteps sounded in the hallway and Vivian slithered easily under the door, where the floor tile altered shape into hexagonal discs, but with the same snowflake impression in the center of each. Shoes clomped around her and someone made a shushing sound. She saw the bottom of her door swing open and the feet stamped inside.

"She's deep asleep, it's OK," someone whispered. Who were they talking about in her cabin if she was out here in the hall? She heard the sliding scrape of a drawer opening and papers, metallic objects being ruffled. Afraid to go back inside, she hunkered in place.

"Got it, here it is," the same voice whispered. Her cabin door clicked closed and she wondered if she were going to be crushed, but the feet stepped around her. The image of a black shoe heel with a green rub mark flashed by her vision. What had the shoe scraped against?

Then things that were not human legs moved past her. They flowed like shredded filaments and were accompanied by whooing and whooshing noises. The urgent sound migrated farther up the hallway where the smoky tendrils gathered into a purple cloud one moment, stretched out the next. She considered retreating.

The thing seemed to sense her wish to withdraw and its sound became a pleading moan. The cloud turned bluer. It could be a lure, a trap.

She shot herself back under the door to the side of her bunk. Having willed herself up the legs of the cot, she saw that someone was in her bed. She drew back, hovering in mid air and regarded the sleeping form, curled up on its side. It bore her face.

How could she be looking at herself sleeping? She felt displaced like a ghost with no anchor, like she'd dissolve if she didn't get back into her Self. She spread herself out and flew onto the sleeping body. After boring her way into the chest, she fit her ghost self into the legs and fingers. She pressed harder and harder against a body encased in something like a solid mold. Wake up, girl, wake up! She could feel her torso muscles vibrate, and then her human eyes flew open.

Vivian sat up, panting and covered in a fine sheen of sweat. What kind of crazy nightmare was that? The green LCD readouts of the clock, her oven and temp gauge cast a dim glow around the space. But moments before, this cabin had been illuminated by its own kind of flat light. No, no, that was in the dream. She hit the light switch next to her pillow, swung her legs over the side of the cot and felt the cold floor on her bare feet. Her head began to swim and she fell back against the wall on the far side of the cot.

Oh yeah, still stoned on that dust, which must have been powerful stuff. Really, girl, start to cut down. Back to sleep, yes, back to sleep. But what if she had the slithery dream again with that purple cloud calling her? No, dreams don't pick up where they left off like that. Her head found the pillow as she remembered the part about footsteps in her cabin. She lay sideways and hugged her extra pillow to her chest.

####

At 800 hours her alarm blinged and the room lights came up, but her head didn't want to lift from the pillow. Vivian brought a hand out from under the blankets and spread her fingers. She was solid enough.

The large screen over her desk flashed a message. V Vargas report to Borgus anteroom.

Had the Apprentice Chief known about her getting dusted last night? Borgus guided two dozen aspirants like herself from trainee to high tech mining engineers on Lennier, the 250 person station that orbited Saturn's moon Titan.

She pulled on her uniform, her body feeling heavy with the after effects of the drug. The powder, light as baby's talcum, could be inhaled in small amounts and produce an effect, not of strength, but an operative kind of lightness. You could feel connected to things, yet function from a place of detachment. But the hangover could be intense when your mood and body got sledge hammered with all of the dread that had been wiped away the night before.

As she walked the hall to Borgus' office, Vivian resolved to phase down on the dust. She'd started the habit -- no, don't call it that -- the sporadic use, about five months ago, after her first semester on the program produced no close friends, other than a luke warm acquaintance with the station's new nurse, and no real male prospects. She'd dare not count her pang for the doctor who'd likely never take her seriously.

When dusted, Vivian could ease into hanging at the commissary bar, hustling at the rec room pool table, and keeping a poker face during cards. Like last night, when she stood a game of whist with three other apprentices, all in their mid twenties like herself. The players were two men, Skellig and Franzen, and one woman, Monica, with an oval face and eyes spread wide. Only on Monica, the features worked to attract guys, whereas Vivian's pale face and mottled skin held these features in a plain doe-eyed way.

Old Borgus was seated at his desk. Vivian heard that years ago he'd been a pacer when concerned. But sustained unassisted walking in one full G was hard on the chief who, according to Nurse Rosa Alvaro, had been exposed to an overdose of Gamma radiation in a tunnel rescue several years back. Now with his legs so weak, and the palsy in his hands, Borgus usually positioned himself in one location. He was past 70, half crippled, but still sharp as a mining chisel.

"Ms. Vargas, come in."

She sat across from the desk, smoothed back her short spiky bangs.

"We need to review some sensitive data," he said, staring her in the face.

This was it. She was busted. Her hands balled into fists on her knees and she sat forward, wondering how to form her confession.

Borgus brought up a shaking hand. His fingers curled, leaving the forefinger extended, supposedly to accuse her. But the finger turned and pointed toward the side wall.

"Look at the projection if you would, Vivian."

The lights in the room lowered and a video computer image about four feet across illuminated the wall. The globe of Titan appeared in crystal clarity. "I'm going to highlight the northern polar region where you and four other mates were prospecting." An area on the top of the globe was outlined in a yellow border.

Vivian let her eyes close in relief. This was not about last night's snorting, but about the expedition the month before. Their mission was to take sonic readings of the mineral deposits below the ammoniated ice. Vivian had enjoyed trudging in her spacesuit up the side of a 500 meter hill, pick ax in hand and her instrument wand in the other.

Borgus placed his hands on his desk. "You'll recall that the aural phenomenon was peaking at the time. Turns out, the luminescent clouds over you carried some varieties of wave signals we've yet to interpret."

Where was Borgus going with this? She remembered the blue and green halos of light that reflected off the icy ground underfoot and had made for radical traveling.

Then she wondered about the other part of their trek, when she followed Skellig - who had played cards with her last night - to the lake formation. He'd broken away from the group to move up a side hill, sidestepping large boulders. And just beyond the crest was a flat surface about a kilometer in diameter, appearing like a turquoise lake. They'd knelt at the shore and he'd used a hand torch to cut through the surface and take samples of the "water" that was in a semi melted state, rare for any substance on the surface of a moon more than one hundred degrees below zero. Skellig had said something about the pasty material, hardening on contact with the open atmosphere, being a semi-organic mixture. As soon as Skellig had bored into the surface, Vivian was overcome by the feeling of being watched while doing something illegal. Her body had come alert just as when she was a teenager back in Chicago, raiding a corporate waste dump.

Now as she faced Borgus, she wondered if her proximity to this lake brew had also affected her. "Do I need to be concerned about something, sir?"

Borgus made that smiling grimace, his attempt at reassurance. "Not exactly, yet. But we'd like to have you visit sick bay so your pal Saunders can give you a once over."

With his reference to the head MD on the station, Vivian felt a blush hit her cheeks. "A once over for what?"

"You notice anything out of the ordinary since the mission?"

She wondered if having wacky dreams in a dust-induced state counted. "Not overly."

"Saunders is waiting. Let me know what comes of it."

####

Vivian sat on the sick bay gurney, her short legs not reaching the floor, so that like a child, she watched them swish back and forth. Saunders had been analyzing her results at his console for over ten minutes. The delay couldn't be good.

The doctor was late thirties, a little too slight of build but with a square celeb type face that made guest appearances in her daydreams. Trading books on the dawn of the electronic age had become a shared hobby. They kept a moving chart about how far the transmission of 1932 Orson Wells's "War of the Worlds" radio show had now reached into space. At least seven full galaxies would have received it by now. Then they'd added a second curve for the first season of "I Love Lucy."

Saunders had become more of a friend to her since the terrible accident six months ago down on Titan that had killed his chief nurse, who'd also been his squeeze. Jessica had been a head turner, for sure. Vivian ran a sick joke with herself that blonde Jessica still probably outclassed her for beauty even after the mining extractor had tipped over and crushed half her flesh and bone.

Saunders gestured to his screen. "Vivian, we have two issues here. First is that your blood chemistry shows levels of pemperdust. I have to report that, you know."

"Wait. I can explain that." She told about her card game and how a little dust was passed to her, didn't think it was much, then lost track of things until she was back in her room.

"You had a good deal more than one sniff, Viv. Is this becoming a habit?"

No, no, no. She'd not do it again, please could he downplay it to Borgus.

Saunders sighed. "I'll try to minimize it this time, but we can't let this show up again and you'll have to tell me who gave it to you. That's the deal."

"Skellig supplied it, said his source was one of the transports in from Europa. Now I'm a little tattletale." She got up to go, wondering how she'd play this to Borgus when he got the report. Rehearsing her words.

"Hold on," Saunders said. "We've got more here. Regarding the mission."

Vivian shook her head. "Go ahead, throw it all on me. It's pelt the Pug day."

