INSIDERS

 
 
 
 
For Jon:
Good Times
 
 
 
 
Insiders. Copyright ©
2014 by Jeri Massi. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced
or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including
photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system,
without written permission from the publisher. For information, contact Jupiter
Rising Books.

Table
of Contents
Table of Contents
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter
Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter
Seven
Chapter
Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter
Eleven
Chapter
Twelve
Chapter
Thirteen
Chapter
Fourteen
Chapter
Fifteen
Chapter
Sixteen
Chapter
Seventeen
Chapter
Eighteen
Chapter
Nineteen
 

Chapter One
 
"All right, Judge, the
masquerade's over for you and your ring of extortioners." Mags Hardbottle
coolly kept the long, sleek blaster pointed at the galaxy's foremost arbiter of
justice. As always, the visor hid her eyes, so that her nemesis had no idea if
she felt regret or triumph at bringing a great man down. "I'd hate to turn
you into lunar dust, so don't move, and don't reach for that little
assassination device in your pocket."
"You tricked me, Mags
Hardbottle," the judge hissed, his Salafian complexion becoming a richer
blue as he contemplated her treachery. "You're nothing but a treacherous
human!"
"I played to win Judge," she
said grimly. "I told you that from the first: Mags Hardbottle only plays
to win."
Behind her, Paterson Start gasped and
looked at her with anguish in five of his wide dark eyes. "Was it all
really a lie, Mags?" he asked. "I thought we shared something──"
"It was
to save your life, Pate." For a moment, the young sleuth's voice halted,
and then she said, without turning towards him, "I'm sorry, guv, I never
really cared about you, not that way. I was just bringing the old man down. I'm
sorry I used you."
"Mags,"
he sobbed. Just then, the clamoring voices outside the door turned into a
cheer. The pneumatic catches on the outside at last engaged, and the reinforced
blast door slid back. Major Hawke, beak shining, leaped into the room, his
blaster in his hand.
"Paterson
Start!" he exclaimed at the young man. "Who would have thought it? So
it was you all along!"
"Nix,
Major. The Judge here is your man." Mags Hardbottle gestured with her
weapon at her prisoner. "He done in the rest home people and had them two
pickpockets drowned when they threatened to blab. You'll find plenty of
evidence right on him, starting with that assassination device in his
pocket."
"Oh,
good job, Mags!" the Major exclaimed. "So this is the mysterious Mr.
Sin! Well, Judge, we'll see how you like prison from the inside now!"
"There
won't ever be another you, Mags," Pate sobbed. "If only I could make
you care for me as I care for you!"
Mags
Hardbottle slid the long blaster into its holster on the belt of her gleaming
black jumpsuit. "Solving crime's really the only thing I do care
about," she said at last. "But I am sorry. Goodbye."
She slid
around the mass of uniformed men, slim and composed, her agile form swiftly
blending among the crowd and then disappearing through the open door.
From Mags
Hardbottle, Detective To The Stars #132
Murder
By Prescription
 
