Excerpt: Inslee

 

Inslee

 

I was trapped in a state between dreaming and awake. Everything felt like I was conscious, but I couldn’t exactly remember much after the fact. I woke with bits and pieces, feeling there was so much missing. He appeared in it, holding one of my near frozen hands. I pictured a bench by a duck pond, then walking around. I was so tired after, but sleep refused its company. I threw off my bed sheet and crossed my arms.

Closing my eyes for at least a few minutes changed nothing, except making me more awake. I looked up at one of the ribs surrounding the ship inside the inner hull.  High tension cabling joined almost every structural element to them. Everything above — as with every other surface was coated in some impact-resistant material. The overhead skylight showed a multitude of stars appearing overhead as if still on Earth but in a configuration suited to a nearly two-thousand-year journey from home.

I pulled the covers back over, hugged them to my chest, and arose from bed, wrapping myself with the cover. A tripped over to the only window by the foot of the bed. The hunched back of the ship truncated by the med bay wall and punctured by massive windows, crossed with invisible ribs. Spare pods barnacled the ceiling. On the deck below, eighteen flesh colored pods held the next three gens.

I moved over to the door as it opened and out onto the grated walkway. This followed with the usual unpleasantness of bare feet on the grated floor. I reached a space in the rail and stepped off. I floated weightless while the ship gradually lowered me down. The blanket stayed with me, unaffected by grav through everything. I landed beside the first row of illuminating pods and proceeded over to the corner most pod, the home of DB. Pressing a spot on my left shoulder, generated a set of bedding in my hand, which I laid down beside the pod. I lay down beside DB.

He looked peaceful in the pink glow of the pod with one arm under his head and the other hand at his chin. All of us on ship now pod or otherwise would’ve spent a minimum of twenty-five years dreaming life away before consciousness with a saved neural scan. Dreaming without any outside experience ended up a jumble of user generated stimuli. They were almost empty vessels awaiting a consciousness or experience. DB dreamed with his brilliantly green eyes running around behind closed lids. I remembered him best as the moody lyricist of thirty, wandering from quarters to job with notes hanging around and the occasional rendition. His hair was growing in nicely in the month it had.

I couldn’t help but think about one of my kids, Trish as she liked to be called most of her life. She inadvertently exposed herself and half the crew to radiation, myself included in one of the labs. At the time, the hands-on three-year-old required almost two weeks in pod. The consensus was consciousness in pod helped avoid developmental issues. Two weeks exceeded all known cases. We deployed a pod into the shared three cabin space for the family. Removing the pod’s outer covering allowed interaction through the confines of treatment. When everything righted, Trish couldn’t experience the biological imperative of sleep without the pod. We reintroduced the pink pod lighting, gel mattress, and soothing white noise with the plans of future dependence removal. In about ten years, everything returned to normal and pod consciousness hereby regulated to ten days max.

Looking at DB, sleeping, and thinking about Trish delivered me safely into slumber. A few sc later, the ship lights came on. The black and white clarity of darkness replaced with the multicolor coherence of day. I rewrapped myself in sheet and returned to the cabin just as the Captain came around for pre-day checks with the night flight crew.

 

Inslee

 

I examined the last tool on my med kit, a lighter-sized tray with one end as a spindle sheaved with metal elements. Each induced a specific response from the patient. These responses came about through triggering a natural body response on cue, modifying existing proteins, RNA sequences, activating set DNA segments, but mostly altering reactions to stimuli. Additional diagnostic equipment tapped into the body’s sense of health and sensory data. For the past thirty minutes, my sole focus had been cleaning and inspecting this set of keys. The drones, presumably based on some order, sequestered me and Dominic (him) in the med bay.

I reluctantly accepted the unnecessary imposition. I missed some wear on the opioid stimulator. I buffed away the scratch with my finger wrapped in a cloth. While I did away with the scratch, I traced the waistline of my skirt in my head. The hem adhered at the level of the uppermost ileum. The back dropped a couple of inches, exposing the dimple backing a portion of the iliac crest and more. The skirt flared out in a purplish pink. My long cream sweater descended past that with an invisible section in the shape of a tank. Everyone could look through me and see what was there. A patch of invisibility all the way through.

Then it happened. The ship jumped and me along with it. My ears popped and readjusted in quick secession. A really quick depressurization event followed by the deployment of pressure maintaining foam and resealing. The ship jumped again. I dropped the med kit. Everything stopped after the washboard road feeling passed. A final light rumble.

A warning appeared in the back of my head, the feeling that you forgot something really important and it scared you. I thought about it enough to make out a medical alert. Three crew used light pressure suits during the commotion and possible injuries. I pocketed my med kit, spun around on the bench, and pushed off to my feet. The two drones remained there.

“Inslee you can’t leave the medical bay, you know this.”

Why couldn’t those drones stop blindly stop following orders and think for themselves? They had the ability but simply relied on given commands, disregarding how reasonable they were. Everything was fine until someone needed my help. I had nothing better to do than stay in the med bay, where I usually was during the day. Why wouldn’t they allow me to treat a person in need? “Guys, I need to check on people in danger. That’s my function. I’m sure you can appreciate that.”

They held hands and the rails along the door frame. “No. You can’t leave.”

They just stood there. Their square tube frame bodies locked straight into shape and the partial cowls designed to mimic human shape juddered into stillness. The original shipbuilders could’ve designed any type of bot security, stronger and more deadly than any human, but they made those. Equivalent to the majority of humans in size, shape, and strength, pretty much every conceivable physical and mental characteristic was accounted for. “They need my help. Please check the crew status.”

They shut their mechanical eyes and maintained the blockade. I put one foot ahead of the other, clenched my hands into fists, and felt the ready warmth of impending struggle. Nic grabbed me by the shoulder and whispered in my ear. “Ins I have a better way.” I shivered and threw his hand off. I can do this without you. He looked at me for a second before understanding what I thought about his suggestion. Those bots had review access to all ship sensors for doling out consequences. He sent a message clean up your own mess then. Something made me back down. Probably we both wanted the same thing. I huffed out a held breath I didn’t know was in me.

 

Inslee

 

We dragged the two disabled drones into near-empty cabinets used for surgical supplies. Disinfectant lights and any manufactured sterile supplies in hermetically sealed trays magnetically stuck to the sides of each cabinet. I got a big square cabinet, easily rearranged the drone into the fetal position, stuffed it in, and locked the door shut. Nic got a long cabinet. He struggled to keep the laid out drone inside the doors. I checked my pockets for the med kit and ran out the med bay, veered left, passed the pods, stopping below the gap in the railing outside my cabin. A tap on the floor should float me to the next deck down. Thinking up or down also worked. A few taps did nothing. My frustration got the better of me, and I stomped. The metallic clink sounded throughout the ship. I let out an orgasmic gasp. Nic joined me then.

“I take it the deck isn’t welcoming.”

I crossed my arms. “Nothing happens the way it should.”

“Have you checked sensors?”

I glared at him. I’m not that idiotic.“Yeah.” I ignored the reality. Nic regressed me.

He just nodded and waited.

It felt like the lower deck lost some pressure. I thought an airlock would work great in this situation. Four columns emerged from the floor, gray with a black mesh overlay, and rose up to the walkway above. Cross bars framed a square overhead. Clear partitions fell out of the overhead frame, descended down, and sealed around the edges. I slid off my shoes and drove my thumbs around the waistline of my skirt. Obviously noticing, Nic turned his back. Be human at least and watch Nic. He was alas too fixed in his superiority. It isn’t possible for anyone to look that ugly, especially me. I slipped out off everything.

“Hey, Ins will you need any help in the observation room?”

“No, Nic.”

With my sweater around my shoulders, “Ins, how many beds do you need?”

“Three should do alright.”

I dropped the sweater and it vaporized as everything else did after leaving physical contact. The cream wool degenerated into golden strands that frayed apart unnaturally fast and faded through intangibility to nothingness. A simple press somewhere along my input axis would materialize another article of clothing. Any input axis covered the body in a customized pattern of two lines bordering calligraphy representing selection options. This tactile input triggered a mental image of selected fabric creation. Two dots on my right forefinger and middle finger acted as selectors. My axis was a bright, deep blue at the time, but visible to none besides me.

Nic returned to the med bay for the beds. The clear screens parted like the surface of the water and rippled back together. I reached a homeostasis suit (matching the airlock) suspended on the left. A very close-fitting affair required to stretch over the body as a taut, thick second skin, feeding through dampened sensory information. I sat on the floor, extended my toes, and forced them through pants fitted apparently for an adolescent. Zero grav ergonomics required some jerry-rigging under anything but ideal conditions (zero-grav.) I tugged at the waist and at points along each leg until the waist reached the upper thighs with everything else nearly smooth. I kneeled for the last tug and ended up standing, jumping, and tugging until the bottom half breached my navel. I was now facing the med bay.

I grabbed the top, straightened my hands into plates, and pushed them through the sleeves with the mandatory stretching and smoothing. The purpose of a snug fit felt worthless when I considered the effort required even getting the thing on and not the forty-eight hour space time unburdened by breaks, fatigue, and the mental overhead we started out with two-thousand-odd years past. The suit holds pressure with just about half a liter in suit. The suit bunches at the shoulders. I craned my head forward and forced it through the suit. This got me by my chest a few inches. I straightened one arm straight up, pulled, and repeated for the other side. The suit sealed around my middle.

I pulled on the gloves and chevron faced helmet. The suit hugged me until the sensors connected through and the suit disappeared. My med kit floated just above the floor, and I stuck it to my suit. Nic ran across the pod bay followed by three floating beds. He waited outside while the beds swung around me in the airlock and the walls mellowed out. Nic doesn’t look twice. I gave him a thumbs up. The grav switched off, I floated still on the ground, and the floor faded away to nothing. I looked down between my feet to the darker deck below filled with bubbles of blue-green water from the water life support system.

This revealed undeniable evidence that in ship lacked true artificial grav if such a thing existed, instead the in ship grav system utilizes electromagnetic force projection originating from within the skeletal system joining to ferrous materials in ship and neighboring bones.  Everything not tacked down with “grav” easily float away.

I know the rail from the hallway below grew up and in the lock so I reached backward. My suit extended a strand of material to the wall and pulled me to it, turning me facing down the length of the ship. I spun around and faced deckward. Tugging on my arm pulled me through the opening into the asteroid field of massive droplets. My hand felt like I was running it down the cool metal railing. The drops landed with wet splishes, metallic plinks, and hollow slaps before spreading out evenly across any surface contacted, the adhesion of water in zero grav. I turned a corner, looked ahead, and saw the ship width doors interlocked with simple teeth and troughs.

The pull on my arm intensified then reversed direction with the warmth of friction on my hand. My feet landed so I could enter the med bypass code, and the doors opened. I looked into a hundred degree curved panoramic window showing the solar wind envelope of our destination world. The plotted jumps led us on a path oblique to the accretion plane. Shimmering black security webbing crisscrossed the wide window. A shattered hole near the middle backed was patched. Twelve steps led down to an equally wide open space littered with glass shards.

Three crew float around in light safety suits. I gauged the extent of injuries before choosing my first action. Raka floated near the ceiling with a ruptured suit and floated down slowly, maybe a head injury. I kicked off in her direction. All of them would be sedated to conserve oxygen. I pulled off my med kit and thought about what data metrics I needed from her. Any hemorrhages, brain trauma, and other injuries also direct dosage of more sedative. Three keys folded out that I touched her with on a suited arm after I stopped myself from hitting her. She had a minor concussion.  Meanwhile, the beds allocated amongst the three injured. The atmosphere was below fifty kilopascals, still breathable but at high altitude.  I pulled her onto the bed and floated over by the next crew member. The bed automatically turned on the patient’s grav, keeping them on board.

I choose Fred with a mass of milky white stomach contents in suit. I needed specific info about location, depth, severity and any additional injuries, so I used two keys from the med kit. He needed myofilament surgery with a perforated abdominal wall and stomach, additional stomach acid damage in between the two. Sealing the exterior wound would just seal in the stomach contents. I closed off pyloric and cardiac sphincters before moving him to the bed. I withdrew a suction tube and stuck it in the stomach contents pool in suit through a gelatinous section awaiting the tube. I increased his platelet production to clot and seal off any bleeding from the wound.