Saunders put his hand on her forearm. "Hey, I know the hash that goes around, but you know I never think of you like that."

She felt warmed by the concern in his eyes. "I'm just trying to deal with my screwing up, lately."

"Well ease down; this next part is nothing you caused." He took out a sheaf from his papers. "Your exam results show good readings physiologically. But it's your brain wave patterns I'm interested in. Here's a normal range of alpha waves, actually your own intake exam eleven months ago."

"Yeah, I remember," she blurted. "Jessica ran the -- oh sorry."

Saunders waved a hand. "Viv, you needn't apologize. I get dozens of reminders of Jessie's presence hitting me every day." He gave her chin a playful nick with his knuckle. "But buddies like you help me weather it."

Vivian bathed in his warm gaze. His eyes seemed to be looking beyond, like imagining a future that included her. She reached out a hand and he took it. Could this be it? C'mon, try kissing me.

He released her hand and took up another sheet. "Now look at today's scan, for contrast. See how your Alphas are elevated on the peaks, then do a double dip before repeating? The other three on your mission show no such aberrations."

Vivian wondered if their moment had passed and folded her arms. "So what's this mean, this new scan?"

Saunders smiled. "Maybe we could work on that together. All transmitted energy, of course, is expressed in wave patterns, usually moving at light speed. "

"So I'm broadcasting?"

That got a laugh, and his face lit up again. "Not far off. It's like something stimulated you to emit a heightened frequency."

"Like what, calling for a mate or something? Maybe it's just my version of that ancient "Dating Game." What are your waves broadcasting, John?" Was that a lame come on?

He colored for a moment, tapped her playfully on the knee. "Technically, I guess I qualify for the ‘bachelor' lineup, with Jessie gone." His face got serious again. "But I'm guessing that your cortex became artificially activated by the aura's waves. Viv, this could be something to watch. Now there's other noise that came with this aura cloud." He hit a few keys on the pad below the room's LCD screen. "We took this from your own recording gauge. I calibrated the ultrasonics to normal hearing range."

"Sure, let's take a listen." She was enjoying working with him, getting closer to him, bit by bit. Until he hit the next button and the sound came.

She knew it at once, the undulating plaintive pull of it, calling to her. Something nauseating gripped her throat and her hand massaged her neck to ease it away. "Could you turn that off, John?"

He shut the noise. "You were uncomfortable with it. Why?"

Vivian shook her head. "Nothing, it's just grating that's all."

"But you're a techie, Viv. You must hear static noise all the time."

She was suddenly annoyed. "Yeah, and some of it bothers me, so what about it?" She got up from the table, feigned a smile. "It must be a little of the dust hangover. Look, let me get an hour's rest before my shift."

Their chemistry had certainly fizzled, for the moment anyway.

####

She went for a coffee in the mess lounge. Pretended to be calm, each movement casual, just another ordinary day on mining station Lennier. Vivian taking a break before her six hour shift alongside a senior officer doing analysis on the core samples that had come in from the mines below. Except now, she wondered if there was really a purple cloud on this station that only she could perceive, calling for her.

That thought was crazy; the cloud was only part of her dream. But then how could the sound from the wave recording be so similar?

Steve Lasky entered the commissary and approached her table. Although this guy had a hard efficient edge, she'd respected his diligence during his first year as chief of station security.

"What's up, Steve? Join me for a--"

"App. Vargas, you need to come with me please." He'd gotten official, which meant trouble. How much in one day?

Lasky led the way into the women's locker room. There was Borgus, leaning on his cane near her open locker. In front was a "dog" device, the size of a vacuum cleaner, with a central canister and protruding robotic arms, programmed to "sniff out" through a number of sensors, trace presences of anything you loaded it for. A small bag of core samples sat on the floor.

"You want to tell us," snapped Borgus, "what the hell this is?"

The room seemed to wobble, and Vivian leaned a hand on the wall. "What's going on here, sir?"

Borgus colored. "Don't you dare spin any bull, Vivian. I'll smell you out faster than this mechanical dog will. Now answer my question."

Maybe this was another nightmare, and she was still in bed. "You mean you think I sneaked...? Was that bag in my locker? Really?"

Borgus affected a frightening smile. "Yes, dear. Really."

"You think I'm smuggling? Why would I?"

"Who knows what a dusted mind will do?" Borgus got in her face and continued in a whisper. "See, it's been a very eventful half hour for me. I'm pulled out of a docking rehearsal by Lasky to be told one of my best apprentices is likely involved in illegal trafficking. Then on my way to this locker room, Dr. Saunders bumps into me and gives me your latest. . . medical results, shall we say." Then he brought up the volume. "Med results about an apprentice I've held up to the others as an example. Makes me feel proud, let me tell ya."

His sarcasm stung, and so did her eyes. No, she would not cry, not here.

Lasky led her back to quarters. Vivian followed in a daze, her legs feeling as weak as Borgus' must, her mind reeling with questions. Her palms left wet smears on the hallway walls as she reached out to steady herself.

She was to wait in her quarters at least an hour until they could convene a hearing, in which they'd reveal how they'd found her out. That's all she could get out of Lasky. At her cabin door, Vivian wilted under the look of the security chief's look of disdain as she pleaded her innocence. Lasky took out a special remote and explained he was locking in from the outside, where he'd stand watch.

Vivian sat down on her bunk, put her face in her hands. Her knees hit the floor and she rocked there, on all fours, letting her tears splash down onto the plastic tiles. She reached over for a tissue and mechanically dabbed at the small puddle.

In the wet streak left by the tissue, she noticed a faint imprint in the middle of the tile, too small to define itself by the naked eye. She opened the drawer of her desk and grabbed a hand magnifier. This was stupid, it had to be a scratch.

But there it was, improbable and crazy. The small snowflake etching she'd remembered from her dream. She moved from tile to tile; they all had them. A ball gathered itself in her throat, and her hands flew to her mouth. She wretched and vomited a small amount of acidy liquid through her fingers.

Leaving the mess on the floor, she heaved herself up and opened her wall cabinet, looking for whatever stomach meds she might have, maybe an antacid. A small clear vial half full with purple dust stood like a sentry on her bottom shelf; a welcome and repulsive sight, all at once. Panic seized her, the struggling for the memory of when she'd put it there, how she'd even got it. Vivian thought she'd taken a vial from Skellig at the card game, sniffed and gave it back. She banged the cabinet shut and called out to activate her wall speaker. Her voice cracked and had a sob in it but she didn't care.

"Sick bay, please."

A female voice responded. "Yes, App Vargas, you called?" From the Latin accent, she recognized Rosa Alvaro.

"Nurse, is Doc Saunders there? I need his help."

"No, he's out on rounds. What's the matter, Vivian?"

"I'm detained in my room and I'm, uh, suddenly kind of nauseas and shaky."

"I'll be right there."

Minutes later, with Lasky still standing sentry out in the hall, Rosa put a hand to Vivian's forehead, looked briefly into her eyes, then asked her to open her mouth and stick out her tongue. While Rosa inserted a depressor into her mouth, Vivian glanced at the young nurse's face, studying the large angular nose, the oval green eyes and the full lips that smiled when she caught Vivian's stare. Another glitzy looker on the station to remind her of her own unfeminine drabness.

Rosa took a seat and ticked off her fingers. "You have no fever, no sign of infection, although your pupils are over dilated and your skin is clammy. What have you eaten or taken by mouth in the last twelve hours, let's say?"

"You know." She took the tissue Rosa handed her.

"Yes, I saw Saunders' report about the dust, but anything else?"

"Just some awful coffee in the mess lounge."

"It is bad swill, I agree." Rosa cupped a hand to her mouth like sharing a secret. "I say they dropped the bags of beans on the hillside and used the dung from the burros that haul it instead. But that image probably makes you feel even queasier."

"It was colorful, though."

Rosa sat at Vivian's console. "Try something solid, if you haven't eaten today, it helps take away the drug reaction. Then tell me what you can." Vivian heard no reproach whatsoever in her voice.

She took an apple from her mini fridge, bit into it, found she could swallow. Sat down again on the bed, recapped out loud the locker incident.

Rosa listened, arms folded. "Sounds like a withdrawal reaction to the pemperdust combined with an empty stomach." The nurse pursed her lips, thinking. "Y'know Vivian, when I'm not in sick bay, I'm training with Chief Borgus as his new aide, helping him adjust to his condition, which is a challenge in itself."

"The condition or the patient?"

"Both, believe me." Rosa smiled.

"I wouldn't want to be paid to be his nursemaid," Vivian agreed, sharing the giggle.

"But my point is, he speaks so well of your training, even grumbles that his daughter should have been like you, but that's yet another story. So this incident of the mineral samples doesn't fit your -- "

"That's because I'm innocent." Again, the damn tears, and her hands on her face. "What the hell is going on with me?"