It was Peacemas. With a sigh of contentment, twenty-two year
old Sandra Lynn Smith set aside the throw-away copy of the Mags Hardbottle book
and contemplated the few hours of breathless suspense and taut mystery the
detective story had provided. Mythologist or not, she still liked a good Mags
Hardbottle story.
A soft chime warned her that it was almost time to get
ready. Anxious to make a good impression at the formal Peacemas dinner that lay
ahead, she rose from the hotel bed and crossed to the electronic vanity. She
dropped in front of the desktop mirror and tapped the button-sized scan chip.
The obliging scan hummed and then the glass went white for a moment, signaling
that all was well with her make up and hair. Nothing out of place.
Sandra cast an appreciative eye at the sparkling gown that
was hung up on the edge of the wardrobe. Spaghetti straps festooned with
graceful swath upon graceful swath of lavender webs, all rippling and cascading
over each other, formed a gossamer cocoon with a hemline at floor length. The
hotel had seen to the laborious hand-cleaning of the fragile material for her,
and delivery had been on time.
She thought a moment and then postponed donning the
featherweight and frail attire. This dinner was her debut, her entry into the
professional and cultural world of the educated class. Nearly everybody at the
meal would be debuting. Peacemas served as the mass entry of graduate students
into “the real world”. She didn’t want to be the first to appear at the dining
room.
Besides, she liked the feel of the soft flannel robe that
she wore. She dimmed the lights, strolled to the opaque wall of glass that
overlooked the street far below, and flipped the tran switch that opened an
unobfuscated view at the twinkling Peacemas lights of the city.
Snow──real, natural snow──still
drifted down. A white blanket covered every unheated and untreated surface
available. Some of the rooftops were white: the older buildings. And the tiny
ledge outside her own wide window was coated with a layer of the natural snow.
For a moment, she wished that she were far from here, back
at the Language Institute, where nothing was snow resistant, and the only thing
to do after a good hard snow was call off classes and go out and play in it all
afternoon.
Wistfully, she cast a glance at the few durable books she
had brought along──comforting companions in a strange city: Golden Bough, and Legends Of Chinese Generals, and Rectified Holy Bible, and The
Iliad. She took up Golden Bough
and ran her slim hand along the binding. As a Mythologist, she appreciated more
than most people that the best engineers in the world had never yet produced
text media more portable or convenient than the ancient book. Simple in design,
efficient, and fairly rugged when made from strong, lightweight materials that
resisted water and other rigors.
She had wanted to spend Peacemas at the Institute. She was
still young enough to need her nurturing, a fact made plain to her in her
review each year. Other professionally educated women her age would have been
horrified at such an assessment. But at the Institute, nobody thought the worse
of you for needing the care and attention of the staff. And the staff liked it
too. They hated seeing the graduates take the first dose and then launch out on
their own.
And, unlike other colleges and universities where the first
forays into mild amnesia were greeted with a big party, lots of drinking, and
an all-night celebration as the grads took their initial doses together, the
Institute treated the initiation into full adulthood as a sober, weighty, and
ceremonial thing. The senior nurturing staff manager would hold a small dinner
and tell them, "Now you've achieved life readiness. You'll forget the
people you once needed. You'll go out and actualize your own potential."
It was supposed to sound like a commendation, but one of the graduates had told
her that several of the attending staff wept at the pronouncement.