The last person had a swollen ankle the size of a grapefruit and a bleeding cut sealed an inch around by suit. I asked the location of skin damage, ankle broken or sprained, and other injuries with three keys. Just a twisted ankle and minor cut exacerbated by the low air pressure before the suit sealed. I sent him off in the bed with his injured leg floating around and stiff.

I touched the data interface, a blue orb embedded beside the door, and thought about the three injured. Now Nic had my opinions. I floated through the corridor and up into the lock. After everything was sealed and pressure returned, my suit went loose and baggy, and I disrobed. I touched a point along my hip for light green undergarments. A spot halfway up my thigh for close fitting full-length pants with half inch deep exterior pockets. The lower part of my abdomen produced a wide strapped tank fitted around the chest while the rest was a crosshatch of straps ending with a wide horizontal hem. I felt confident and ready for anything.

 

Inslee

 

I opened my eyes to the pod bay wall, sitting behind a desk with my hand above a neural interface orb. My hand tingled from too much input, should have used a headband instead. I massaged my hand and looked over the eighteen sleeping pod dwellers surrounding me. An unbidden feeling of dissatisfaction washed over me. Everything I’d tried ended in loss after however long it lasted. Listing it all was too depressing. Existing in a pod devoid of any of that, might I admit, looked a little tempting? Free from all this crap, life looked good, something I would actually want after two millenniums of this existence. The constant waxing and waning of almost everything just grew tiring and I wanted some form of release, something real, welcome, and concrete to sustain me against the imperturbable march of years — bleak, miserable, and above all fleeting.

 

Inslee

 

I stood well to the back of everyone else on the observation deck, behind the rows of theater seating. Everyone, all twelve of us drifted around with Captain Clark nearest the window. Her captain’s uniform of grey and black and hair pinned up into hoops sprouted out the back of her head. I remembered her best from when we were together. Trying almost anything fell squarely in the life of most long lived. She still had the neck length hair, usually down in private, cascading down into her face and brushed back by a palm. She had a slightly agape mouth and the highest and most upright zygomatics of anyone in ship over a perfectly forward chin. Fred was with her, hand in hand. Fred always had lank, oily hair a little too long, sharp cutting features, and murky eyes. She stepped away to the center of the room and began her address.

“We’re finally here, after nine generations and two galaxies later. The sheer weight of time felt impossible all those years ago, yet here we are. The farthest outpost of the human civilization, Equinox.”

She raised her glass and stepped aside. The window cleared, showing the planet’s surface ahead, a mass of green striated with rivulets of water, and home for the rest of our final lives. Everyone clapped with a hint of excitement, sadness, and above all happiness for the nearly forgotten life in planet. We felt a sideways torque as the ships oriented to the planet’s surface and the blinding brightness of the host star for a sc before the shades activated. The floor displayed the planet below.

Each of us hovered as the ship shook violently, detaching from the command center and engines. The room drifted down right before we settled onto the deck.

 

Inslee

 

Captain Ana Clark, clone twin pilots Anika and Emily started playing a virtual construct music piece. One string, a column of air, and a drum surface — expanded, contracted, and above all vibrated into a three layer harmony that perfectly complimented and opposed itself. My mind wandered to my daughter Rachel. She immersed herself in the tactile experience of playing a physical violin. That T-shaped instrument with four strings always floated in her vicinity when it wasn’t in her hands. She got so good, we sent her recording back to Earth on the QEC. One eccentricity involved the need to play in zero grav. She needed the complete focus of floating with no distracting feeling of down, balance, and the like for anything original or not done before. What would she do on Equinox? Grav would become unavoidable.

I gazed down into my glass with a golden liquid spun up onto the edges of a three-quarter sphere. I put on hand on my bare hip and fingered the sweater-like material making up the interweaving straps. I reconstructed that dress from memory of an original from two gens past, messaged aboard (in ship). Everything besides the black and white needed time to resurface or to be figured out. The diamond of fabric around my neck was the Rosetta stone to decipher the bits I remembered into something whole. From there, the back and front descended into the growth of another diamond. This pattern continued to the floor backed in white below my waist. The whole thing made me feel vulnerable and stunning in equal measure.

I looked over to Nic and Alex. Alex had perfectly grotesque features of high cheeks, a wide face, and a medium sized forehead. He hair was cropped short, turning it black instead of the hazelnut if she grew it out. Her unremarkable chin withered in the light of apparent beauty not witnessed by me. Nic’s dark thick hair welcomed a casual run through over heroic features. His strong chin allowed a slight angular quality, adding an extra unique touch. His deep green eyes mesmerized partially and invited conversation warmly. That paired with Alex, just amazing.

She was in a stretchy white dress, a rarity for her, and red translucent boots. The center hung loosely in big voluminous ridges from side to side and the back plain except for an oval open back. Nic was in his normal pants and a t-shirt matching Alex’s white. Alex hugged him from the side around his waist with her eyes closed. He had his arm draped across her shoulders and the other over hers. His head nodded with the music. They always existed in a world apart, ensconced in each other and always together through one-thousand-eight-hundred-twenty-nine years. They came off as aloof, unemotional, and distant at first glance. In the beginning, my thoughts on the subject amounted to incredulity and amazement tinged with a desire for something similar. They suggested have a need for the other and keep things alive. I would have sworn they kissed and fucked like twenty-something’s separated for just the right amount of time. Then, I didn’t know everything.

 

Inslee

 

I remembered watching their wedding from afar. In one of those tripod buildings with a five-story plinth topped with three slanted towers meeting up at a dodecahedron. At the time we were avoiding each other, and I thought that stop was just tangential meeting. I spent the night over with someone, dispensing with names and focusing on the scenery. I lay on my belly looking out with max magnification into the green lawn below. I didn’t know what possessed me to be there on that day, coincidently in time for their wedding.

Alex stood beside Nic in a black suit while Nic was in white. People I didn’t recognize stood off to either side. I didn’t even bother reading their lips, which tech makes facile.  The presider stood before them with a red ribbon stretched across his hands, offering it to them with the ideals behind it spewing from his mouth. He draped the ribbon over their joined hands. Alex agreed to the precepts and the presider tied the ribbon around their hands. Nic agreed to the terms and conditions. The people off to either side redoubled the knot several times over. The presider hovered his hand over the binding ribbon, which fell, tattered. This represented the elusiveness of true love and how easily everything could fall apart.

For the next six days, they needed to touch in some way for everything to be official or hate each other enough to overcome the joining force repeatedly and become unwed. They kissed, freeing their arms so Nic could lift her up. By this time, I had dressed and departed the apartment blank of my stay.

 

Inslee

 

Back to the landing. Douglas approached me with a hand outstretched. I took his hand with a nod. We danced with Doug in a sensory overload daze. He couldn’t truly be present until we were alone. Spending two hours sequestered with people you’ve known in almost every way became tiresome a few min later and we wandered into the garden directly behind the observation deck. Then an emergency alert flashed before my eyes. DB life unit disconnect. A deep feeling of dread stirred up my stomach. Douglas released my hand and I flew through the corridor weightless, landed at DB’s pod. The life unit appeared gray floating away from his chest. I thought the glass panel open and crouched beside him. My regained weight helped me push through the different warm density layers with my hands — layers the consistencies of maple syrup, honey, and molasses. Up to my upper arms in the stuff, I reached the life unit.

Pushing it back down was easy enough. The unit lighted up red and blue before turning clear. What happened? I pulled my arm free, found myself slathered across the front, and threw back any excess that came off. I stood there wondering more. The pod sent me a density diagram with the area around DB the density of water from a recent position change. That combined with the landing maneuvers caused everything. The gel turned cold, away from the warmth in pod. The pod could return everything to spec without anything more from me. I needed a change of clothes and probably a shower, a sink became messy for anything more than hands. I entered the med bay, stripped down, and into the shower.

 

Inslee

 

I knelt by the window seat, looking at the gel packaging cylinder stuffed into a compartment just the right size. I tried pulling it out without much success. I stood up, braced myself against the opposite closed compartment, grabbed the handle, and pulled. The cylinder lifted slightly and stopped. I opened the outer casing around the cylinder. It didn’t occur to me earlier. The cylinder slipped out easily. I carried the entire thing out the med bay doors and the handle detached, dropping the fifteen-pound implement and denting the impact resistance. This set up a chain of events not emergent at the time. My efforts freeing the cylinder or the long zero grav storage loosened the magnetic initiator.  Anyway, I lowered the handle into the notches and reattached, checking before lifting. I carried it over to DB’s pod. We were going to wake him up today, the first of a new gen.

The pod slanted up forty-five degrees, elevating his head. I tugged out the drainage tube and connected it to the cylinder. The gel liquefied. The cylinder filled, ejected a mesh wrapped package, and finished with fifteen packages connected like sausages. I hauled about half into the shower stall at the back of the med bay. We usually set that up as the desiccation chamber to dehydrate the gel into a small amount of powder. I waited at the pod for Nic. A bed traversed the walls to a spot nearby where a wheeled base waited to transport it over to the pod. Everything worked around the grav situation on Equinox.

The pod opened, allowing the two of us to transfer DB on the curved underlayment across onto the bed a few inches away. We moved the support box for the life unit across and accompanied the bed across the bay to the stairs. The floating between decks halted in planet grav so we grew stairs and requested holes between decks. I climbed down the steep ladder-like stairs, followed by the bed and Nic. The bed slanted through the two deck openings behind me and slid across the hallway by growing two arms. We went up the hallway to the second room on the right. The first room was one of two massive airlocks.

Alex was waiting with three wash clothes. She scuttled into the adjoining bathroom to wet them in the sinks. The sound of whooshing air wasn’t there, something we were all used to. In zero grav, air conducted the movement of water from faucet to drain, wetting anything in the way and vacuuming up errant drops. Showers worked the same way. Toilets need some creative thinking. She handed out two wash clothes, and we started wiping the gel off DB’s body.  We found this ritual before loading a consciousness did away with the whole list of associated side effects. The body became welcoming and something the consciousness wanted after time stored. We weren’t exactly sure how it worked just that it did.

We positioned an interface orb in each of his hands and an interface band around his head — basically a sweat band with blue light contacts. I held the remaining orb in my left hand, and it just stuck there on command. I closed my eyes to appear floating in a room of my creation, a beautiful early morning (right at sunrise) with ankle height fog. I remembered watching Duncan running as a kid with his friends Toby and Sierra. They ran through the fog. Next, a grown Duncan wandered through with his head bent down and face obscured by a hood. Finally, a ball of cryptographic strings appeared that felt like a warm, tightly wrapped ball of steel wire. It was Duncan’s consciousness represented by pictograms which would then be decrypted to crypto text then once again into a plain text list of geographic locations, boundaries of neurons, and shape references. The steel wire ball could expand into a planet in this space, of course, meaningless with two levels of encryption, but that was how much data now rested in my hand. Putting this consciousness into a genetically identical body unwound the ball and parsed it into living, breathing biology.

I walked through the trees surrounding me in the direction of DB in reality. A few feet later, the trees stopped and a field opened up with a bright light nearby. I shielded my eyes with my arm until it dimmed to a shimmering outline of DB with three blue markers matching the location of his interfaces. Nic and Alex appeared as ghosts floating by him. I walked over, put the consciousness inside the outline of DB, and freed the blue marking on my wrist by touching it. I was exactly where I started.

The interfaces were now yellow with a blue tint around the edges. The data was loaded and decrypting with the DNA key. I took a seat across the room from DB with my hands steepled.

Awhile later, my chin was resting on my hands. I considered my clothes as a distraction in the eerily quiet room, filled with three other mouse quiet people. Awakening  SL and TL was at the back of my mind somewhere. My black tank was simple enough if a little square. A mesh over-shirt with one button near the xiphoid process added a nice detail. My pants were the usual close fit with see through pockets and invisibility strips on the inside and outside of each leg. If anyone took the time to look inside they would see the pants contouring to my hidden shape. I felt pretty and almost unassuming.