"Vivian, people who have a dependency on the pemperdust sometimes have lapses of memory -- "

"I'm not hooked. I've hardly used it." Yet there was the vial, burning a hole through her cabinet. "No, really, I'd remember if I stole anything. They claim I put this load of samples into my locker but that's crazy. Someone would have to come in here and get the combo off my backup chip in my -- ." She cut herself off, turning to her desk drawer.

"What?" Rosa asked, leaning forward. "Look, it's not for me to pry beyond the medical. I hope I helped you recall something useful, at least." She stood. "But Vivian, I've seen how the dust can completely swallow up a life. Come to me if it becomes a problem, I mean it. You can confide in me."

Moments later, the door opened, Rosa left and Lasky was there, reminding Vivian that she'd be sealed in for another 45 minutes, until her hearing. The door closed and she was alone.

####

What could she come up with for a plausible defense in three quarters of an hour before her hearing? Caught drugging and then stealing, her apprentice career was in pieces. As a crook or junkie, she'd be on her way out or on a leash while demoted to lowest social caste ASAP.

She paced. She hit her head against the wall, twice. Felt a need growing, a lure of some kind, the damned vial. Talking to her, saying I could take you away from this. Yeah, that'd be great. Let them come in forty minutes to find her blitzed to all hell. But maybe the dust could illuminate something, clear her mind. She opened the cabinet door. Got the vial in her hand, unscrewed the black cap. Maybe Lasky left it purposely to entrap her? But just a small calming sniff might let her think of something. She brought the vial to her nose, took the slightest pull, put the cap back. There, that wasn't bad.

Little sparks lit up her vision. Whoa, strong stuff. Then she sensed it, something outside her door, hoping she'd come. Her legs got weak and she sat on the bed. One more pull could get her where her friend was, whatever wanted her. To have someone long to be with you, waiting for you, that felt special. Screw Lasky and the hearing. She'd drift like that cloud, above it all.

The vial seemed to bring itself to her nostrils, someone had already twisted off the cap again. This time a better pull. The powder gave that satisfying sting to her nasal lining as she fell back. She was on her way.

Her vision sharpened. The cabin's ceiling shone in sharp detail right down to the micro pores in the panels. She raced up to see if there really were holes and yes they were dotted all over. Now, what had she been up to?

There was the familiar whooing now, outside the door. An ebbing and flowing of sighs and moans, almost making sense. The same as in the dream, and also in Saunders recording.

She reared back, eyed the small crack under the doorway. Did it before, could do it again. Ready, go.

She swooped down, glided across the floor, sensing the uneven edge of the tiles and their snowflakes on her belly. She was through, into the hall. Two pairs of boots were outside talking. Vivian shimmied up past pant legs, jackets. One wore a security uniform, the other a white lab coat. Lasky and Saunders, conversing. What if they turned and saw her? Lasky cocked his head, looked right through her.

"Still think she was faking getting sick," Lasky was saying. "Like Borgus, I'm real disappointed in her."

"Did you overhear anything said with Rosa?"

"Was I authorized to?" Lasky asked. "What are you looking for?"

"I want to make sure she's not addicted to the powder and that her source is cut off."

"Did she say who supplied it?"

"I'll let you know when we confirm it. See you in 30 at the hearing."

Curious, Vivian thought, why didn't he just spill Skellig's name? She began to follow Saunders down the hallway as he walked right through a thin purple cloud. Wait, the cloud was the thing that was calling to her. It seemed to swirl, stir itself up.

"What do you want?" she whispered with ghost lips.

The moans and sighs came at her in a rush, pleading. The poor thing was lost. Separated from its greater self, it was saying.

Where are you from? Vivian asked, now with a thought pulse more than words.

Where we met, it radiated back. Down on the surface.

And somehow, she knew that it meant down on the polar cap. How did you get back here with us, and where were you hiding?

It was curious, it said. It had tagged along into the box she came back in. And now it was trapped on their little world. Wanted to go home. Was afraid. Was lonely. Needed sustenance.

Vivian had to ask. What are you?

I am many and one, it said. Isn't that what you are, too?

I mean, Vivian said, where's your body? Mine's back in the cabin, where'd you leave yours?

It didn't have a mobile one, it said. And usually it had to hide beneath the shell surface of the smooth ground. Only when certain currents and waves were above could it be safe to come out and wander. And last time it came out to swirl and dance, there you were, with others. Coming from a box that had floated down. You and another came on my smooth ground, had poked through the crust of it and I got curious because it is my breath of life, my sustenance.

And Vivian knew it was talking about the lake that Skellig had taken samples from. The mist swirled around her now, flowing through, embracing her like some kind of forever hug as it told more.

And so followed you back into your flying box but didn't know you were going away so far. I need to go back to join with larger self, get power from the soup under the smooth ground.

Someone walking down the hall pushed right through her and her mist friend, dispersing them. An old man, Borgus, clomping by with his cane. He banged on her door with the thing. "Vivian, Vivian. Open up, I'd like a word with you before the hearing."

Uh-oh. Had to get back. She moved toward the door. The mist gathered in front of her. Don't go, it said.

I have to, I'm in trouble.

Borgus banged again. "Vivian?" He tried her buzzer and intercom switch.

She slid under the door, raced back into the senseless body on the bed. She struggled within its limbs, hearing Borgus' broadcast message on the speaker on her wall, but still helpless, still trying to find the right fit. A sensation like hands and feet shoving themselves into outer gloves, finally getting the digits to match, then the body shuddered. Her eyes snapped open.

The sound of her door sliding open made her sit bolt upright. No, shouldn't have done that, the cabin was spinning. Someone's calloused old hand fell on her shoulder. Borgus's. This wasn't good.

"Vivian, sorry to break in, but we had no response from you."

She looked down at her knees, blinking. "Give me a minute to wake up, please."

"Sure, sure. Hearing in twenty minutes."

Too little time to get straight enough to make it through the hearing. They'd nail her for sure. She took a gamble, her only chance at staying on board. Leaning on her wall, she confessed.

"I'm high again. I blew it. There was more powder in my cabinet, I finished it. I need help."

"Couldn't have come from your cabinet, I had this room searched." Borgus banged his cane on the floor. "You had more hidden on you. Now how much and from which source?"

"Not answering," she said. "This is a medical appeal."

"Damn you, don't pull technicalities on me."

Someone edged in behind Borgus. "She has the right," Saunders said. "I'll take charge of her now."

####

They postponed the hearing several hours.

Now she was in a triangular room in sick bay in a neat cot on one wall. Across from her was a desk with a monitor screen. Except the cot was fitted with sensors that tracked her vitals. For the first hour or two, she let go, slept a dreamless sleep, took relief in it.

The door slid open and Rosa entered, bearing a tray of food. Some soup, bread, a cup of something steaming.

"Rosa, you said I could confide in you, right? I don't know if I can trust anyone else."

Rosa sighed. "OK, but I have to do my session with Borgus for about 40 minutes. Now eat something and I'll be back."

The soup was good, hot vegetables with a ginger flavor. She could be a child again, here, cared for. Maybe some kind of rehab would be a good thing.

She watched the central floor of the sickbay through her glass door. Saunders was at the main desk looking at images on a screen in front of him. Vivian stood, pressed against the door to get a better look. On the screen was a parade of body parts, still bloody where they'd been severed, then a few organs, more limbs. What the hell?

Vivian backed to her cot just as Saunders turned, saw her through the door. He grabbed a clipboard and came in. "How are you now, Vivian?"

"What's going to happen to me? The vial on my shelf wasn't mine, y'know."

"Another lapse, I'm afraid." He laid the clipboard on the side counter. "You obviously had more of an addiction than you thought. Now I need you to lie back and I want to monitor your brain activity."

He placed a hand on her shoulder to ease her back down, but she resisted. "Why? What's that going to tell you?"

To her surprise, he stroked her cheek and made a shushing sound. "Easy Vivian. I'm on your side. I want to see if there are any wave patterns consistent with the abnormalities in your behavior. Remember I saw the elevated ones before, I'd like to confirm they've calmed down. Maybe I can make a case for treating you for them and you can avoid the whole criminal scenario. OK?"

His hand returned to her shoulder and she buzzed from his touch, wanted to believe him. Found herself easing back on the gurney.

His fingers found hers. "I want to keep you here on Lennier for your sake and mine." That confirmed, of course, they were considering sending off station to rehab or worse.

She squeezed his hand back. He brought a down a mask from overhead and had her breathe from it. "Just some mild sedation to relax you, while I scan." She felt so light, and all the concerns that tensed her muscles seemed to let go. It was good to let it go, drift away.

####

This time the mist was hovering just across the room, waiting for her.

What now? Vivian asked, out of her body again. There was poor Saunders leaning over her, fretting away at his screens, and she was lying so still.