She let out her breath. "Now you will be a man, my
son," she recited to herself. She could not remember which poem or story
that quote came from. But she didn't want to be a full adult yet. And, at least
at the Language Institute, nobody tried to force you into it.
The call cel in her pinky ring chimed, and the desk clerk’s
voice said, "Message, Miss Smith," in a flat tone that implied it
expected no answer.
"Go ahead," she said.
A voice she did not recognize spoke. "Yes, give it to
me. Sandra Lynn Smith? Are you there?"
It was a man's voice, restless and impatient.
"Yes, go ahead," she said.
"I'm George Stewart. I'd like to talk with you before
dinner. Can you spare me a minute in the tenth floor lounge?"
"George Stewart──" she began.
The voice became terse. "I pilot ships."
That George Stewart, she thought. The name filled her with
wonder. Why would George Stewart──Sir George Stewart──want
to speak with her?
"I think──" she began.
"Read your paper on my last trip out. Let's see: quest
for the role of manhood in the Odyssey, wasn't it? About Telemachus? I'm an
avid reader of myth. Just an amateur. Thought you might spare me a half
hour."
She was amazed. It had been a fairly lackluster paper, as
far as she had known. Nobody, not even the critics in the mythology circles,
had given it much heed.
"Yes, I'll be right there," she said. "Tenth
floor lounge?"
"Right. I'm looking forward to it. I'll be
waiting."
There was a click, a bit of static as he switched off, and
then the desk clerk's voice, sharply annoyed, came on again. "Thank you,
Miss Smith. Is there anything else the hotel staff can do for you?"
"No, I'm fine. Thank you," she said. She felt
oddly out of breath.
She lowered her hand. Sir George Stewart, one of the four
men who had Complete Access. He traveled deep space. He was already a figure in
the history books. Fully self-actualized, a man who had achieved his own
perfect humanity. And a pilot.
She hurried into the gown, checked her hair one more time,
and then left the room. A moment after her departure, the lights soundlessly
blacked out.
* * * *
In the lounge, Sir George Stewart identified her the moment
that she entered. "I'm sorry that I made you rush," he said.
Sandra Lynn didn't heed him for a moment. It was startling
just to see him, right in front of her. He was tall, with a shock of thick gray
hair brushed back from his face, like a mane. But his eyes, oddly youthful, met
hers with a keen directness. He actually looked like a sea captain, she
thought, a pilot from the centuries of sea-faring men: blue eyes and lines
around his mouth.
And, though all of the younger men in the room wore tight,
short jackets to emphasize their perfect physical fitness, and the older men
wore the long, gown-like tunics that gave them a sage or professorial look, Sir
George was dressed in a curiously self effacing way: long straight trousers and
a square-cut jacket down to his hips. All in soft black material, no sequins.
His shirting was white.
The plain and unadorned clothing might have marked him as
one of the cleaning staff, except that the immaculate suit could not hide the
firm assurance of his grasp as he shook hands with her, nor the aegis of his
calm confidence as he looked down at her. The very way that he stood showed
that he was a man accustomed to command decision.
She realized that he was smiling at her.
"I'm sorry," she said, for she'd been staring at
him, wide-eyed. "I was surprised to hear from you, Sir──Sir
George." But she faltered, for she suddenly realized that she had no idea
how one addressed him properly.
"Stewart," he told her, and his voice was
business-like, almost brusque, but his eyes twinkled at her. "Such a
bother out there," and he waved skyward, "with earthly titles that we
dispense with them. I go by Stewart, unless I'm stuck on earth in a
conversation in which I am prepared to be bored stiff." He touched her
hand. "And I don't think I'll be bored stiff with you. But what shall I
call you?"