“Okay, I have to go start with SL.” I looked around but nobody said anything else. They kept watching DB. I wouldn’t refer to him as Duncan until the consciousness loaded. They looked over now.

“Sure.” Alex let me go.

I got up and left. Back at the pod bay, DB’s pod was sealed and steamed up. SL was the next pod over. I slanted it and attached the gel packaging cylinder. Nic pounded up the steps.

“Ins, do you need any help?”

I looked at him.

“Sorry, I got caught up in a memory and didn’t notice you leave.”

“It’s not that. There isn’t that much to do right now. This pod has to empty.”

“I checked the next room. Liang and Clarke are waiting.”

The pod settled flat and opened as the bed arrived. “Help me?”

We moved SL over. I took her to her parents. I said, “I got her. You can handle TL, we’ll be over soon.”

 

Inslee

 

I returned after starting the load of Toby’s consciousness. Duncan was ready to wake up. I pressed a key on his skin that should do that. He opened his eyes and looked around casually. He didn’t notice the gel in his lungs after his body lived with it for so long. Alex was holding onto his hand. I ran my finger along the edge of the life unit plastered across his torso. I peeled it from the bottom up. When fully detached, he looked around wildly. He couldn’t breathe but didn’t know why.

“Some help here Nic.” I struggled to keep my voice even.

Nic started in on the CPR. Moving the chest wall should move the gel inside. It didn’t work. Giving him breaths should also help. I took a deep breath and forced it down his throat. The residence of the gel was almost too much but gave away quickly after that. Duncan started coughing big violent coughs. We turned him to one side where he expelled most of it. He grabbed his stomach after rolling onto his back, ran into the bathroom, and threw up another mass of gel. I was relieved we didn’t have to employ more invasive methods to get him breathing. I checked everything was okay before going to SL and repeating the process.

 

Inslee

 

I walked through the pod bay, carrying a powered down interface orb towards the med bay, notoriously slippery and fragile like that. I chose two-inch heels to see into the overhead shelves without standing on something. I was used to the height in lavation heels but that wasn’t possible in ship with real life, tangible grav. One inch was my comfort zone in those until a few practice sessions that morning in virtualization. I was a little unsure in life. I badly needed a confidence boost, not something I took lightly.

For that reason, I wanted to wear something almost carefree but still reassuring. I put myself into a boat waist pant in light pink. Constructs made it possible without weird fasteners. They followed the curve of the pelvic girdle across the back an inch or two lower. It felt like someone was pressing into my spine from behind. On top, a square neckline and square straps trailed a collection of soft pleats stopping halfway along the waistband. There was enough fabric to probably circle me around twice.

I walked down the length of the pod bay and turned left towards the med bay. From there, I watched Nic stuff a box into the shelf over the bay doors. He backed it out and reinserted the box. I watched his arm muscles bulge and relax. At the same time, my heel stuck in the dent I’d made yesterday, twisted my ankle sideways, and sent me flying to impact Nic. I didn’t know we were so close or things would’ve stopped there.

A stack of three wheely bases and three beds were right behind Nic. I was going to take them out after securely stowing the interface orb. We fell onto the bed with me straddling Nic’s uplifted leg. Instead of pushing off right away, I searched for the interface orb just in my hands. There it was on the window seat across the room. All this time, Nic shrank away from me, getting smaller each sc that passed. At least acknowledge I’m a member of the other sex. To Nic, everyone else was just one of the guys. I pushed up to my knees somehow sliding up his leg before he straightened it. My heart rate spiked and another embarrassing thing almost happened. I hurriedly crawled off despite the fact that my top shifted loose to the front and tight across my back. It actually clung to Nic. I was off, so I evened out the soft pleats. Obviously not a good top for gymnastics unless the goal was showing off a black bra.

I collected the orb, stored it away across from Nic’s desk, a few feet along the length of the med bay. Nic was at the desk, putting everything along it into a box. I followed the stacked beds out into the med bay. They attached along the wall then flew up to join the extra pods. We wouldn’t need five beds in planet, no risk of losing atmosphere.

I thought about the one time Nic went along with it. I was settled in an average sized town for a few years, still on Earth. At the time I didn’t know Alex and Nic were passing through from city to city. I happened to run into Nic going about daily activities. I was putting together a story for about my life since we split ways a few years back.

This presented an opportunity to disseminate that dossier, but how. If he knew who I was everything would come to a swift and bloody end made especially for me. I just threw everything into the first idea I came up with. I kissed the life out of him with tongue, the only way to deliver a digital message without anything else on hand. I overdid it but enjoyed it extremely. A free flow of hundreds of half-second vid clips overloaded his brain. Way over the legal limit of five sc unsolicited. It lasted for twelve glorious sc and not the intended near one minute. I still didn’t know what overcame my good sense that day, but I didn’t regret any sc of it — not even what happened the sc before and after.

Alex pushed me away and slapped me hard across the face. She put her full weight into it like a proper punch except with a slap. Thinking about it centuries later, still brought a ghost of pain back. I left the same way I came. Alex left it with no words spoken, ever.

 

Inslee

 

I woke up pressed into Douglas’ back. Doug slept like a rock, no matter the occurrences from the day before. I extricated my arm, rolled onto my back, and sat up, pulling off covers. We were in Doug’s cabin a deck below mine.

I rose and went to the mirror. This was the first time I’d really looked at myself in true grav since leaving Earth all those years ago. The grav we had in space only tugged on designer bones, leaving connective, organ, and fatty tissues to their own devices. Now everything was under grav. My breasts looked depressing in teardrop shapes, no longer the perky domes from three days ago. The bulge along my lower abdomen that most women had looked exactly the same thanks to my exercise of choice. Unlike the typical softness, this area was muscular, hard, and smooth. I put on underwear, sat on the floor, and ran my finger along the string of characters circling my calf. I closed my eyes and ran through the mental pictures of my wardrobe. I choose well fitting pale blue pants with the dark patterns of defoliated trees.

I cruised down the double stripe across my torso. Just where the line got extra fleshy I found something that felt right, at least in shape. My body was twenty-seven, why not use it. It was just a cloth panel covering my front. The one I chose featured a black and red pattern with straps crossing my scapulae. Then an inverted arch of pleated fabric bridged across my back. I turned my bra see-through before putting it on. It snugged up and stuck at the edges in that wearable way. I scribbled a note into the air that he could look at later.

I left his house halfway down the street. A grey running jacket was enough to keep me warm. The street ran down from the security building to the medical building, passing all the houses. A gust of wind greeted me at the next house. The air smelled fresh, green, and light. The grown surface was smooth under my feet — a web of fist-sized openings covered with a translucent black membrane. The walls of the med building were the same as the material under my feet with the metal walls of the pod and med bays inside. I entered the two outer doors, crossed the pod bay, and stopped in the med bay.

 

Inslee

 

I was standing in a grassy clearing surrounded by a barrier of trees. A bit of effort would be needed before flitting to another task. On the ground before me fourteen boxes waited to my right, each with a different medical supply laid on the lid and the quantity floated nearby. The left side was twelve boxes with the same contents and vastly different amounts. Two bare patches of dirt could be filled with the two empty boxes at my feet.

“Hey, Ins,” Nic says at my back. He was in the room with my physical body. I looked through my real eyes into a curtained off section of the medical bay. Nic was in the section to my left with a patient that arrived during that, ordering of supplies from the fabrication room. Already fully clothed, I peeked through the curtain and saw Fred in the bed with Nic bestowing a severe expression.

“Yeah, Nic.”

“Can you take care of Fred here. Alex called. Duncan didn’t show up at planetary today. I’m sure it’s nothing, but Alex has a bad feeling about the whole thing. I’ll be back after we find him.”

I was a little worried but didn’t let it show. “No problem.”

Nic left without documenting his findings.

“Hi, Fred.”

“Ins.” He adopted a hint of distain after one gen married and I didn’t want to continue the relationship.

“Can you tell me what’s going on?” I saw the big piece of exterior flooring sticking out of his calf. Five inches long, two wide, and curling around the edges, but I thought I’d still ask.

“Obviously this son of a genomic experiment stuck me like a toothpick from hell.”

“I see.” He isn’t in pain but likes being angry. The natural pain response should have handled it by then.

He chuckled a humorless chuckle. Probably, an opportune walk to measure the angle of the sun or some such nonsense with a sextant. That was always of some major importance even with the mass abidance of navigational equipment available to the ship’s navigator, he conjured up a hobby dealing with the intricacies of navigational antiquity. The wandering sailor with eye to sextant walking himself overboard and into everything in his path. That was my husband for one gen.

I went through my diagnostic method. I could easily identify the cause. Now, what made up the intrusion? The material is chitin, same as insect exoskeletons but generated into different structures. The four cm thick webbing resembled, hollow, Terrestrial, avian osteology and the black translucence from the planet Verdigris, a water planet. A hardened semi-transparent membrane originated there as egg casing almost indestructible with pressure. That entire structure flowed with neural impulses and circulation during growth and for weeks after.

I got an interface orb which also acted as a sensory platform. I held it over the sight of injury, closed my eyes, and was standing on a flat portion of the impactor. Sticking my arm through the wall by me, turned it invisible. A neuron pulsed there, but luckily the blood vessel remained empty. No emergency surgery, good. I opened my eyes still bent over Fred’s injury.

“Fred, I need to get you into surgery. How does that sound?”

“Do what you have to Ins.”

“It should take about ten minutes for the actual job. You’ll spend about thirty minutes out.”

“Okay, Ins. All set.”

“Let’s get started.”

The mission rules usually made consent a non-issue. I cleared the way for the bed through the med bay, pulling open curtains and moving the other bed. Wheeling Fred through the space opened the surgical doors at the end of the bay. I wheeled him to a stop besides the eight articulated arms of the auto surgeon and asked the system to set up for the following procedure. I exited the now closed surgical doors into a narrow vestibule used for hand washing and such. I pulled off my clothes in the covered space between the doors, showered quickly, exited once dry, redressed, and entered the surgical gown, gloves, and mask.

I reentered the room to find it flooded with the searing blue of UV black light. My eyes quickly adjusted to their alternate frequency, transforming it into a bright white light. Fred lay there waiting for me. I went to the back wall across from the auto surgeon for a med kit. Touching Fred with it put him into a deep sleep. Then I grabbed a light blue square from another cabinet and a small alcohol swab — the UV should handle it but still. Wiping Fred’s arm prepared for placing the square vessel interface. I fetched the solution bag of nano-bubbles with a tube attached and slide the end over the interface on Fred. When a patient was under surgery it’s easier to completely sedate them than risk awakening during the procedure. They didn’t respond to the med kits in that state, so we had a veritable storehouse of external meds at the ready. I moved an arm of the auto surgeon up to hold the bag aloft and started the flow of nano-bubbles through his system.

He was well on his way to a medically induced slumber. I positioned an interface orb over the wound with another robotic arm and put a set of surgical instruments on. It was a series of bound metal rings across all my fingers. Each ring contained a spool of myofilament terminating in a tool. I moved by the injury and closed my eyes.

I saw the flooring sticking out of the skin. I cut through the webbing into the hollowness within. Two neurons extended into Fred. I stuck a string of myofilament into the neuron and down its length to determine its exact route through the tissues.  One was under the skin and the other joined a superficial nerve routing to a part of the lower nerve connections. I made an incision through the integumentary with a few molecules wide knife, asking the auto surgeon to hold it open. There a touch sensory neuron met up with the flooring neuron. Ten synapses joined the two.

I coaxed out a stack of plates thin enough to block synaptic clefts. A gripper with molecular handle grabbed one, inserting it between both ends of each synapse. With communication cut off, I injected a glial myelin cell with two proteins — myelin-associated glycoprotein and proteolipid protein — in exact proportions varying over time which shrunk the length of the cell, filled it with cytoplasm, and detached it from the neuron. Exactly the reverse of what happened during neural development. I clipped off the synapse spanning proteins aligning both sides of each synapse. Gripping around the bare neuron where the myelin was removed allowed me to pull it free and attach it along the piece of flooring with protein strings.