The mist swirled around her, blocking her way back to the exam table. No, no, you cannot. Come with me.

Go where? I don't want anything bad to happen to myself over there.

Just through here, it said, lingering by a sealed door frame in the corner of the sick bay.

Vivian joined it and they swirled together, but couldn't get through the crack, which was sealed by a vacuum gasket. That's to the morgue and sample room, why there?

We have to go this way, it said, and sucked itself up through a vent in the ceiling. Vivian whirled after it, hanging onto its tail end as it snaked through the vent, made a few turns, then squeezed itself past an open damper. Then back down another shaft, through a few slits and out into a stark room with shelves and a few gurneys.

Welcome to the morgue, Vivian told it. Now what? There's just a few dead here in storage. The mist glided along a wall of what looked like file drawers, which were cryo refrig slots for bodies. Vivian knew of only two that should have come here in the past year. The mist lingered by a closed drawer. Jessica's.

I told you, just a dead lady in there and in pieces if I recall.

Come closer, it said to Vivian. It balled itself up small, rammed against the drawer's button and it slid out.

What lay upon the bedding of the open drawer was, as expected, the refrigerated remains of the late nurse. But no, this wasn't right. Vivian recalled that Jessica had been so badly mashed that parts of her were obliterated, even half the skull had been crushed.

This Jessica was almost fully there. But how was that possible to do with dead flesh? And there were mechanical frameworks sitting over parts of her: her left shoulder, whole but strangely translucent, her ribcage below now almost intact with the ribs showing like white impressions behind skin that was like clear thin plastic stretched over them. And the skull was whole, with a framework sitting over the left side, blocking much of it but she could see the outline of the jaw, the forehead.

The deceased body was nearly back to the gorgeous form Vivian remembered, from its curves to its full bosom and athletic limbs-- even the left arm with areas of that plastic see-through skin.

She swooped down again, getting under the framework over the partially formed left eye. The surface of the cornea was smooth, but teeming with something just underneath. Like millions of superfine grains of sand vibrating and rolling over each other. Whoa.

Then came a human voice, a man cursing and above her and the drawer was on the move. She passed into a kind of darkness. The drawer must be closing and she'd be trapped inside the sealed space with this dead woman. She gathered herself and fled out the open end at the feet, then up to the ceiling to look down on Saunders' head.

"How the devil...." he muttered as the body's lower portion was all that remained visible, the remainder inside the cabinet.

She watched Saunders punch a keypad over the closed drawer to lock it with a code. Then he left the room.

You see now, asked the mist.

Yeah I see, but so what?

The one who came in just now did this. Made this one like this.

So? It's weird, but so are you. I've got to get back.

She flew back up through the ceiling vent, past the damper, whoa-- tons of dust mites in these tunnels-- then back out the main vent into the exam room. Saunders was back hovering around her body and now Rosa was with him.

"Everything OK in the morgue?" Rosa was asking.

"Just an alarm glitch, I'll get custodial to check it out."

Rosa tapped a monitor screen over the bed. "Pulse and respiration decreasing."

"Then I'm going to have to give her a stimulant," Saunders said.

"Did you dose the anesthesia properly by weight?"

"You've been in op suites, and I used only two cc. Should have induced only a faint sleep."

"I agree," Rosa said. "You think it's an allergic reaction?"

"Better not be," Saunders said, attaching a new canister to Vivian's inhalation line.

Vivian raced past them back into herself. She stretched into her limbs as she faintly heard them talking in excited voices about her levels coming up. Then her eyes were open. Saunders and Rosa were standing over her.

"Vivian," Saunders said. "How are you feeling? Can you understand me?"

Vivian nodded. "Did I make it back before you gave me that stimulant stuff?"

Saunders and Rosa looked at each other. "I guess your mind was more awake than we thought," Rosa said. "Yes, thankfully, you made it."

Saunders wiped his forehead and said something about letting Vivian rest and Rosa staying with her.

####

"Rosa, I think I need to get out of here." They were back in Vivian's convalescent room.

Rosa fluffed Vivian's pillow. "Come, lay down now. We need to see that you don't black out."

Vivian remained standing in the doorway, leaning on the jamb for support. "I can't, it's not safe. I could hear you and Saunders even when I was under."

She swooned and Rosa ran forward to catch her.

"This is why you need to stay." She sat Vivian on the bed. "How were you able to hear us, Vivian?"

Vivian blinked and thankfully the room stopped spinning. It was now or never. "I'm going to ask you to check something out that I saw when I was asleep." Vivian described the location of the morgue tray and its body, and then Saunder's incursion into the room to push it back in and reset the code.

Rosa shook her head, backing off. "That's impossible. You need the body's own warmth and blood flow to make regeneration work. Still, I'm surprised that you knew the morgue drawer had been opened while you were under."

Vivian thought back to Saunders hand jabbing at the panel, at least half a dozen punches. "For the code, try her name: Jessica."

Saunders called in, directing Rosa to have Vivian ready for her hearing in thirty minutes. Rosa began to protest her patient's condition and Saunders cut her off. He'd be back in ten.

"Isn't that weird?" Vivian challenged. "What's so damn urgent, huh? Something's going down here. Go look, please."

Rosa put her hands to her cheeks. "What have I gotten myself into? Vivian, you have to tell me more about how you could possibly know this."

"I think the dust brings it on." Vivian spilled about her three floating experiences, but omitted the contact with the mist, thinking it could be too over the top for Rosa to accept. "I know I sound crazy, but when I saw those tiny flake impressions on my floor, that's when it hit me that somehow I was... y'know -- "

"Projecting out of your body," Rosa finished. She had taken the chair next to her bunk, , staring at Vivian, sitting cross legged on the cot.

"All my emotions seem to get exaggerated all of a sudden. And then there's this flying around thing on top of it. You think I'm nuts don't you?"

Rosa tented her fingers. "Not necessarily. The emotional component could well be influenced by the drug, but I wanted to say that your out-of-body experience, well, others have had it before. There is a phenomenon called astral projection." Rosa moved to the computer screen. "We could compare your symptoms to what's been reported in the past hundred years, for example."

Saunders appeared at the door. "Great, you're sitting up and looking better. Vivian, they're going to do your hearing in twenty minutes. I've asked them to keep it short and we'll bring you right back here. Thanks for staying with her, Rosa."

Rosa nodded, holding Vivian's gaze. The nurse rose from the console and backed out of the room, as though both women agreed to keep their talk mum for the moment. Saunders took out a pressure syringe and held it to Vivian's arm.

"What's that?" Vivian pulled her arm away.

Saunders caught her hand, pressed the medicine into her. "Just a mild stimulant to keep you awake during the hearing, then you can rest."

####

Vivian sat in an airchair, normally used for the infirm, as Saunders pushed her down the hall and into a conference room. Borgus, two other section chiefs and Lasky were seated at a central table. On side chairs along the wall sat Skellig and Monica. Vivian didn't get the chance to speak for the first ten minutes while the two witnesses related some things she remembered and others that were pure fabrication. But both Monica and Skellig had agreed to go under the lie detection device and during their testimony their wave heat readings were normal, consistent with the truth.

According to Skellig, while he and Vivian were at the polar lake, Vivian had attempted to take him into her confidence about luring him into a smuggling network. They knew these samples would be unique in composition and perhaps some of the quantity could be hidden, left unreported, and then taken away on incoming transports to dealers. They'd hide the stuff in boxes marked as foodstuffs for their contact at the other end. Money units would be credited their private accounts on the inner planets for spending when on leave, or when they found a way to leave the program. Monica then told of how Vivian had tried to lure her in during the card game, and the payment would be in the dust, which Vivian used and procured herself. Skellig, also at the card game, corroborated.

When Vivian protested her innocence and implicated Skellig as her supplier, the reading on her lie detector device went all over the place. It hurt to watch old Borgus shake his head in disappointment.

Vivian considered her one card left to play, risky as it was. Spill about Jessica. That would cause a stir and Borgus might demand to see the morgue tray. But what if Saunders's experiment was legitimate somehow, and had nothing to do with the smuggled core samples?

Then Saunders spoke up and began to defend Vivian. He laid out the possibility of a temporary psychosis induced by high quantities of the pemperdust and urged that he be allowed to do a few days intense treatment with Vivian. He argued that if he could wean her from the habit, and show by his scans that her brain activity returned to normal, would Borgus consider allowing her to stay on under medical probation?

As Borgus and the others considered this, Vivian wondered if she had Saunders pegged wrong. Maybe the Jessica thing was all beside the point and whatever Saunders was up to there, had nothing to do with this. Maybe the mist itself was an illusion, part of the astral phenomena, like talking to yourself.