"Sandra Lynn is fine. Or Sandra."
He walked away across the thick carpet. Other people stood
around in small groups, chatting in the lull before evening came. Some gazed
out through the glass wall at the snow. A few bystanders cast glances at the
famous Sir George. In the corner, a Peacemas tree reigned in hushed splendor,
twinkling its lights at them. The lights at the bar were also turned low.
He returned with drinks. "I took the liberty of getting
you a fruit dart," he said as he passed the low, wide glass to her.
"It's a remarkable pre-digestive. Very good before a heavy meal."
"Thank you." It was a juice drink, harmless and
sweet. She struggled to think of some polite conversation to make.
"Are you coming to the dinner?" she asked.
"Tell me about your studies." He wasn't looking at
her. She quickly dropped the small talk.
"Telemachus?" she asked. "Was that what you
wanted to know about?"
For a moment, the question seemed to leave him blank, but
then he said, "Yes. Telemachus, son of Odysseus. Brilliant paper. I'm not
as familiar with the story as I should be."
She felt suddenly embarrassed. He had not read her paper. He
had called her down here, but not to discuss mythology. She suddenly was painfully
aware of how young she was, that she was pretty, and he was a man accustomed to
being treated with deference and getting what he wanted.
"No, I don’t think I can help you," she said.
"Thank you for the drink." She felt very foolish.
His eyes caught hers. "I do know that Odysseus sailed
into danger. Monsters, man-eaters, ghosts. He talked to a ghost, didn’t he?”
“Several ghosts.” Now she felt unsure.
“How did he go about it?”
“He sacrificed a ram and a ewe and poured out the blood. The
blood attracted the ghosts. When they drank the blood, they were able to speak
to him.”
He knit his eyebrows together. “Who developed that formula?”
She couldn’t stop a laugh at his question. “It’s just a
story, of course.”
He seemed taken back, almost stunned. “You don’t believe it?
Any of it?”
“Well, no. Not if you mean do I think it’s literally,
historically true.”
"Then why do you study the myths?” he asked.
He meant this question. She became aware of the room around them.
Most of the people were leaving, drifting towards the doors. Dinners and
theaters were waiting.
Nobody had ever asked her this. Why had she spent her life
studying things that nobody cared about any more?
“Are there no secret truths buried in the myths? In any of
them?” he asked.
"Not in the way you’re asking. The myths are
subtle," she said after a moment. 
She looked up at him. "The myths are wise, very wise. Nothing is
written like that any more."
"Because nothing is wise, any more," he told her. "But
you haven't answered my question."
His eyes were now on hers. She realized, fleetingly, that he
was a little like Odysseus──out sailing through space, covering
great distances.
She struggled for an answer. "I like them because
everything just matters more: food, and drink, and sleep, and clothing."
"And friends. Others."
"Yes, I suppose so."
"And of course there are monsters," he added.
"Horrible monsters."
"Well, yes. Sea monsters. Unknown lands and unknown
creatures that ate men. Or at least demons and adversaries."
"Do you believe in monsters and demons and
adversaries?" he asked her.
He was asking her to break the rules of academia. The moment
she came to believe the myths, she would be expelled from her university and
her career track, of course. All free thought was tolerated, but irrational
superstition was controlled.
She deflected his question. "You travel through space.
You tell me," she said. "That's the only unknown sea that's left. Are
there monsters out there? Scylla and Charybdis?"
It was like a wall slammed down over his face. He actually
looked blank for a moment. "There is no life in space," he said.
"Space is dead. Everything out there that ever lived is dead."
And then the gong sounded over the intercom system.
"I'll see you at dinner. Thank you." And he strode
away.