I cut deeper to the next connection spot. The knife moved around each cell, cutting through the intracellular space of the dystrophin-associated protein complex (DAP). There I found a secondary branch of the nervous system connected to areas further down. The invading neuron spliced together a pain and touch neurons with twenty inter-connections. Identifying neuron signaling types rested with gauging the population of post-synaptic receptors and species. This matched a directory of possible signaling types. I repeated the same process as with the previous neuron. Reconnecting the pain and sensory synapses to where they belonged was basic wiring with protein strings holding everything in place.

I flattened the upturned muscle, smoothed everything out with a roller, and sprayed down some DAP. Disconnecting the other proteins came next. I studied the site around the chitinous flooring and found thousands of cytoskeleton proteins holding it there. An enzymatic solution would work best there. I snipped off a sample of the phosphorus tagged cytoskeleton. Folding down the skin ended the procedure.

I rid myself of the articulator, closed the roller clamp on the sedation, touched Fred with the med kit to wake him up, and prepared a vial for the protein sample. Attaching the vial of cytoplasm to the articulator’s myofilament port and pressing it there, released the sample. I put it through the quarantine cage. In the surgery vestibule, everything looked too red for a few sc.

I backed into the handles which grabbed the gown and pulled it off. I removed the face mask and took the sample into the main space of the med bay. Among the cabinets, I found the molecular sequencer — a small container that perfectly held the vial in my hand and inlayed with various light sources and sensors. I slid open the cap, inserted the sample vial, closed the sequencer, and waited a few sc. It shot the protein name into my head, a basic structural protein with an extra phosphate group. Asking for the dissolving enzyme returned a name and RNA sequence easily plugged into a protein synthesis tray.

The synthesis tray contains larger versions of eukaryotic cell organelles except centriolles. A nucleus was also absent, because the required protein was synthesized by providing timely RNA sequences. I transferred over the RNA sequence in my head to the larhe tray supporting thirty-two reservoirs for proteinogenic amino acids, a big reservoir for amino acids added outside of ribosomes, and an area for finished proteins. That was pretty much how we made everything not containing metallic components. The tray would construct the mRNA sequence, assemble the peptide string on the ribosomes, fold the protein in the Gogli apparatus, and deliver it with the smooth ER.

I went through the open doors of the surgical suite, sat on the stool in the corner, and entered my construct by shutting my eyes. The grassy field welcomed me without a fiber of clothing as always, just how I liked it. No one else could enter here without my permission or accompaniment. I was sitting with my legs near lotus with a steamy romance novel in my hands. Any task in construct honed a selected mental faculty, in that case, steady hands.

My intermittent checks on Fred eventually showed his fingers twitching, a telltale sign of waking up. I went over and touched his shoulder. He opened his eyes and looked at me.

“Everything went well, Fred. I’m waiting on an enzyme synthesis to remove the binding proteins before extracting the flooring.”

He nodded slowly. I stepped into the other room, grabbed a syringe and hypodermic, drew up the contents from the synthesis tray, and returned to Fred.

“This is the enzyme. When I put it in, you shouldn’t feel anything except a slight chill. Okay?”

“I’m ready, Ins.” He tilted his head impatiently at the loaded syringe.

“Let me get everything we need.” I put the syringe, a stack of gauze pads, my med kit, and a wound wrap. “All set.” After putting on gloves, I braced his foot against my abdomen. Injecting the solution on the flooring embedded in his skin would direct the solution into a good place to dissolve the binding proteins. At the same time, I stretched and pulled together the skin opposite the wound to distribute the solution everywhere it needed to go. A few sc later came the time to extract the flooring. With pressure required to pull the foreign object at a slow and even rate, I did just that. Holding the gauze above the site allowed me to seal the wound before anything started coming out. I threw the removed piece into the trash chute across to my right. Uncovering the gauze showed some blood on gauze and nothing more coming out.

I stuck him with the med kit which sent surrounding skin cells in, covering the wound with white skin devoid of melanin. A fresh gauze was applied with the wound wrap. Fred was almost good as new.

“Okay, Fred you’ll need some help getting up, but after your pain response kicks in you can manage. Take the wrap off after a couple of hours. The muscle soreness should dissipate by tomorrow. Come back if anything gets worse.”

“Sure. No problem.” Fred sat up with his feet barely touching the ground.

I put his arm around my shoulders and held him around the waist, helping him stand. He took his weight back before I released him. His gait was a little stiff but stable. “Thanks for everything, Ins.”

“Doing my job, Fred.” With that, he left medical.

 

Inslee

 

I thought to call Nic. He left about an hour and a half earlier. If everything was resolved, I would have heard something.

Nic

Yes, Ins.

Have you found anything?

No. I’m searching the buildings under construction. Alex is looking throughout the ship below.

I’m ready and willing to help.

More bodies really wouldn’t help. We spent a good chunk of time debating with security the merits of a search. In the end, they decided to help look. He couldn’t have gone far. We’re floating some 7,000 feet in the air.

You’ll find him.

I wasn’t worried.

Let me know when you find him.

Sure will.

Also if you want my help.

Thanks, but no.

See you later.

Bye.

 

Inslee

 

Around six, an alert went off from Alex, temp 105. I scanned the vid feeds from my construct until Nic showed up carrying Alex through the pod bay. I pulled a bed near the door and almost out by the time Nic entered. He lay Alex on the bed, sank to the floor, and rested his head in his hands. Alex didn’t have any physical injuries and just looked peacefully sleeping. I quickly checked for any urgent issues with five keys. I knew about the temp, but the cause.

An infection of the digestive tract and liver, slightly elevated billirubin — yes, her skin wasn’t usually this yellow, hypotension, slight integumentary hypoxia, and the beginnings of encephalopathy (low levels of consciousness now). Acute liver failure and near septic shock. I went into emergency mode. A key to reduce triiodothyronine and thyroxine — metabolic regulators from the thyroid. Then neural interface headband turned red with my instilled thought to reduce core body temp any way possible. Her skin produced pools of sweat. I hooked up a vascular access port with fluid attached. Touching the divide between her shirt and pants disintegrated her clothing because I had a medical reason for it. I got the life unit from the top drawer behind me and put it on the counter right above. Taking out the rolled up physical appliance (a laden sheet lighted violet and pink ), I applied across her torso. The appliance shrank to the appropriate size and descended a couple of down.

I held the other of the system in my hands — a cubic structure out letting sixteen bound together tubules. Holding the tubules against the appliance bonded the two. The cube connected to the in-wall human organ system sim. The sim housed parts of every human organ necessary for life support, i.e. heart, lungs, liver, kidney, and processed everything else like urine and food for the person connected. Everything was set up for the second to worst contingency, the infection destroying everything except brain tissue as we could replace everything else. I left her uncovered to help shed away heat and reduced the ambient temp.

With Alex stable, I bent down to Nic and touched his shoulder. I called his name many times, but he didn’t respond until I crouched in front of him.

“Nic, I need to know what happened to Alex.”

He glowered at me with the thought Don’t ask me and figure it out. He answered, “We were on the border.” The area around the leading edge of floor construction.  “Alex collapsed to her hands and knees, then vomited up her entire stomach. It was all blood.”

“Thanks and I really mean it.” Now I had secondary issues to deal with. I needed to find the bleed, if it was still there. Increasing the platelets without a definite bleed could cause numerous clotting issues notwithstanding the present coagulation issues. That meant sensors through the digestive system. Identifying the infection would work better with a less distressed liver. I could just ask it.

I got two glasses filled with water. To one I added a packet of digestive sensors which looked like table sugar. I sat Alex up with the bed, got a muscular mirror, and attached it to both our necks. The muscular mirror was a fiber-optic connection, facilitated by neural conductive wire, scanned impulses from one person and sent them into another. Stored impulses directed the motions of vessels in pod. I put one end by my pharynx and the other on Alex’s, after elevating her head. I held glasses up to our mouths, take a bit into my mouth by tilting both the glasses, closed mouth, swallowed without choking, and made sure my mouth was empty with a second swallow.

Disconnecting the muscular mirror was next. I got the interface orb into my hands, closed my eyes to enter my construct, and saw Alex, Nic, and everything that interacted to mental stimuli appeared in three-dimensional space where it was in the med bay. I was by Alex who had a mass of light coming from within her. Reaching into the light posed no problems with her intangibility. The beads of light felt like tapioca pearls with a warm, starchy outside texture and allowed me to see through them by closing my eyes — what amounted to a second eyelid. The esophageal smooth muscle underwent peristalsis all around until being dumped into the stomach. I caught a glimpse of something red prior the stomach, scanning back revealed a blood vessel right there, filling a gap in the esophagus. The rest of the stomach looked healthy. The vasculature grew too close to the digestive tract probably to heal a small injury to the esophagus caused by the artificial grav being replaced with the real thing. Artificial grav excluded effects on soft tissue. I open both my eyelids to Alex. A special med kit key was needed to instruct the vessel to move along to a different location so a key folded out and altered shape before application.

Everything stabilized, I rechecked her status. Temp 103, skin temp normalizing along with liver enzymes, consciousness returning and everything else on the mend. I covered Alex with a thin blanket. When she regained consciousness, she could redress. I asked the body, specifically the liver lymphocytes what type of infection we were dealing with using another key. The results were virulence in the liver and digestive tract, cyst formation in every other conceivable location, and a virus with bacterial symbiosis. The bacteria harbored the virus until it turned virulent to both bacteria and human. That meant a dual vector virus like the one that almost killed everyone in ship sometime between gen seven and eight.

I got another vascular access patch, cleaned off a patch of skin, attached the access, slid on a vial with a matching sled connector, and waited. At least on cyst should float into the blood sample. I took it to the neighboring patient area, I got the centrifuge — superconductive disc levitated inside a ring with uniform separation all around. I inserted the sample vial. The center disk levitated above the counter and began spinning.

I readied the other lab equipment. The molecular sieve divided suspended solids based on particle size with a water inflated tray. Inflating the sieve with water came first. I got the metal plate and sliding weight to process the sieve, a micropipette, vials, a syringe and hypodermic, and the batch molecular sequencer. The centrifuge stopped, floated up, and held the vials vertical. I pulled on some gloves, took out the vial, drew out the top layer and a little of the platelet layer. Injecting the gathered solution of mostly plasma into the now inflated molecular sieve, setting it on the development tray, and running the weight across it five times graded the particles for the next step. Putting the entire sample into the sequencer would take about a week to get the results. Splitting the sample based on size reduced the time to about ten minutes. The sieve developed ten segments and a micropipette attachment for each. I put the contents of each degradations into it’s own vial, and put the filled vials into the sequencer.

Nic rose to Alex’s side and held her hand. I left the lab space for a consult. It was quite possible my diagnosis was a small fraction off. He looked at her.

“Nic, I would welcome a second opinion, if you’re up for it.”

“Okay, what do you have so far?”

“It would be best if you came up with your own conclusions before we compared opinions.”

“Ins.” That time he said it with the inflection someone would say “seriously” as a reply to someone else’s complaint. He took out his med kit with eleven keys, shook it, leaving five keys. “Just an infection of the liver and digestive track.”

“Anything about bacterial cysts, widespread infection with low virulence except some areas.”

“Yes. You’ve run the blood?”

“Still in the sequencer.”

“Everything looks good.”

“Then we wait.” At this point I noticed something heavy and familiar missing from my pants pocket, the med kit. I ran my hands over my pockets. Nothing. I looked around along the floor, checked the drawers and cabinets I went into, and ended up on my knees with my ear pressed to the floor, looking under the bed’s wheely base. There it was about halfway down the three inch wide gap. I reached in up to my elbow, groping for the med kit, something almost irreplaceable. It just brushed my fingers with my elbow wedged. Nic appeared across the wheely base and reached underneath for the thing I dropped. He got it from the other side, obviously which it was closer to. We both stood up, while I rubbed away the cold from my fingers. The spot on my ring finger Nic touched remained cold despite my efforts and his touch lingered for I didn’t know how long. He handed me the med kit across Alex’s body, an artifact from in ship grav.

Alex opened her eyes after all that time. Nic dusted off his hands and sandwiched her palm between his. They looked intently into each other’s eyes for a good while before saying anything.

Nic said, “Alex everything is good. You’re safe.”