She felt relief as Borgus said they'd give Saunders three days to work with Vivian, with daily reports. Then they'd see. Vivian was released back into Saunders's custody.

On the way out of the hearing room, while Vivian was seated in the airchair, Skellig edged around them, stared hard over her head at Saunders, no words passing between them. Then Skellig turned, and Vivian caught a look at a gleam on the back of his heel: a green rub mark. It was the same mark she'd seen in her first out-of-body projection, on the shoe of who ever had breached the door of her quarters and taken the code to her locker.

####

"Why'd the lie-detector go batty when I told them about Skellig?" Vivian lay on the exam table again with Saunders bustling around her, setting up his equipment.

"As we said before, the dust can distort recollection. Are you ready?"

"Let me guess: you have to do another scan."

He affected a quick smile. "We have to complete the one I'd started on when you went too deeply under. I'm going for a direct pickup this time." Even as he lifted the electrodes and attached them to her scalp, she could see he was in a hurry.

Vivian made a decision. "Does this have anything to do with Jessica?"

He flinched, stopped his movements. "What are you talking about, Vivian?"

Rosa walked into the room.

Vivian attempted to float a lie. "Skellig told me about the corpse regeneration."

Saunders features went rigid.

Rosa got interested. "Doctor, is any of this true?"

Saunders put up his hands. "Look, both of you. This is nothing to be concerned about. Yes, I'm attempting an experimental process with Jessica's corpse. I've found a way to regrow limbs on a deceased body that can then be used for donor purposes. I'm planning to publish a paper on it and was hoping to trust you both to stay mum. I'd like to get credit for my research."

Rosa nodded. "So a recipient would then get a new limb grown separately and forgo the time period of self-regeneration."

"Exactly, nurse. Now Vivian, can we please get this scan done on you?"

Saunders sent Rosa out of the exam room to make rounds on several patients around the station. The mask came down over Vivian's head again, putting her back to sleep before she could protest.

Then Vivian was out of her body, projecting again, watching Saunders force some kind of breathing tube down her throat. Next to her head on a tray was a large empty syringe with a needle at least 5 centimeters long. Saunders turned knobs on his scanner, something making a bigger hum than before, and then inserted two more narrow tubes up her nose. She floated just over his shoulder, watching the image on the screen.

There was her cranium, with a zillion pinpoints spread throughout. They were migrating toward the center of her skull, then forming a line, marching toward her nose, toward the tube ends that Saunders had inserted. The doctor made cooing noises and encouraging remarks like, "that's it, come home to papa."

Then a suction sound began in the nasal tubes. Saunders had pulsed a clear liquid through them and then was extracting it along with these pinpoints making their way out of her brain. The tubes drained though a machine and into a vessel that contained a bluish paste that looked awfully like the stuff from the polar lake. Vivian guessed that it was a kind of media to store the particles.

But even as the particles were exiting Vivian's head, she felt her ghost self drawn forward. As though by some vacuum, she was sucked back within her body and lost consciousness before settling back into her limbs.

####

She'd been asleep, but could remember no dreams. The bed under her back was hard, and above her loomed a greenish sterile ceiling. Her chest rose and cold crisp air filled her lungs, stinging her ribcage from beneath like little icicles breaking free and then melting within. Getting a little warmer with each breath.

"Oh dear, Dios mio," came a voice just off to her side. She turned her head and her neck bones actually cracked. It was that new nurse, Rosa, and she'd brought her hands to her mouth like she'd seen something awful.

"Rosa," she said, her voice sounding like gravel. "Did something happen to me?" Then she recognized the room with large shelves, and she was in one of them that was pulled out, and covered to her chin with a white sheet.

"How did you know my name?" Rosa asked, putting a warm hand on her arm.

"You're that nurse, but --." Her voice was getting clearer, although every part of her body felt so stiff. "Did I like, die or something?"

"I don't know, but they've kept you in here." The poor nurse was grabbing her own chest like she'd have heart failure any moment.

"But this is the morgue, what am I--" She made two attempts to sit up, her body resisting, then aching muscles allowing it. The cloth fell away and she wore only a light shift that outlined a generous bosom and tight waist. Her legs were too long and thin, like a model's. This wasn't her body; was it?

"What do you remember doing last?" Rosa asked.

She struggled to retrieve recollections and her own name was just out of reach. But over Rosa's head and just beyond a cloud formed, and seemed to signal to her. She perceived without knowing how, that this vapor was in another dimension, visible only to herself.

Rosa repeated her question, calling her by the wrong name. "What do you recall, Jessica?"

"Is that whose body--? Oh no, it's not me, it can't be."

"Well then, who do you think you are?"

"You were treating me for, for the dust -- "

"That was Vivian."

Yes, that was her name. "But that's me."

Rosa shook her head, looked around for a moment, then pushed her back to a reclining position. "Wait here, just a few minutes. I'll be back, just rest." And fled the room.

The dust cloud moved. She remembered this mist from her projections, but now she was in a body. How could she still see it?

Hello, you mist. Can you help me? She sent her message by thought and knew the cloud would hear.

Yes, but we have to move fast.

But who the hell am I now? Vivian or this dead Jessica?

You are neither. Take those things over there and arrange them on your body, like others of your kind do, so you can blend.

She saw the heap of clothing piled on a nearby chair and agreed she should dress herself. What do I call myself? The doc -- Saunders - put me in the Jessica body, right?

Names are so transient, you are what you are, as I am. Now you have the images to remember this place, yes?

Sure, I'm some kind of an apprentice techie. Or was. Then a new thought. Where's my Vivian body? I want to see what they did with it.

No you don't. It's not you anyway. Your kind is not safe here, you must know that.

Yes, she somehow knew that she was changed in a way that would never have the old affinity with humans. The image of the nurse Rosa gelled as some animate curious complex machine, so intricate she achieved life. One moment she was feeling affection for the new pretty nurse, the next regarding her as a curious entity. But now she, Jessica- for lack of a better name- was also intricate, coming together, fusing into something of an entity. Two perspectives, alternating back and forth.

Come, come, begged the mist. Stop staring into space. She'll be back soon and you'll be trapped.

OK, OK, Jessica said and began pulling on the clothes.

####

Vivian found herself staring up at a ceiling. She'd been deep asleep, and this time had no memory of her astral self getting fully back into her body. Here was Rosa shaking her, then hugging her.

"Oh, thank heaven," Rosa sighed in Vivian's ear. "I thought we'd lost you."

"Losing myself seems to be a habit these days." Vivian was scared, but the calm survivalist within her had a small voice again.

Rosa pulled back, laughed, wiped a tear. "Oh Vivian, what a day. You've been asleep here over thirty hours, but if you can stand, I think I better show you something. In the morgue."

Vivian sat up, rubbed at a pain behind one ear. She slowly pivoted and put her feet on the floor. "The doc put me under for over a day, did he? Wait, he had something up my nose, but did he also stick a needle in my scalp? I think what I saw him take out of my head was somehow for-- Rosa, you got into Jessica's drawer, right?"

"The drawer was open when I went in. Saunders was obviously working with her, then told me to watch over you while he went elsewhere on the station. Given what you told me about Jessica, I took the chance and peeked in."

"So you saw her lying there dead, but regenerated, right?" Vivian stood.

"Oh, but I haven't told you the half of it."

"Half of what?" came Saunders's voice from outside the doorway. He walked into the room. "Rosa?"

Vivian watched Rosa look from herself back to Saunders, then nod as though resolving something. "It's Jessica's corpse. You were working on her, doing more than you claimed, John. She's awake and talking."

Vivian saw Saunders mouth drop open. "But how -- I hadn't yet stimulated her -- "

"And even stranger," Rosa continued. "She thinks she's Vivian."

####

Jessica stood inside the utility closet, just past the entrance. Three people shuffled past into the room with the shelves, where she'd awakened. She heard Saunders cry out about the empty drawer and begin yelling at the two women.

"Don't give me those innocent looks. You've stolen her body, both of you are in it together."

"Vivian has been asleep," Rosa said, "drugged by yourself if you remember. And why would either of us have removed her?"

"She's hidden in another drawer, gotta be." Saunders, getting emotional.

Jessica peered out from her door, the mist warning her that she mustn't be seen by them, because then she'd be going nowhere. She watched Saunders pull out one drawer after another while cursing. Rosa looked to another woman in the room, shaking her head as if to communicate something.

The other shorter woman was in a white hospital gown, her feet bare, with her back to Jessica. "Doc, calm down, I think we ought to look -- "

The woman turned around and her eyes locked onto to Jessica's. The mist swirled its disapproval. I warned you! But Jessica got two surprises. The woman stared with a certain understanding on her face, and did not alert the other two. She was choosing to stay silent, give Jessica a chance to flee.

The other surprise was that the woman was herself, in her recent memory at least. But only the human part of her other self. She, this Jessica, was also a collection of micro selves, making a bigger self. How did she know that?