I continued, “You were near unconscious when we got you here. We stabilized everything and are identifying the infection that caused it. We’re doing everything we can.”

“Nothing to worry about.”

“Alex why don’t we allow you to get dressed. We need to consult on your lab results.” I went into the lab area, closed the curtain, and waited.

 

Inslee

 

A few minutes later, Nic joined me. A sound faint enough to be imagined alerted me the sequencer completed. I held out the sequencer to Nic. Once he held on, the consultation construct started up — a low level one with actual physical movement and everything displayed as in real life. Just a blown-up model of the cyst existed there additionally.

Nic started the identification process by taking out the sample vial, got two syringes  from the protein dispenser to break down the cyst and cell membrane (the upper cabinet with a five inch gap below a five foot section perfectly filled with a boxy dispenser), , and added it to the sample container, before reinserting the sample. The sequencer stored an inventory of everything identified so as to quickly recognize and sequence repeat or similar samples. This produced a model of the intruding virus — two ten faceted cones with the ten-sided polygonal faces meeting. All twelve vertices featured a tunnel connecting with a flat surface that joined to target cells. A duplicate DNA sequence of the virus, probably spliced into the bacterium DNA, waited for a signal to begin replication.

Nic said, “We have a handful of cell access protocols from six identifiable cellular origin groups and the rest unknown. Not something we’ve seen before.”

The virus could infect living thing from all six of the known origin groups, different paths to the goal of life, never occurring together but biocompatible. “Add that to a bacterial vector.”

“We got an engineered virus capable of infecting everything we know and then some.”

At that time, we ran into a new origin group every few centuries, but non-organics like viruses or non-bioactive samples didn’t qualify as discovery. We had tantalizing clues of at least six other origin groups from such sources but no evidentiary, active biological samples, utilizing said alternative origin. No discovery, but terrestrial science had a scent. The Waxers had eleven but weren’t in the sharing mood. “But where did it come from?”

“That isn’t the question we should be asking, right now. What can we do for Alex?”

“The viral protein coats are extremely complex. Is that a cryoprotectant, and there a thermoregulator?”

“We could sample a virus synthesized from Alex’s cells. That would strip away most of the foreign proteins, leaving basically terrestrial biology, a far easier puzzle to solve.”

“But the engineered viruses would still complete the first wave. It’s the second wave we can stop.”

“At this stage, we want to increase her chances. There isn’t that much more we can hope for. A liver biopsy should deliver the samples we need.”

“So you want to puzzle together enzymes to break apart the engineered virus, scan the bacterial genome for the virulence trigger which breaks the cyst stage and starts virus production, and break terrestrial virus versions?”

“Yes, thanks for adding the virulence trigger.”

“I’ll set everything here, you prepare for the biopsy. It shouldn’t take too long. It’s already eleven.”

“Everything’s planned. We have to get moving.”

Nic left the construct with a clap of his hands, something required at such a surface construct. I manipulated the model with the idea that the system would figure out how to make it happen. Pointing at the model with one finger from each hand then diverging hands split off a clone.

I broke the virus down the middle, took out the contents with my arm, shoved it into the boxes that appeared below the model. I went back to break off each of connection sites remaining on the split virus, sticking each into a separate box below. Turning back the dial under the original virus backtracked time until the bacterial organelles returned. I stuck the bacterial nucleus into another box. The boxes sealed and marked themselves to be sequenced. I clapped to exit and pulled the curtain into Alex’s room.

Nic silently held Alex’s hand. I looked over for his nod. He got consent like normal as I have almost zero patience for the med noobs. An interface orb was by an arm from the bed above Alex’s abdominal wall.

“Alex, I’m going to numb the area with a med kit. You should feel this.” I held up the med kit with one key out and touched the back of her palm. It would empty out the pain neurotransmitter vesicles and also add an inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA to suppress later excitation. Keeping pain triggering vesicles empty ended the feeling of pain in the areas damaged during biopsy.

I opened the drawer with the biopsy equipment, washed my hands with UV, put on gloves, got out the biopsy tray with gauze, a water filled vial, and a half-meter clear tube with a rod down the middle and invisible myofilament. Closing my eyes triggered the internal imaging from the interface orb. Every internal structure was available for my diagnostic purposes. A neat tabletop slid out from the counter all the way to the bed with a thought, the perfect place for the procedure tray. I flicked off the tail end cap with a pneumatic hiss, pulled out the rod and fully extended it.

“Alex, please expose your abdomen.”

Alex curved her back off the bed, freed the hem of her t-shirt from the pajama bottom (the 21st century was the height of comfortable sleepwear, after that none was prevalent), lifted the hem and rolled up the excess to the fifth rib. “Ready.”

Popping the other cap of the biopsy apparatus sent me into the medical construct with a model of the sensory data at the head of the bed. I curled my pinky around a dime size spot over the approximate location of the liver. Held the tip of the apparatus with the thumb and forefinger of my stabilizing hand before inserting the myofilament with the projecting rod. I tracked its progress through the tissues on the model until reaching the liver, turned the rod a quarter turn tightening the intermolecular spaces of the biopsy sample holder, and extracted the myofilament. Extracting the sample proved more effort than inserting myofilament. Placing a gauze and pressure over the pinprick stopped the bleeding. Another stick from the med kit sealed the wound. I attached the vial onto the tip of the apparatus, inserted the myofilament, and freed the period size sample. Throwing away the used supplies ended everything with “That’s it. Everything went well.”

Alex remained with a noncommittal expression.

“I’ll test this. Be right back.” I left them for the lab area. I put the new sample in the sequencer.  Any virus between cells should show up with the first scan. Just a few hundred empty protein coats, exactly the parts I needed. An RNA sequence would also help. I sequestered a sample before adding the cell membrane dissolving enzyme. Another scan left me back in the medical construct to break apart a terrestrial origin virus. This would actually take about a day to find an enzyme capable of breaking apart the protein coat. The complete virus from the cyst took well over a month to crack. Those samples changed everything for us.

 

Inslee

 

We got Alex home and into bed that night with a virtualization human organ system sim (H.O.S.S.), a neural scanner in the form of an interface band, and Nic watching over everything. By that time, Alex entered a deep sleep.

“Nic. we’ve done everything we possibly can. Alex has access to one-hundred-percent life support if she needs it. We should have a cure later today or sometime tomorrow.”

“Ins, I know all this.” Slight irritation.

“Sorry, the lines are getting blurry.”

“Well.”

“I’ll leave you two at least till morning. You’ll stick together like always.”

Nic nodded.

“Tomorrow.”

I returned to my house and slept like the dead.

 

Inslee

 

I woke up the next day at around eight. Last night ended around one. I stretched with my right foot pressed down lifting up my pelvis, left leg fully extended out, and my arms above my head, slightly to the right. I then folded my leg lotus, arms across my abdomen and sat up with sheer muscular strength (without leverage). Taking care of daily hygiene occupied fifteen mn and back to bed. I felt along my thigh like the blind read Braille, looking through mental pictures. Triggering amounted to the most challenging aspect of memory recall. I found the brightest and most cheerful thing printed on my skin. My black emotions from a short night’s sleep, left verbal personal interaction a raw subject, without moral support.

It just happened to be a dress of white fading into every imaginable pastel in places. Flattened out pleats covered my chest, narrowing to shoulder straps and the rest deep, loose pleats to the knee and tapering at a twenty-two-degree angle to the upper calf. This went on easily but the finishing touch needed some thought.

A cupless structural element overlaid the loose gown ending about an inch above the pelvis across the back and even to the front. The string tied up the back and was enough to extend past the gown’s hem. It appeared loosened to slide over my head and the string length aided single operation. The shoes returned to my need for a little bit of black. The flats had fabric up to the top of the calf with four bisected chevrons around the width. It tightened to my size once on.

I waited with my hand pressed against the door, unsure of the first choice — where to begin — the med bay or with Nic.  Nic would undoubtedly try staying awake until I got there or barely sleep. I just had to deal with getting between those two for Nic to rest. Nic could easily take care of himself without my interference. He would fight me all the way. Spending a few hours restocking the med bay would be freeing really, but Nic would resent me leaving everything in his hands, especially the medical stuff. Treating a family member had everything come into question, even the no alternative choices. I chose to pull Nic away to rest. A quick trip to the med for waste disposable waylaid me a little from my choice.

Sometimes a decision had to be made and stuck with just because either choice was equally fraught with pleasures and foibles. While trashing everything used and no longer so, I remembered a time on Earth with a more extreme version of the same decision. The organization I worked for at the time sent me to various places undercover because of my unique skill set — devastating intelligence and the physical ability necessary for my capacity. This turned out to be the last time I came in at thirty. I lay in a high-speed transport after my alleged death in the hands of our enemy. The whole situation defined messy and my time with the old Nic and Alex — Connor and Claire. The day of food ended with three days of medical sleep. Almost everything changed after two-thousand years.

I took the then old school intravenous needle, felt along my forearm laterally until a vein, stretched the skin opposite the vein to see it (verification), tied off above my elbow with a noose tourniquet, stretched again, and gasped to steady my hand during insertion. The flow would stop if anything went wrong (not likely in a gyro-stabilized vehicle) and immediately wake me. Three days delivered me across the globe in my insulated extra tall coffin-sized bedchamber with a repurposed body bag covering. An abrupt turn signaled reaching my destination — one of our secret bases.

The transport slowed to a crawl and stopped in a darkened tunnel. Multiple sets of footfalls crunched the gravel around until two knocks on the side opened the top. The cold prickled my skin in the thin plastic. Four people pointed weapons in my direction. Implanted nano-computers in vascular structure dominated human-computer interface those days, but these were external.  A band around the wrist attached by fabric to a matching ring lighted up entirely with adrenal action. A simple twitch would fire. They ordered me out and to stand near the wall of the tunnel. The plastic covering deformed in the air current. They told me drop it and put my arms up. Drop what? There was literally nothing on me, except the improvised garment.

I undid the knotted zipper ties, pulled the panels out to my sides before dropping it, and put up my arms. My goosebumps developed goosebumps.  They told me to drop my arms while one guard approached and raised an oval loop above my head, easily visible in the shadows. It was a more thorough and less personal body cavity search just in case I wasn’t really me and had something on my person. A cold gel covered the oval and spread over me as the oval traversed down my length. Violent shivering didn’t stop the gel entering every exterior orifice and staying there until the loop left me. I wouldn’t have thought getting any colder was possible before sleeping through three days of death.

They commanded I turn around before receiving clothes and a jacket. I put the jacket on with numb fingers, then the pants. The jacket came off reluctantly for the shirt worn underneath. Why couldn’t we have done all that inside?  The answer still eluded me. They escorted me through a door barely discernible before opening and I complied despite the knobby stones eating away at my tender soles. We marched through the weather airlock of black opaque glass with a hidden access control, down a corridor covered in red painted metal, black trim, a light through any gaps, passed several cross corridors, turned right at the end, and entered a small room. I felt ridiculous walking around with armed guard while my bare feet slapped the ground. Where could I escape to without even the very shoes on my feet?

A bot waited there with the geometry of a woman and looked in every way human except for her reactions. She remained impassive, still, and looked straight ahead. This affectation instilled in me the presence of an individual careless of body, easily dispensed with. Catching people around bot AI’s was the only immediately executable offense. No one possessed enough idiocy or over confidence to try it under the scrutiny of the general populace, by that meaning publicly. Yet her she was, our AI in the flesh, real, human flesh with everything that entailed, we were that similar, and with questions devoid of logical loopholes. The only way to avoid a question was detectable deceit.

The questions climbed various decision trees, alternating between them in rapid sequence. What caused the mission to fail? Feelings for Conor. What caused your death? Conor. What did you learn from the experience? Hate everyone and everything except the mission. Are you working for us? Yes, but really for my own interests. Which are? A free world, not specifically for myself.

Everything ended with me released into the base with a coded paper for a room somewhere with my extremities still freezing and without shoes. The red contoured and cut out coded paper led me to a corner room with a bed, en suite, and cabinets all around. The pair of shoes added a homely touch. I lay on the bed with my fingers interlaced under my head, warming up and my feet dug into the plush bedding. The pants were a little long.

I thought about the future after thirty, a few months away. The typical person would be married around my age. That meant a forced marriage and everything attained with a happy marriage in case of surveillance. The people in charge made a decision as to whom, and I would end up with zero input. My views rounded it to rape. Being with someone not because I wanted to was rape. I wasn’t going to be anyone’s fuck toy. The only thing that could be considered good about that was I would blindly follow directions without too much uncertainty or thought.

The thing they forgot to tell was there was no sanctioned way out without a slug in the brain matter and the incinerator. I could shoot my way out with the chance of death. Freedom to escape a life of complacency or life always looking over my shoulder. On a purely rational basis, both were equal. One physical the other mental. Both easy in different ways. That’s where emotions and feelings enter the equation.  If a rational decision can’t be made, add emotions.

I needed to see one person before leaving the base, Cormac Jones or C.J. He volunteered to be one of my escorts onto the base. The time we spent together a few years ago was something I would never forget. Saying goodbye to this life somehow had to include him. I sat up, rolled up my pants, and felt for the first time in as many days my stomach hollowed out and empty. What else would happen after a week of eating almost nothing? I put on socks and shoes, before leaving to the dining area. Half an hour later the residue from two full meals remained and taking a deep breath became challenging. With the excess tossed, I ran into C.J. leaving his duty station. We ended up in an alcove with a few words. Kissing him revealed more hunger and need than either of us expected. I couldn’t get much further than that for the past two years.

About a year prior, during an office party as it turned out, I provided natural juice from a grower friend of mine who didn’t understand the context and added alcohol to the mix. Everyone left a little buzzed. Conor and I drank the remaining six half bottles of juice just talking. By that point, we knew the extent of alcoholic content, but kept going. We were sitting next to each other in front of nearly empty bottles. The smart thing would be walking home. Conor put his hand on my knee, and we started kissing while I moved onto his lap. Conor stood up, I went for his pants, and Conor pushed me away before leaving. I didn’t exactly remember everything for a couple of weeks, and still wouldn’t have except for the unconscious clues like extra politeness when we were in the same room together and the occasional kiss on the cheek.

C.J. and I were now in his messy room, again kissing. I shoved him hard and flopped him onto the bed. With a meticulously slow pace I self-emolliated out of my clothing, crawled up the bed, and mouthed his neck. Stripping off his clothes happened with kissing. I led his hand between my legs to the apex for a while before guiding him inside me. I came first. His eyes became teary with no actual tears, his mouth grew serious and his movement more insistent until he climaxed.

An hour and a half later left me drenched in sweat and feeling like I had run a marathon with fireworks going off in my head. By the way C.J. slept, he probably felt like he had eaten the biggest meal of his life. I showered quickly and dressed in C.J.’s clothes, braiding my hair under the visor cap. A silent search of the room discovered his security pass, a long yellow piece of paper with intricate patterns cut into it and two levels of contours. I snuck out of the room and stole into the weapons research area at the back of the base vibrating with excitement at what was to come.

The space was huge with over two story high ceilings and target dummies stuck everywhere at random. A table of weapons occupied a spot two-thirds along the floor. A mock river with strategically placed weirs issued a musical note. The server pool stood still filled with shimmering silver threads up to head height. The entire back wall held screens over shelves of weapons and other supplies. Every weapon imaginable lived here from non-lethals, single target, and mass targets. Offices filled up everything else. Everything I needed for a new id rested at the end of the shelves. I grabbed containers of different tech instances, supplies to switch out tech, and tech that would change my physical characteristics into anything I wanted. That looked like everything, but things didn’t go as planned.

I needed to cover my tracks. Now they could easily inventory everything and figure out what I took. From there, finding me wasn’t too difficult. How to get a little more time? Vandalize everything beyond usefulness including the server. Mixing up the tech would also help. At two in the morning, plenty of time remained. I opened around two hundred containers of tech instances and spilled them around, keeping myself clean. All the mounted weapons wouldn’t destroy much except organic materials, and the explosives were the last choice. I set that aside to finding something defensive and undetectable, which the mounted weapons weren’t. The weapons on the table worked well. A few throwing implements, multiple grades of firearms, and something interesting.

The last weapon struck me with the attached ear protection. The meter long gun covered in hole-punched blue metal with a myriad of sound generation and amplification tech inside, vacuum tubes above all. I held the shoulder stock against my shoulder with the two handed grip to feel the weight — much lighter than it looked, before putting on the earmuffs and aiming at the target. The weapon released a sustained sonic burst through the glass tube acting as the final amplifier or waveguide, until the energy built up enough to literally disintegrate the dummy on the end of the barrel. It would destroy everything nearby and anything crystalline at a distance if enough energy was released at once.

My tech detailed the visible components. Everything was hundreds of years old but successfully combined a century ago. That set up a few things in my head. The weapon was relatively safe under normal conditions, but if something went wrong, things ended up really bad. There would be no simple fizzle out. Everything easily fixed would have been by now. What were the possible outcomes of triggering the weapon until failure? Massive energy release at once. Just what I wanted. Or a safety mechanism would engage. It would already be on the weapons shelves. Not possible. What else? Weakest part stops working. Not likely after fifty years. I decided to try it and deal with the consequences.

I scanned the table for something small, nonlethal, and dependable. Each choice examined and working mechanism pinned down. Force throwers, intangibility renders, and biologically damaging tools set aside for something more tested and less lethal. A silver pistol met my screen with mystery. There remained nothing externally visible of inner mechanics except rings along the top with a ball situated in the back most ring. I pushed along the top edge of the grip until the center of the grip pivoted to one side. A set of roughly fifty balls resided in there. A test revealed my solution with almost no risk of sound pollution. Everything needed to be inaudible for the secrecy this agency required. I held the weapon and experienced the feeling of a third eye providing visual input without actual sensory data. I knew everything within sight of the gun without seeing it. Firing threw the dummy off its perch. I walked across the range to the disgraced dummy to find an extremely thin plate deformed over the facial features. That meant a definable yield. Sure enough, a setting under the grip went from high to low force, in fact, a setting for deformation of the round. A good weapon.

I searched the weapons racks for a knife or something to jam the sonic gun’s trigger. A wavy knife worked well. I sheared the ear protection cable, angled the weapon on some boxes, wedged in the knife, of course after getting other ear protection. At that point, I noticed something was missing from my little thievery, a device to control and inject the tech to change my face. The weapon shook the ground around it strong enough to traverse my bones. On the way to the door, my flesh felt about ready to fly off the bone. A still audible ping sound made me cover ears with my hands. I ducked down before turning to see the aftermath. Everything in the room except a few thing blew up and littered the floor. The thin veneers of metal covering the wall shattered on top of everything else. Water from the server pool slowly dispersed across the room, rising to my ankles with warmth. I left the room with my weapon over my shoulder and looking for anyone to stop me.

Someone entered from my back left and went down with a shot to the shoulder that sent him pirouetting backward to the floor. I leveled my weapon, as another would be hero appeared out from a door ahead. I got him in the foot. It flew backward and he face planted. A half asleep woman came into the hall, way too close. I spun around driving the gun into her throat. My hand jarred and fell away white she collapsed, coughing. No one else approached at the glass door leading out. I changed the impact duration all the way down and shot, shooting out the glass panel. Shooting the other panel, ricocheted the projectile into the exit door, shattering it. I braced myself against the walls in the shattered vestibule, aiming at the control room entrance, and fired. Saying sorry to the person inside occurred to me and I did before shooting her in the chest. She flew into the back wall of controls, slid down, and landed with her head lolled to one side. I called up another transport, set it going at double acceleration, and shot up the relevant controls. The AI could probably get a work around going, if she got there in time.

I switched weapon hands, ambidexterity easy for a lefty, and held it at my side while running after the now crawling transport. I shot two more pursuers before jumping into the transport bed by spinning around in midair, landing on my back, and pushing up with my feet. My weapon was aimed out the back until the transport clocked thirty and the overhead door closed.

 

Inslee

 

After finishing the cleanup, I crossed over to Nic’s house — the mirror opposite of my morning crossing — and knocked on the door. Nic appeared through the door he opened a few min later. He had huge bags of puffiness under his eyes, lending a new darkness to his face, slightly tousled hair from barely allowing sleep, and weeks old breath from foregoing hygiene for over a day. A glower through one twitching eye greeted me as he looked me over.

I said “Nic,” to break the silence.

Ins was his only reply. He walked into the house, and I followed, closing the door as my shoes dissolved away. Nic slowly made his way back to the bedroom, itching as he went.

I held his shoulder, so he turned around and stopped right there. “Nic, you need some rest.”

“Alex needs me now more than ever. I can’t leave her there alone.”

“It does her no good, you staying awake.”

“Ins, I don’t know how to say this, but you can’t make me leave.”

I petted my lower jaw line with a finger, thinking of my reply. “Nic, what you do is really up to you. I’m just making an offer to watch over Alex for a few hours. What you do with that is, again up to you.” I grabbed his right hand and held it face up in front of me with my other thumb poised over his palm. I felt a little desperate and silly using a diplomatic way to send messages, directly through the palm, instead of attempting psychic contact. A strategic jab would send across a vision of my intention to leave if he said no. I dropped his hand a few sc later. “I’m not asking you to leave. Just if you want a nap, possibly beside Alex.”

Nic sighed with maybe tiredness or annoyance. “Let me wake her up and she’s all yours.” Nic silently opened the bedroom curtain.

I felt a sudden wonder of what would happen if Alex was no longer behind the curtain. Alex slept there beautifully. Nic sat in the chair, eased out Alex’s arm, and kissed the back of her palm. I stationed myself in the corner with my arms across my chest. Alex woke up and pulled Nic into her, combing her fingers through his hair. She looked up at me. I waved back with two fingers, letting her know I was there. Alex pulled Nic up with his chin, and they looked at each other for a long time. Their psychic intermingling ended with Nic leaving the room and Alex falling back into bed. It must have been tough for the two love birds not to copulate during this brief, dividing infection.

I sat in the chair vacated by Nic. Alex returned to sleep a little later, without saying anything to anyone, but I felt her appreciation psychically. Leaning back with my eyes closed, led me to wonder why Nic caved at the end. A thought came to me. Even though Nic was presented with a choice, one choice remained the better or more necessary one. He eventually arrived at that conclusion before accepting.

A memory came to me about a similar decision I made after living in the identity of Inslee Carpenter for about five years, after running through the ten identities and two additional ones, in a period of two years. Obtaining credits was greatly simplified without the worry of consequences, so I owned plenty of income to last me over two lifetimes, but life became too monotonous with having fun. I landed in a comfortable job attending to inmates. A Sea of one-thousand odd beds, above twenty such floors of others, surrounded the Stage I was on. It was an elevated platform surrounded by an elliptical surface of glass screens with a narrow outlet. The patients/interred moved by a motor neuron spike while sedated. Through a vascular access, they experienced a sim reality for however long their sentence extended. This job awaited physicians near the end of working life or those not in possession of good bedside manners, of which I chose to be the latter. A few bad patient interactions and this job called on me.

The job included a few duties, all with the sedated. The equipment monitored for skin breakdown and notified me. This required a simple adjustment to the motor spike, avoiding contact in the weakened area and increasing movement from that point forward. The long term use of sedatives triggered a whole list of issues starting with physical dependence, medication tolerance, and dopamine cascades inducing euphoria/pleasure. We handled that with frequent changes in medications though mainly peptide length changes. That ended up pharmacology. The head of the site off-loaded that task to the physicians in lieu of adding a pharmacist on hand. We controlled the experiences each of our charges lived through in sim. That played well with my experience of feeding people dreams to manipulate their conscious decisions, mostly out of malevolence. Here, those skills rehabilitated many hopeless cases.

As I worked in the darkness, illuminated by the faint glow of displays and health indicators, the doors across the wide room opened. A shaft of bright, white, midday, daylight came through. “Frigid” Lucy Ortiz cast a silhouette in her cashmere sweater, wool skirt, and flannel leggings visible in the brightening light from above. She hugged herself and rubbed her arms in a desperate struggle to stave off the cold. She remained frightfully cold always and a woman from before feminism died out in the conversational lexicon. She shook one’s hand with her downturned fingers and excepted to be lead around by the arm when in the company of a man or boy.