Her little selves could hear and see the pleading of the mist to run please run. Go to the flying box machine that would take them to a place where others like themselves would be together, understand each other.

She forced a smile to her other Vivian, made a small wave and then slipped out of the morgue.

####

Vivian and Rosa stood on one side of the open drawer with Saunders on the other.

"What was her condition, Rosa? Did she remember anything?"

"Like I told you," Rosa answered. "She was groggy, then confused about who she was, but basic vital signs were good."

"So what in hell did you do with her?"

Vivian took her defense. "For the thousandth time, dammit, she doesn't know!"

Saunders ran to the hallway and started calling. "Jessica! Jessica! It's me John, it's OK! Jessica!"

"Broadcasting her name will really keep your secret safe, won't it?" Vivian said, coming up behind him. Yet here she was, concealing she'd just seen the live Jessica and let her run off.

Saunders backed into the corridor wall, then let his knees give way until he sat on the floor. Rosa knelt in front of him. "What in heaven's good name is going on, Doctor? Or should I call security now?"

That brought focus into his eyes. "No, no, don't do that. Not yet." He got himself up. "All right, all right. Both of you, please, into my lab and I'll explain." Then came a forced smile. "I'm sorry for my outburst. I've just had so much riding on this."

He offered them seats, now the gracious host. "I wasn't lying to you before when I said that this was essential research and needed to be protected until I could gauge the results."

"But wait a moment, just one moment," Rosa said. "Wasn't this woman clinically deceased?"

"Actually," Vivian said. "Most of her was outright crushed, right John?"

Rosa pressed on. "And the fact that this reawakened woman thought she was Vivian, means that somehow you've been using Vivian in this."

Vivian's stomach lurched. "Yeah John, you've had tubes up my nose and my head has a hole in it, all without my consent. And all this time I thought our friendship -- "

Saunders held up two hands. "Both of you, just calm down. Don't go jumping to conclusions. Vivian, you have a verifiable dust addiction. You got yourself into that trouble, and I really intend to help you with it."

Rosa colored. "And what about the other troubles she's accused of? And why is it that this reawakened poor woman, has somehow got her identity confused with Vivian?"

Saunders reached across the table, took Rosa's hand. "As a scientist, just stop and think. You said it yourself: here's a new human, brought back to life. Aren't certain compromises worth the implications? Think of the credit and notoriety this can bring. Your name can be listed as an assistant on my paper to be published."

He turned to Vivian. "And you too, being the first subject. I've come to think of you as my, well, sort of techno-buddy, you know that. Jessica's got some of your memory, and yes, I extracted just a bit of your neural fluid. Now aren't you interested to meet your other self, help us analyze what parts of you she recalls and what's unique to her?"

Both women were silent as he brightened, as though assuming their acceptance. "Vivian, don't worry about your legal troubles, they'll be moot once this gets rolling. But we've got to keep this contained and find her as fast as possible. She could be in a panic right now. So let's decide what sections of the ship to search and bring her back here, OK?"

The medical console to the side of them bleeped and Borgus' gruff voice came out. "Doctor Saunders, please acknowledge."

Saunders held up a finger as though telling both women to stay silent. "Right here, Chief. What can we do for you?"

"I thought App. Vargas was still in your care, correct?"

"That she is."

"Then why has someone input her code signature, just over ridden our bay protocol and left our station on a shuttle?"

Vivian spoke up. "Chief Borgus, it's me, I'm right here. You can activate visual if you want."

The screen over the medical console came to life and there was the old man's face, staring at the three of them. "You indeed are there. So who the hell would you have given your shuttle ID codes to? Our hails have gone unanswered."

Saunders offered advice. "Why don't you run a check of your other apprentices, Chief, any one of them could have done it. Skellig, for example."

Before Borgus could respond, Saunders hit the kill switch and Borgus was cut off.

"We've got to get Jessica back and we're all in trouble if we don't."

Saunders moved to a drawer and began rummaging. Rosa slapped the table. "No, not ‘we' doctor, it's only you who will be in trouble." She rose and went to the console. "It's time to let your little secret -- "

Vivian saw the small gun in Saunders hand that he'd pulled from the drawer. Before she could cry out a warning, Saunders fired. Rosa grabbed at her back, let out a long breath and fell to the floor.

Then the barrel aimed at Vivian. "Hold still or you get the next one."

Vivian spoke evenly. "So this is you, a real healer, shooting people."

Saunders knelt by the body, felt the neck while keeping an eye on Vivian. "I'm not a murderer, this was a tranq dart only. Her pulse is even, she'll be out a few hours is all. But you'll do as I say or I'll pump three into you, and that will be lethal."

"I see. But we're still buddies, right?"

####

Using her apprentice's knowledge of codes and system hacking, Vivian had led Saunders to Shuttle Bay 7, where a non-commissioned craft sat in dry dock. Now space borne, she punched in a tracking program on the console monitor to get a lock on the lead shuttle.

"Headed to the north camp, I'd say."

Saunders still held the tranq gun on her. "The polar region, where your last mission was?"

"Seems so." Vivian scanned the console view shield. The blanket of space made for a dramatic backdrop, textured by the glitter of stars. To the left, the arcing edge of Saturn's outer rings made a lopsided rainbow. Ahead and below was the multicolored surface of a moon once thought barren, but now known to be rich in varied minerals, metals and hydroxyl rivers at ground level with occasional cloud systems passing above. The pole had no real ice cap; the entire moon was well below freezing, but it did have a collection of special minerals and the unusual lake with its organic paste.

Within minutes, they'd surely be picked up on the station's radar. But Saunders, damn him, had been right about Vivian's longing to catch a being with her identity and borrowed neural fluid. "John, just how much of my brain juice did you take?"

"About 20 cc."

"Is that a lot? What are we talking about here?"

Saunders ignored the question and pointed at the blue shimmering flares, arcing over the northern region. "Look. Are those the aural phenomena you reported?"

"Yup. They sprout up a good three klicks into the sky."

"About how far behind Jessica are we?"

"She's got a fifteen minute start, and we've got a good half hour to reach there. Best we can do." She still couldn't say why she'd let Jessica go without a word during their first encounter. Maybe to see what her other new self would do, given the freedom? She would need a way to make sure Jessica wouldn't be a target for Saunder's weapon, either.

"Try to hail her again, Vivian."

Instead their console bleeped with a hail from Station Lennier's bridge.

"Don't tell me," came Borgus' voice. "Another Vivian impostor? Is there a convention down on the surface?"

"Don't answer that, Vivian."

"I can hear and see you fine, doctor," Borgus said. "Now what's this little drama all about?"

"Something medically confidential," Saunders insisted and shut off the screen, eclipsing the image of Borgus for the second time in an hour.

####

"I feel like there's two kinds inside of me," Jessica said, guiding the craft over the outer edges of the polar landscape.

The mist gathered itself into a purple vortex, hovering over the copilot's chair. Two of what?

"Two voices, two currents. One feels isolated like wanting to make me turn this box around and grab onto the people. That one makes my stomach flip."

She looked down at her slender midsection, ran her hands over her belly, her gazelle like legs. "This new body is way radical, I'll say that."

The mist wound into a tighter knot. What is the other voice you have? You said there were two.

"Well, the other one tells me to chuck them all to hell, the people."

Tell more about that.

"That I don't belong with the human buggers. That the part of me that's like them is not as real." She stroked her long blond hair. "Just look at this mane."

The mist rippled. Yes, you don't belong with them. Tell more.

"That there's a real other me that's many, and more like, like you maybe."

We are same, very same. Now you know. The mist glowed brightly now.

####

Saunders rubbed his temple with one hand, clutched the tranq gun with the other. "This was so close to being so right."

Vivian drummed fingers on the console. "John, once we catch Jessica, then what? Time to tell me what she really is and why setting me up was part of it." She wanted to scream at Saunders what a heel he'd been; how much she longed to shove his gun down his betraying throat.

Saunders only nodded, oblivious to the hurt. "I found a way to regenerate dead flesh from a new generation of nanites. I could grow her limbs back, even her skull and brain tissue."

"What kind of new nanites?"

"I discovered a process of flash freezing the standard bio nanites, then quickly re-heating them. This makes them more conducive to regenerating flesh from DNA, even in a dead body, provided the cells are well preserved. "

"But don't you need flowing blood for that?"

He smiled, as though pleased with her. "Normally yes, but with this new breed--and they're my proprietary discovery mind you--I can force a synthetic lymph through the vessels locally, dissolve the nanites in it and they can do that work. Then at some point, when the heart is regenerated, I can replace the lymph with actual synth-blood. I'm glossing the surface here, but that's the short explanation."

"Why the fluid from my head into Jessica's?"