We met halfway down the room and walked to the door. Lucy’s hair traveled halfway down her back, light brown the tapered down to an inch across the bangs.

“Remember that memo about the interview you have with the local news dispenser?”

“Yeah.” At that point, tv reporting amounted to a floundering industry kept floating by governmental injections of capital.

“Well, they’re setting up in that emptied out overflow ward.”

“Of course.” I looked left to the row of windows shuttered close and saw the emergence of sunshine.

“I’ll fill in here.”

“Thanks, Lucy.” I pulled my doctor’s coat off my shoulder and the left edge back, showing my dress underneath.

“Nice.” Lucy tugged down her skirt and walked to the Stage.

A half-sleeve double gown, underlain in black just below the knee with a narrow belt. There was room at the neck for a black river rock necklace. The best detail was the diamond spider web neckline, an actual web of fabric showing bare skin between the webbing. I wore it almost religiously back then. I hung up my doctor’s coat and exited the Sea. The overflow rooms extended down the windowed corridor right outside the Sea. The overflow rooms had windows looking to the Sea and another set facing out. I looked into the first room to see Chrissie Stewart Sullivan in an unbuttoned shirt with an undone tie clutched in her hand. An unrecognizable crew member was beside her. Chrissie pressed an index finger to the glass, and the entire thing fogged over. I rested along the window, looking out into the city. A building of solid black going a mile in every dimension caught my attention, the home of project Chronos, not Kronos the progenitor of the Greek divinity pantheon, but the root of chronicle, chronic, and chronological.

The storied history of that project stretched back two centuries from after the Antarctic Cataclysm, starting several times and never reaching the ultimate goal to man outposts on every member of The Local group and onto the Vergo Supercluster. To that extent, every solar system within a fifty light-year bubble of Earth had a colony if habitable by unmodified humans. A single AI in ship steered each vessel on the hundred years journey at around fifty percent light’s speed. All for a legal chance to inhabit a body and live as a human. Human colonists went along in vitro to mature in gestation tanks at the destination. The AI raised the children to maturity, died, and received a second and final body to live a human life till death. Numerous safeguards such as Earth monitoring, fail safes, AI screenings, and automated systems. That time around numerous breakthroughs made the ultimate goal near possible as the rumor went but the source of said breakthroughs, elusive.

The news crew member opened the door and waved me in. Chrissie moved a chair from the corner to oppose the one facing the array of beds through the window. I watched Chrissie do this intently in a black suit with pants. She moved with such poise and ease, she looked weightless. She sat in the other chair, unbuttoned her two-button jacket to a blue button-down shirt and slim black tie, then motioned with her long arm for me to sit across from her. I sat there with my feet flat on the ground, smoothing out the volume in my dress. Chrissie crossed her legs. A grotesquely high five-inch heel clung to her foot by black fabric up to the base of the toes and a bow at the ankle. The pant cuff ended above the bow.

Chrissie looked about average with a nod towards beauty. A moderately pointy chin, golden ratio, light brown hair, deep green eyes, and slightly high zygomatics. Everything indistinguishable as genetic or cosmetic. Each strand of her hair held a gap between every other strand while remembering a little of past events. Right now the hair hung over her back with a high-frequency sideways wave, reducing frequency near the root.

The crew member stepped forward with a handful of miniature discs. Tossing them up, distributed the flying discs around the periphery of the ceiling. “These will record everything to be cut together later.”

“Thank you very much, Stephanie,” Chrissie said. She cleared her throat with an alto Ahem, before extending a hand to me sitting with our knees a foot apart. “Inslee, nice to meet you.”

“Chrissie.” I shook her hand.

Stephanie stood there looking up at the floating discs. I looked her over, briefly. Her hair looked flipped to one side, moist, and roughly hand combed the entire length to her neck. She wore a gray suit, a miss-buttoned shirt open to the second-third button, and a tie wrapped around her neck like a choker. The skirt was hiked up halfway from the knee with evidentiary wrinkles. The look was sexy — not just fuckable, but recently fucked and hurriedly dressed after. She returned to her chair in the corner with a thoughtful look on her face.

“Hi,” a little wave from Chrissie with a smile, “I’m talking with Inslee Carpenter today,” she held out her hand to me.

“Hi.” A mild smile from me.

“What do you do for a living?” Chrissie sat there with her elbows on the handles and her fingers interlocked across her upper thigh.

“I take care of a special group of people interred with me, incarceration.” A pressure began building in my chest.

“What happens on a typical day? And what are you responsibilities?” She nodded with encouragement.

“I monitor each patient for several minutes throughout the day. Everything is well automated from the dispensing of medications to position changes. My job reduces to rechecking the current treatment and prescribing changes to the sedative regime. Everyone behind me undergoes constant administration of sedatives for the term they spend, here with me. An unchanging course of sedatives leads to physical dependence and all the other addiction indicators. I also review the sim reality each individual experiences.” I forced my hands to release the fabric held in them and moved them beside my legs.

“How do you achieve such a high level of rehabilitation amongst your patients? Around fifty percent, twenty-five times the success of your colleagues.” Chrissie supports her face with her left hand.

I relaxed my hands with a deep nasal breath which relieved some of the pressure. “For years, I participated in research to use dreams for measurable, undetectable and above all predictable effects on the conscious mind. I developed a talent for adjusting sims.”

Chrissie removed her hand to along the handles. “What about the morality issues involved in forcing a sim existence?” Her eyes crinkled with interest.

“The more research we get, the more it seems sim reality operates just as well in perception if not better than reality. The residents remain unaware of the sim around them. If asked later, they continue with trouble distinguishing the edges of the sim experience. Sim protects the prisoners from unlawful action taken by fellow inmates regardless of guard presence. The intensity and reality can be heightened beyond the parameters we consider real.”

“What are the possible application of these techniques in relation to space travel, such as Project Chronos?” She remained motionless from then on.

I felt myself relax into a pleasant bubbly happiness. “A sim existence, at least in the short-term, could reduce stress, provide a momentary escape from the current reality, and… umm… break up the same sights each and every day. It would be great for children to play somewhere open and expansive, unlike the space available inside the craft.”

Chrissie smiled wide. “Well, you have a big choice ahead. Do you want to find a use for your expertise within the Project Chronos Team?”

“Y-Yes.” I was so surprised and happy; the words almost didn’t come out. We shook hands. My grip got ahead of me. Chrissie exclaimed, messaging her hands. I left the room in a daze, before weeping outside, openly. Those happy criers always annoyed me. Just smile like a happy person without the wetness, but there I was, awash in happy tears and feeling good about it. I wiped my eyes and stumbled into the Sea, plastered with a grin. I was near the start of a massive drain on planetary capital guided by divined discoveries of the spiritual verity.

I settled more into my chair by Alex’s bed, waiting the hours reading my usual sort.

 

Inslee

 

While reading, someone knocked the door. I expected visitors around this time, but in the back of my head, a tiny voice whispered it wasn’t true. The knocking overwhelmed everything else. I opened to door to two people I recognized at the moment. To the left, the son of Aimee and Lauren Fillmonu, Mathias with his near-white blond hair fulfilled the family legacy of extreme genetic modification with violet irises, from the third origin group. His black coat displayed a powdery residue from a chalk-like substance concentrated at the cuffs and collar. A glossy red shirt provided a base for a diagonally striped tie of gloss and matte black. His feet tapered to points, bent sharply at the heels, and missing ankles. That freak depressurization accident that exposed his feet to vacuum.

On his right, Amelia, daughter of crew members fifteen and sixteen, Imogen and Dex Marshall-Opert. She chose a deep v-neck shirt, an alligator skin jacket, and snakeskin skirt to the mid-thigh. Her raven black hair matched the subtle blue, violet, and shiny black of the real feathers, highlighting her violet eyes. Her features remained downturned, as Mathias spoke.

“We have something we would like to discuss with you.”

I moved the door open and stood aside with my arms crossed. Amelia held his shoulder and leaned in with her head tipped forward to his ear and her eyes gazing up at me. I didn’t hear anything she said but knew she indicated something along the lines of Fuck me now, before stuffing a genetically enhanced long tongue in his ear canal and the contours of the outer ear. She withdrew with a sharp intake of breath.

Mathias grabbed her head with both hands and kissed her. He had her head against the door frame. His left hand groped her head until it held onto a significant mass and pulled. With a soft gasp, she allowed access to her neck, more kissing. His hand drove up the inside of the skirt. She wrapped a leg around his upper thigh and arms around his neck. The other leg came up, and he froze. He pushed her off him, into the frame by the waist.

He straightened his jacket, walked in, and stood across from me. I watched everything without thinking about looking away. Closing the door, I led them to the dining table with benches on either side. I sat opposing them — still entangled (his arm across the back of her neck, draped down her chest with the fingertips under the hem of her top).

“I know you want Nic all for yourself and to love you of his own will.”

Mathias always had the uncanny ability to figure out the deepest desire of anyone he watched. As a child, he watched everyone. It came as no surprise he knew about that desire of mine. I wanted Nic or at least what he had with Alex, the permanence of his love. Above everything, I wanted something real, something dependable, true love, not the fleeting glimpses of one lifetime, but nine consecutive ones.

Amelia pushed off his hand and planted her head and arms on the table. He spoke, again. “You need to destroy all the samples of the infection attacking Alex.”

Another repeat experience from his first life. He offered imaginary deals to get that which one most wants, but still imaginary. A little whisper echoed through my head in his voice, the deal as real as death. An echo of an irrefutable truth inside his head. Amelia straightened, looking at me. In her eyes, the possible geometries of an affair between the three of us flashed through. Another blink and she arranged her meter long hair into a braid before lying sideways across the bench with her head in his lap.

“It is just a simple request. Dispose of the samples.” His voice had a power to send my brain through the process of how to best serve him.

Run extraneous tests that damaged the samples. Inject Nic with a sedative and allow Alex to fight. My brain struggled to find a justifiable cause other than the request for service. My internal argument continued until “NOOOOOOOO!” A scream freed itself from my throat.

Amelia righted and they both looked at me with surprise. Two creatures took their places. Where Mathias sat, a wrinkled disc of orange flesh left holes for a mouth and eyes out of the spiraled tube face. A thin line of orange led to four other lines ending with round discs of cutout hands and probably feet. Beside that creature, an amphibian snouted one with perfectly lined up canine teeth, smiling. The yellow eyes showed a thoughtfulness with an upward slant. A bulbous, clear skull followed about the size of four human cranium cavities. The spinal attachment joined from behind, curved around, and down into the torso. The entire body contained nothing except elongated spinal transverse processes covered in green wet skin. A wider such structure held arms with simple musculature compared with humans. They disappeared with a blink.

My mind drew possible explanations such as a dream, hallucination, and construct to null everything I had witnessed. I didn’t remember waking up, having previous or post hallucinatory episodes, and entering my construct. The simple matter remained there existed no proof of their presence except my words and thoughts. I steadied myself with the desire not to spill my deepest thoughts with Nic, the resident soothsayer between the unconscious and conscious. The feeling of impending doom ended when I entered my construct.
Inslee

 

Nic curled up into a ball besides Alex. They both slept in the dream state with the defining roving of the eyes beneath eyelids. My listless quality through life tugged away at the edge of my mind.

I floated through life, afraid of stagnation. Something always needs to be up in the air, stuck between indecision and decision. The moment everything settled was the time I started dying from the inside out.

Why the fear?

Because my life was not conducive to contentment, languor, and appreciating what I had at the moment. I needed something concrete, immobile, something that wouldn’t falter when everything is at stake.

Why the clinging to Nic and what he had?

Good question, unconscious. That freak of nature Alex and her fuck buddy fingered the root desire but not very well. I don’t want Nic, but what he had, a love lasting two millenniums with a growing fire. That’s what it became after all that time.

How did it start?

I already knew. He was the one who didn’t abuse the tinge of softness left in me. The softness, really weakness too many times, allowed many such abuses at the ruthless and powerful hands I found attractive. The first person of strength not to use it. Nic was the counter to all that came before him.

Was it love?

It was real love at least for my part.

What stopped it from…

Materializing? Thank Alex. The person that you hate yourself for even thinking about negatively, the selfless giver. She razed her whole existence for his happiness and good conscience. Attributed to my “death”.

Why did softness bring bad experiences?

That’s my experience.

Alex awoke then, sitting up with one knee up and the other sideways for support. She looked at me for a bit before sending something through the psychic link. The link was an amplification of a thought such, that a similar thought occurred in nearby minds. Every human compatible genetic mode entering the human race made latent abilities emergent, psychic link included. Add the other abilities visible in modern day humans like sensory volume (increasing sensory data from within the mind and sensory organs), pain response (sleep inducing at one through three out of ten, euphoric and hyperactive at anything more), melanin response to UV exposure, UV vision, and mental acceleration when wanted.

Give me an example.

Not surprising, but Alex now had the ability to make psychic conversation in the dream state. Hardly anything about her would be unbelievable from everything I knew. She always possessed genetic gifts but honed every ability with a determination I thought unsustainable over all those years. Her life centered on an unrelenting quest of self-improvement, maximizing the potential inside each of us. Someone from the upper middle of the multiple lifetime traveler bell curve.

She held out her hand. I put her hand in mine. A detailed psychic detente required physical contact for someone as tactile as me. I entered the story without fear of her reactions emotional or otherwise towards me. Her emotional response depended on what she was at the time, emotionally available or robotic. You ended up knowing people intimately whether you wanted to or not after spending so much time crammed together with nothing much to do.

The security division offered me a deal backed with thinly veiled threats. Alex probably did this a few times in her day. I fingered them to another agent of security. Just my luck, the head of the security division took an interest in my case. He funded the ones threatening me and every unauthorized action thereof. We met a few times. The third time, I stood by the sink drinking water. Thomas took the glass away. He pushed me into the wall and kissed the breath out of me. I was thrilled and excited someone of his stature wanted me, besides the fact that it meant nothing beyond the act itself. I let him have me against the wall of his office. That continued for about a year.

Alex smiled gently. Emotional leakage frequently happened with my psychic links.

In another year’s time, the GGC would move along to the next hub city. I contemplated it becoming something more. Thomas told me tidbits about his personality and ideas, most importantly that words meant next to nothing, and actions were the only things of true meaning. Then it ended with the words This is the last time. I felt a weight on my chest, disappointment.

The next day brought hope with an invitation to lunch out. My life remained barren and lifeless in those intense classes of compressed sim learning. I walked through the nested buildings composing the current capital district. The tallest tower in the center held the offices of both head party members and the PM, soundproofed individual offices and reception area. The reception area was unmanned and his door ajar. Both spaces occupied a circle with a line across it. I entered the office to find her bent over the desk edge, gripping the sides. Thomas pushed himself into her from behind with his eyes closed in silent bliss. He aahed before opening his eyes, holding her on both sides and pulling himself out. He fixed her up and patted her twice on the rump. She righted, walked towards me with a bright red face, and blew him an air kiss before leaving. Thomas put himself back in his pants.

He said, “I’m glad you saw that. Now, we have no misunderstanding as to the end of this…”

My anger, embarrassment, shock, and a little annoyance slapped him across the face and tried again before Thomas stopped my arm by grabbing it. He should have let something temporary happen instead of the permanent mark the following injury would leave. I grabbed his forearm with my other arm and moved one foot back. Then I pulled my hand free and broke the radius with my elbow. He howled in pain. I flipped him onto his back and straddled him. My fingers clawed long gashes down the side of his cheek. His eyes moistened. I left him like that and found the medical supplies I surveyed every room for. A white cone contoured to a hand with a laser covering an aperture at the other end. Thomas remained stunned at the speed everything happened. I knelt beside him to apply the laser healing treatment. The first pass sterilized the wound and the second pulled skin cells over the opening. The deep scratches became wide areas of pink rubbed skin.

“You fell off your desk trying to reach something up high or this won’t be your last accident.”

Alex looked at me with tears streaming down her face and a slight smirk.

 

Inslee

 

I laid on my side with the warmth of Douglas inches away. My left arm was across my abdomen. My legs stayed scissored slightly. I thought about the end of the last gen under closed eyes. At one-hundred-seventy years old, sick with a nasty infection and one crewmember was already dead. I struggled to breathe under full life support. Blood leaked from every opening and some areas of skin. Liang and Nic, both of my age were with me during the final chilly moments of life. My husband then, Liang whispered to me You’ll be back very soon, everyone needs you right now. The golden light filled my vision for years that passed in a few sc.

I woke up in a longer body with thicker arms and thinner legs. That was Alex’s body as I would see. My eyes opened to the world bright enough to blind. Furiously blinking for a minute reduced the washout. Liang and Nic held my hands through their plastic suits. My skin buzzed with sensation and begged to be itched at the inner layer. What I wouldn’t give for some steel wool. The burnt plastic smell of the bio-barrier suits filled my nose. A saline taste filled my mouth. Each sense came and went in waves. The sounds entered with the leakage of gel from my ears, a high pitched whistle. The ship sounds cycled through, before being unheard. I tried moving a finger. My body went through a series of queries. Which finger? Accessory muscle or main muscle group? How my force? Stability? After answering every query, the finger moved. Ask next time or automate? Automate. Liang and Nic thought about talking for a while before saying anything. Their voices boomed across the room. Is everything okay? I said yes in a voice that didn’t hurt my ears. They couldn’t hear a thing. The psychic link came up and broadcasted automatically, like speech.

The metal table felt good against my hot skin. I sat up and turned sideways. The engaging of my back muscles felt awesome, even better than sex. Alex trained her body to use massive muscle groups for every action, maintaining fine control and adjustable strength. When multiple large muscles engaged, the endorphins kicked in. Her muscles were genetically wide but not thick. I made it to the bathroom. Messaging my belly forced out some gel from inside me, before emptying my bowels and bladder. The gel went everywhere imaginable after twenty-five plus years in pod. I put on my usual clothes. My skin prickled, reaching out with every micro-current caused by movement. Alex wore more open clothing than that, but I changed into her buttoned-up look. I asked them to leave before curling into a ball with blankets all around and weeping uncontrollably for how much loved that body over mine.

She felt confident in every action, this body did too. Capable of great evil or great good and very attuned at deciding the best path. A golden string guided me through every decision with a black string right there for evil at every turn. The evil tempted me, but in my old body nothing was that clear. Everything muddled, so I didn’t see that everything was a choice. I wept for my old life before that body stopped me. I felt nothing I didn’t want to, like that grief or guilt.

Everything went well for the next two weeks, after accepting reality. At that point, everything began disintegrating to pieces. My thermoregulation was shot. I drifted from cold and shivering to burning hot and sweaty every minute, hour, or day. The emotional state shifted without any external stimuli from sad, forlorn to the heights of ecstasy and through every obscure state imaginable including incredulity, schadenfreude, abjection, and remorseless guilt, like a pendulum under severe precession. Senses developed hair triggers that amplified one sense above any other neural process. My willpower reduced getting out of bed to something requiring hours of persistence. This forced me to visit the resident arbitrator between the conscious and unconscious, which happened to be Nic.

There we were across from each other in the middle of the med bay, me, leaning on the counter with arms out and Nic in his desk chair. I relayed everything that was happening. Nic asked a non-consequential but really pointed question. Did I shut down anything after entering the body? Of course, the constant logging of breath and blood flow. This body felt air entering the nostrils, passing through the nasal cavity, down the back of the throat, and into the lungs, including every main and accessory muscle group involved in the process. Adding the arterial blood flow under sensitive areas of skin and anywhere skin stretched strongly over, made an infuriating constant hum. I turned that off a few dozen times until the body stuck with it. Nic looked back with crunched together eyebrows before relaxing. He said something along the lines of all of us have a method to join the mind and body, something you know. Alex has mediation, I have something else, and you use something altogether different. You create this relationship with equipment and practices in pod. Alex (he waves his hand at his wife’s body, currently mine) needs constant background meditation with a period of intense recommitment every day. I asked what happens if I keep going the same way. Well, the connection severs to such a point that the breathing signal fails and suffocation. I hugged myself around the belly.

The only option was relearning all the meditation crucial to her body. A temporary method would halt the progression, but I wouldn’t like it. Nic took out an interface band and put it on the counter beside me. My arms fell to my sides. Nic brushed my currently long hazelnut hair off my forehead, behind my ears, and over my shoulders before putting on the interface. Allowing this moment of tenderness seemed right at the time. I gripped both sides of my head, expecting agony. Instead, a barely perceptible buzzing filled my cranium. Different areas vibrated faster or slower with a few spots calm. The effect manifested more with mental faculties. Senses switched off at random, distorted, and competed for attention. Every contact with reality felt like a stuttering construct, a flimsy reality. Nic waited across the room with his hand out to me. I froze mid-step over to him. Nic approached from across the room. Everything started again. I put my finger on his palm to receive the list of meditation techniques I needed to learn.

The twenty-item list started with banal meditation, things I’d heard but never tried. The next six comprised things accrued from the various cultures of Earth. Five from the Song of the Universe. A very new religion, relatively speaking that gained traction twenty-two centuries ago, based on some body of knowledge intrinsic to the universe, accessible by free association and good judgment. Some people postulated a conduit with the ultimate version of yourself. It innervated the global culture to such an extent, everyone knew a bit about it. The last item said something like forget the rhetoric but remember the meditation. That day I went through the first eight.

Sleeping with the interface tuned that way proved frustrating and lacking the necessary rest. I fell asleep for what seemed a sc but occupied twenty to thirty minutes in reality. That night segmented just the same. Everything hurt when I woke up, even looking around. Mastery of the list followed in two more days. I was sure I would have taken a handful of years in my body. This body’s affinity, I developed through twenty years of exposing it to the tuned neural interface. We still had so much work to do. Three other crew were still left alive at that point. If we didn’t survive, that meant the AI would take over. Venting the ship, killing anything still alive, and exposing everything to the high rads of an O-type star cleared out all possible contamination.  The difficulty was the time span required, amounting to around three hundred years. Lit O-types and generally larger stars notoriously existed well outside the network of naturally occurring transport corridors used by most spacecraft. The alternate methods would take years longer. Giving over mission control unsettled everyone with the past history. Sometimes AI’s got it into their heads to take an extended detour depending on some complicated decision making. We could all wake up thousands of years later, if at all.

Some good things happened during those few weeks in her skin. Those long nights were we lost two or three crew left us dead asleep the next day. We felt awake after eight hours of rest, it seemed. The urgency of slow progress, forced us awake to face the day, mostly directing drones on repetitive tests. The unconscious took precedence those days for Nic. The conscious and unconscious felt identical in Alex’s body, eight hours rest in forty-eight, good enough. Some errant thought process in Nic’s head temporarily confused me with Alex. Nic would probably say his unconscious overweighed the need for comfort from his wife, almost disregarding with the idea that I was in her body. Blame four hours of sleep.

One of those days, I woke to Nic’s supple hand grasping my cheek and his thin lips on mine. I kissed back in the most, warm and open way I could think of. An early morning deep kiss as frequently enjoyed between Alex and Nic. Opening my eyes signaled Nic to retreat and look into my eyes. A frustrated groan followed and clenching of one fist, Nic realized it was me. He left my side for his bed, abruptly covering himself and pretending sleep.

Another day, I treated myself to an early shower, while Nic slept. He approached me behind as the water continued to run. He pulled to him. His hands started at my upper abdomen, descending down, before stopping at the bottom periphery. He pushed me away by the hips. I sent a psychic message I can go first, you can go first, or we can share. Nic remained silent. I went over to the far wall, placing my hands there for a compartment with towels. Wiping every square inch of flesh with Nic clearly uncomfortable, became almost good behavior in the current grav conditions. Any errant water drops would hang in mid-air, waiting for acceleration, someone to walk through, or slow evaporation. I got in a robe and stepped out.

Nic turned down his wife because I was inside. I considered him a free agent without Alex in a body. They weren’t married yet, that time around. Alex had never been with anyone else after Nic, so my options were severely limited. Two months of solitude was still painful.

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