"So that the nanites can reform in a familiar cellular environment in her brain."

"Any ill effect on me?"

"Not known and that's one of the reasons we need the two of you together."

"Real comforting." Vivian pointed to a blip on the screen. "There they are, about ten minutes ahead of us."

"Try hailing again!"

Vivian opened a channel and requested a response.

Jessica's face filled the screen. "Hello, John, hello me. I see you're hot on my tail."

Saunders jumped in his seat. It was his first view of his creation coming to life. "Jessica, how are you? You look so alive, sweetheart. Please, I need to examine you. Can you wait for us?"

"I'm feeling real conflicted about that right now." She pointed at Vivian. "I remember being you. Are we connected?"

"I think so," Vivian said. "What do else do you remember?"

"I'll ask the questions," Saunders cut in.

Jessica ignored him. "Vivian, I remember coming here before, and that I was in recent deep crap over some dust trouble. And having your body and not being thrilled with it."

"You're part me all right," Vivian said.

"Yeah, but how can there be two of us?" Jessica asked.

"I think the good doctor was just getting to that." She turned to Saunders, who looked paler.

"First," he said, "I need to know why you're running away from us, Jessica."

"There's something guiding me who has a self made of many, like I know I have. Loopy as that sounds."

Vivian put up a hand. "Whoa, Jessica. Is your new pal a kind of colored mist?"

Jessica smiled. "So you do know about it."

"This is delusional, both of you," Saunders said. "Jessica, I command you to turn that shuttle around and follow us back to the station."

Jessica blinked. "The words ‘screw off' are coming up for me right now."

"This mist is not real, you're not completely healthy yet."

"Then how," Jessica asked, "does Vivian know about it? By the way, I'm about to land."

Jessica's image winked out with Saunders crying no, no.

"The mist is real, John," Vivian said. "But it can only be perceived while in an altered state. The first time I saw it was when I was asleep and Skellig broke into my room.

That's who it was, wasn't it?"

"Go on," Saunders said, peering at the polar landscape. "What kind of altered state?"

"Closest thing would be, according to Rosa, like an astral projection."

He chuckled now. "Fantastic. See how rich this research is? So you were really able to experience leaving your body with heightened perception?"

"Yes, and it happened the first two times after getting a snort. I'd guess that was somehow connected with my alpha waves getting wacky too, right?"

"I knew working together would be -- "

"Now you tell me what all this has to do with our runaway Jessica. I was able to see your scanner with a bunch of nanites you drew out of my head, so talk."

Saunders sighed, shook his head. "Don't be miffed, Vivian. With all my breakthrough work on cellular regeneration, and then the advances I was able to make on regrowing limbs on a corpse, there's still the mystery of what animates the human brain. Even though I could regenerate the lobes of her damaged brain there are still the missing memories. Then there's also the absence of the electrical signature that creates the personality. This is the one reason why those in prolonged cryo freeze after death have never been revived. When the neurons are too long dead they lose their ability to generate this field called the Electronic Wave Aura. It's the EWA that gives the brain its sense of self, of ego, if you will. So I had to borrow one."

"And that would be mine?" Vivian asked. "Why now?"

"Two things came together for me, Vivian. One was the organic media that arises from that polar lake."

"That blue mush that Skellig dug up on our mission?"

"Exactly. It's what my nanites love to live on and it somehow gives them the organizing capability to enter a brain and copy the host's EWA. Now the other opportunity we have is you, Vivian Vargas herself. If Jessica has to come back to life with another personality, I'd rather it'd be yours." He tried a weak smile. "Vivian, you should only be touched that I chose you."

"Hold on. Pushing aside the flattery, John, that would mean you needed a way to get the nanites into my brain and --. The dust. You put them in the damned dust. Even had Skellig go back and leave that vial in my cabinet, right?"

"Forgive me for that part, Vivian, I was desperate."

"And while inside me, these nanites were somehow patterning my thoughts, emotions, making their own mold of my brain signature? I suppose that explains why my feelings have been on a roller coaster these last few days. And maybe why once they were extracted, I felt saner again. But I don't have my fluid back and I'm no less pissed at you."

"I'd like to hear more about what you experienced, Vivian, really. Especially how the nanites fomented your ability to astral project. This could be a great supplement to our project."

"Along with all the other criminal implication nonsense? Wait, don't tell me. You needed me, then you needed to what -- get me out of the way? Like Skellig's got this smuggling gig going and if he agrees to be your errand boy, you'll help put it on me so that someone else goes down for all the dust coming into the station."

"Dust," Saunders said, "that you've been voluntarily buying off him for months now, Vivian. You did the addiction all by yourself."

Vivian snorted. "And that excuses you and yours, right?"

"Things have changed Vivian, I want to keep you involved all the way. If you show any ill effects, we can replace your lost fluid with some of Jessica's. And, of course, I'll clear you of all charges once we get back."

"How you gonna clear yourself, John? Borgus is going to want a piece of your ass now."

Saunders rubbed his forehead. "Look, one thing at a time. There's no future for any of us if we lose Jessica. Why, exactly, is she going back to that lake, Vivian?"

"Turns out that the blue paste your nanites crave, originates from the same lake as the mist. Maybe the creature is taking a new friend for a home sleepover."

"You're telling me that this entity is real and comes from that lake?"

"John, if you can revive the dead, and I can be a part time ghost, then why is a little live mist unbelievable? We're beginning our descent."

Vivian pointed to a roughed orange patch about two thousand meters below. Frozen blue ammoniated streams flanked either side of the patch, which had a distinct silver dot in the middle of it. "That's her shuttle, it's landed."

"Hail her again for heaven's sake," Saunders ordered.

This time Vivian was able to lock in on their cabin's video and they caught an image of Jessica shrugging on the top of a spacesuit.

"Jessica!" Saunders called. "Where are you going?"

Jessica regarded the screen. "Hey, John. We didn't finish our talk before, did we?"

"Jessica, I need you stay where you are until we get there. Please. I have to explain what you're going through."

"I've had a good explanation from my new friend," she said and broke connection.

Saunders turned to Vivian. "For heaven's sake, land this thing fast." He arose, pulling open lockers and asking where the damn spacesuits were stored.

"Brace for touch down," Vivian called, and enjoyed Saunders cart wheeling over as the craft impacted ground. "Should've kept your belt on, John."

He scrambled along the floor for his missing gun, but Vivian had grabbed it. He put a hand on her arm to claw his way up, and she cold cocked him on the brow with the butt. That brought him back to his knees and yowling in pain.

Vivian allowed herself a smile. "You should be touched I clonked you with feeling."

Saunders dabbed at his forehead and remained on the floor. "That was totally unnecessary and cruel besides."

"Your double standard continues to inspire. But at least you won't be waving any weapon at me or Jessica." The other shuttle, standing about fifty yards away, let down its landing stair. "Speaking of our girl; she's about to go for her stroll."

Saunders pulled himself into the copilot's seat. "No, we can't let her. It'll make the research for nothing."

Vivian wanted to clobber him again, but tracking Jessica was more important.

She disarmed the tranq gun, then they pulled suits from the lockers and put them on. By the time they exited the craft, Jessica's form was a distant figure plodding up a steep rise.

Vivian synchronized their helmet headsets as they set off. They opened a channel to hail Jessica's helmet but got no answer.

Vivian left the channel open and then took her first few steps up the orange hill, the surface covered with alternating bits of frozen ammoniated scree and refuse, all on top of a glassy layer of ancient hardened volcanic rock. Taking the lead, she felt out Saunders on another question.

"Hey John, if she's got my EWA or some impression of it, then the Jessica you knew is still dead, right?"

"Technically, yes. Vivian, slow up a bit, I'm not used to this."

She let him catch up. "Then who's really alive inside her? Those nanites are still there in her head aren't they? So is it them running the show or is she human?"

"One of the questions we want to explore. Why it's so important to keep her under observation. I was hoping that after an interval, her brain could regenerate the EWA itself, then we could extract and discard the nanites."

"So your special nanites were a trick to jump-start her new soul? But what if the little buggers don't like being shown the door?"

The ground around them took on a bluish glow, flickering on and off.

"What's happening to the light?" Saunders asked, pausing again.

"The aural field that was here before seems to be waking up again." She took Saunders' arm and urged him onward. The top of the rise was just meters away. Above them, the sky showed glowing cloudy arcs of the blue flares, building in intensity. "Quite a light show, huh?"

Saunders pointed upward. "That one's especially bright."

Vivian recognized it. "That's because it's a Lennier shuttle, from security no doubt, come to fetch us all back. She'll land near our craft in a minute or two."

They reached the top of the mound and about a hundred meters down the slope was the edge of a cobalt blue lake, looking like glassy frozen ice. The entire thing, about a kilometer in diameter, sat in the hollow depression of what had to be an ancient meteor crater. Jessica stood near the edge of the shore.

Hundreds of meters above her came the bright flash of the security shuttle's retro rockets. They must have been spotted, for the craft was going to put down right at the edge of the lake as well.

"We've got to get to her first." Saunders took a few running steps, lost his footing and went into a slow tumble. Vivian side stepped her way down and found Saunders lying on his side, about ten meters up from the edge of the lake. Jessica, close by, turned to gaze at him.

As the security shuttle landed behind Jessica, Vivian hooked her glove into Saunders's elbow and helped him to his feet.

"Is my suit pierced? Am I OK?" His hands began feeling around his trunk and legs awkwardly.

"If you had a hole, you wouldn't be asking." Vivian reached over, hit a few buttons on Saunders's belt and instructed him to watch his helmet display. The pressure was still good.

Saunders pushed Vivian away and lunged toward the other suited woman. "Jessica, let me talk to you."

Jessica's hand came up with a laser pistol. "I'll put a real hole in your suit if you take another step."

Less than fifty yards behind Jessica, the landed security shuttle let down its access stair. The door opened and two helmeted figures emerged.

Jessica pointed her laser gun at the lake's edge and with a red beam, scribed a circle about a meter in diameter. The frozen surface turned pasty, and a blue mist gathered around it. On its home turf it had finally become visible.

"Go feed yourself, I know you're starving," Jessica said.

"Let me talk to you, tell you what you are," Saunders pleaded.

Her helmet turned back to him. "You've talked plenty, Doctor. Especially the part about my many selves being expendable."

"No," Saunders pleaded, "you've got it wrong."

"I know what I heard. Vivian left the channel open."

"And we heard as well," came Borgus' voice in Vivian's helmet. She recognized the second figure to emerge from the craft, by his hobbling gait. At least Titan's reduced gravity allowed him to walk without a cane. "Saunders, we know Vivian's innocent of the smuggling. We've got Skellig in custody and he spilled on you as well. So let's stop the nonsense right here."

Before Saunders could reply, the lead figure from the craft raised his rifle.

Jessica reacted by raising her own laser gun. "Stay still and lower that weapon."

"We're here to escort you back to the station." It was Lasky's voice. "We'll keep you safe from the doctor if that's your concern."

"And who keeps me safe from all of you?" Jessica kept her gun on Lasky.

Vivian edged away from Saunders. She stood several meters up the slope from Jessica, equally distant from the deranged doctor on her right, and Borgus with Lasky on the left. She and Jessica were now the pawns in the middle.

"I'll watch over you," Saunders said to Jessica. "I made you, you owe your new life to me."

"And when you extract all my little souls and discard them, what's left of me? None of you get it. I can't go back."

"Jessica," Vivian said, feeling a sudden loss. "They used me, too. And somehow, I think you've got a part of me with you. So please don't bail on me, yet."

"If they were all like you, maybe, but they're not."

Saunders stepped toward her. "Jessica, I'm the only one who knows you, who can make you fully human. We were connected once, you and I." He reached her, put a hand on her elbow. "We were in love. We can have each other back."

"I was never with you, you creep," she said and shot him in the chest. The beam pierced his suit and his anguished cry lasted less than a second. His torn suit let the cold into his body and he fell, a frozen form, making a small bounce on the ground.

Vivian stood dumbfounded, hating Jessica and yet knowing Saunders had it coming.

"Stop it, Jessica, stop! You're still human, don't do this."

"Am I? That wasn't hard at all, was it? Y'know, for a moment something said I shouldn't kill, then it was like, what the hell."

"You gotta listen to that first part, Jess, it's there in both of us."

"Yeah? Maybe the part of you and I that's the same is just the outside shell and some brain grooves." She banged her chest. "This is a copy of what's you. It's what's trapped inside I need to protect."

"No, you got it backwards -- wait!"

Lasky had brought his gun up causing Jessica to react by swinging her weapon, two handed, towards his head. Vivian, panicked about losing Jessica, dove at her, bringing them both to the ground in a tumble. "Borgus, guys, help me with her!"

But the regenerated Jessica was unusually strong, easily throwing Vivian off so that she flew into Lasky, knocking his rifle out of his hand. The next moment, Jessica was back on her knees still holding her gun. Borgus, unarmed, stood just feet away.

Jessica turned toward the undulating mist hovering over the lake. "I'm done. Come and take us, all of us." She raised her weapon, aiming it at Borgus.

Vivian didn't know how she'd taken up Lasky's discarded rifle, but found herself pressing the trigger. Jessica didn't cry out, but Vivian did, feeling something tug at her the moment Jessica met her newest death.

As soon as Jessica toppled to the ground, the blue mist had swirled away from the hole at the lake's edge and enveloped her. Vivian reached the body in time to see threads of mist enter Jessica's suit through the tear and tunnel into the nostrils of the frozen beautiful face in the helmet. "You made me do that. Why, why?"

"Thanks for saving me, Vargas," came Borgus' voice in her helmet. But Vivian was dumb, feeling the downward pull of something weighing on her entire torso, and the growing gag reflex in her throat.

The next moment, the mist came shooting out of Jessica's nose and open mouth, out of the tear in the suit and back over the lake. It formed a vortex over the laser carved hole, rotated now with silver flecks among the purple, then sucked itself back into the deep. The auras overhead ceased and the surface of the lake, where the hole had been cut, went solid and smooth again.

Vivian fell to her knees at the lake's edge, reached out a hand and let it rest on the rock hard blue surface. "Don't leave me, damn you." She felt Borgus' gloved hand on her back as her sobs began.

EPILOG

Three days later, Vivian stood on the loading dock, watching containers of cargo ride a conveyor belt, an umbilical tube leading to the large transport that hovered just outside the bay. When the loading was complete, the passengers would be ushered through. Before, she was often one of the apprentice crew facilitating the transfer of such material. Today, she stood in civilian clothes, both hands holding the handles of her duffel in front of her, as though handcuffed to it. She'd been suspended from the apprentice roster and was ordered to Helix Hospital on Jupiter's moon, Europa.

Rosa stood next to her, linking an arm into hers. "You will come through this. Dr. Evan Wantaugh runs a wonderful program -- "

"And he's your best old mate, I know." Vivian put a false lilt into her voice. "And everyone there will treat me like royalty."

Vivian felt Rosa's arm pull away. "All right, be sarcastic if that makes it feel better. But you'll have to work on that Argentine accent if you're going to imitate me."

Vivian couldn't help smiling. "OK, so you're a better sport than I am."

Rosa's hand was back on her arm. "Please remember, only the nanites went between your brains."

"No, that juice went, too. As soon as Jessica died, something in me..."

"Yes, you felt emotional connection. But the evidence casts doubts that our resurrected Jessica was ever fully human. You sensed that as well."

Vivian nodded. "And Saunders's work is coded to hell and back, so guys might never decipher his formulas. But my head feels like something's not the same anymore, missing -- "

"Just post trauma, Vivian. I'm hopeful the doctors will confirm that the fluid taken will be of little consequence."

"Sounds like med-speak for ‘who knows, girly.'" She sat on a nearby loading crate. "Rosa, do you think that creep ever liked me for myself?"

Rosa sat beside her. "John Saunders was a user of people. I like you for yourself."

"You're the wrong gender, Rosa. Nano-Jessica had more soul than he did. And I'm telling you, lady, that crazy mist has consciousness, too."

"That will be for other teams to research. Borgus assured me you'll get credit for being ‘an agent of first contact' if it proves out."

Vivian shrugged. "Something tells me our mist isn't going to do any more meet and greets with humankind so soon. Once burned, as they say." The conveyor belt withdrew. Vivian sighed as they both stood. "Everything I once thought I wanted is here. And now I'm booted off in some kind of disgrace."

Rosa took Vivian's hand. "Remember, our records show a temporary discharge for substance abuse, and a commendation for ingenuity and bravery as well. I've given you enough medicine to see you through the ten-day trip. Transmissions from the program will begin tomorrow so that by the time you arrive -- but you know all that." Rosa turned Vivian to face her. "I need my friend to be looking forward to coming back, for my sake and hers."

The two women hugged as Vivian was called to board. Rosa clung to the embrace.

"And I'll work on old Borgus myself, make him beg to take you back. He misses you already."

Vivian turned toward the gangway, doubting her feet would ever walk Lennier's decks again.

THE END


© 2010 Ken Kraus

Bio: Ken Kraus's stories have appeared in Planetary Stories and in Aphelion (most recently The Dolphin of Europa, May 2009). The space station in "Vivian and the Dust" is also the setting for Mr. Kraus's newly completed novel, “Borgus and the Duke,” in which Vivian’s boss partners with the ghost of his hero, John Wayne, to avert a crisis.

E-mail: Ken Kraus

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