Chapter Two
The long table in the private hall had been laid with thin,
nearly translucent china plates scalloped along the edges like gentle waves of
the sea. Candle light, stirred from faint drafts of the air circulation system,
flickered and wavered, creating warbling and uneven reflections in the crystal
glasses. The silver flatware shone white when the light touched it.
Sandra searched for her place as several others milled
around, everybody checking the place settings. More than thirty-five people had
been invited to this Peacemas dinner. The affair had been given a hint of
grandeur by the promise of a celebrity or two, but Sandra Lynn would never have
dreamed that anybody as well known as George Stewart would come to a debut
dinner.
Now that several minutes and a long walk down the carpeted
hallways had passed, she felt less mystified by his behavior and more
embarrassed with herself. No doubt he had been making an effort to speak to
each guest, a generous gesture to help their self esteem and boost them on
their way to self-actualization. She had taken it too seriously, and she had
offended him by seeming to ask for information that was restricted.
The pilots could not speak of what was out there beyond the
solar system. All the mining and exploration rights had been granted centuries
ago. To prevent any threat of resurgence of the Capitalist Wars, the treaties
required that the pilots never disclose details of what was out there. This
code of silence was the only exception clause to the worldwide free speech
amendment. It preserved the peace and prosperity of the civilized nations, and
it secured the retrograde cultures from being drawn into war as pawns.
She had not meant to transgress his code of silence, and she
actually felt ashamed at her blunder.
Several other people found their own places at the long
table. They looked around with that bland amiability of strangers at a large
dinner. She saw her place card and slipped between a man on one side and a
short, young woman on the other. George Stewart entered and strode purposefully
along the table. He took his place directly across from her. He seemed
perfectly at his ease.
"I didn't mean to ask indiscreetly about your
work," she said at once.
"What? Oh, of course not." And he seemed puzzled.
Perhaps, she thought, Stewart was just the sort of man who forgot himself and
abruptly walked away from people. It was said that people of Pilot stature were
like that──brilliant and unpredictable.
Everybody sat down, and the meal began. For several minutes
all the guests were involved in getting seated, making introductions, passing
the food, beckoning to the servers, and settling in for a long Peacemas meal.
Sandra had a young engineer on her right side, his hair over-slicked and his
face too fresh and bare to support his claims of being in graduate school. On
her other side the young woman, a statistician, was amazed to have the famous
pilot, Sir George, right across the table. Sir George kept his attention fixed
on Sandra.
As everybody settled down to eating and talking, he spoke
directly to her: "The thing is, I'm on leave for a few weeks. Why not come
up to my country house and have a real visit. Bring your books along. I'd love
the opportunity for some real tutorials on myth. You're just the person."
The point bank invitation took her by surprise. He was at
least twice her age. For a moment she thought he was suggesting a non-committed
pairing, but then she wasn't sure. Maybe he really wanted only a tutor.
He must have read her uncertainty. "My current wife,
Carrie, is always ready to entertain," he said smoothly. "When I'm
home on leave, we have a house full of people──everybody coming and
going. It's great fun."
This sounded more reassuring. His eyes were on her,
expectant and hopeful. The young blond woman next to Sandra Lynn stared at
Stewart, her mouth slightly opened.
Sandra, seeing her neighbor's amazement, was prompted to be
more gracious. "Yes, I'm sure that I could, Sir George──"
"Stewart," he reminded her. "Just Stewart,
young lady."
"Stewart then," she told him. "I have several
weeks vacation, so I can come any time you say. I just need to let my college
staff know."
The graduate engineer on her other side interrupted them
brusquely. "Sir George, may I ask you a question?"
"Certainly." But Stewart didn't look entirely
pleased.
"Are you never worried about the after effects of
Diversification?" he asked. "Have you ever had to handle anything out
there?"
Stewart’s attitude became much more careless and relaxed. It
was obviously a question often asked of him. "Yes, I've handled relics and
antiquities from Diversification when I've been out in space," he said.
"I mean, there's tons of it out there on the dead planets, and we have to
explore the old ruins of settled places to locate their maps and resources. But──"
And he lifted his eyebrows. "The decontamination methods are quite good,
and as long as we maintain what's called unbroken protection while we're in the
old Diversification settlements, we're safe from infection."
"But even if you weren't infected by a
Diversification-based plague, you could carry it back to us," the young
engineer grumbled.
"Certainly not after decontamination. There's never
been an infection brought into this atmosphere from a pilot or a pilot
ship," Stewart said evenly.
"Did they have a mythology?" Sandra Lynn suddenly
asked.
Stewart was caught off guard. "Who?"
"The people from Diversification. I mean, they were out
there for three hundred years. Have you ever seen their writings? Or their art
work?"
He held her eye for a moment, as though startled at the
question. "No," he said after a pause.
The young engineer was dismissive. "The Diversification
races came from human ancestry, so they had human myths if they bothered with
myths at all. But I'm sure they were too busy killing each other and surviving
their plagues and plotting revenge on the normative human race to create new
myths." And he laughed as though the idea were preposterous. But then,
Sandra thought, engineers always laughed off mythology.
"You don't know anything about mythology," Sandra
told him. "It's an ongoing process──"
"Rubbish. A good course in mathematics would settle you
down."
"Have some of this bread, young lady," Stewart
said quickly, and he thrust a bread basket towards her. His eyes told her not
to bother with the argument. And she stopped.
* * * *
Like most young women of her age and social class, Sandra
Lynn had no ties, and so she was able to accompany Sir George Stewart by air
coach to his country house in the White Mountains. She checked in with her
staff, and they replied with assurances that it would be all right. They
verified that Sir George had no history of violence or entrapment of young
women.
The journey to his estate required public conveyance, but
they had a first class cabin to themselves. From the first moment, he quietly
took charge of the conversation. They had comfortable chairs across from each
other, and a cart alongside.
As they reached cruising altitude, he said, "Now we’re
free from observation. You can speak candidly. Do you believe in ghosts?"
he asked her.
So he was back to that. The question was preposterous.
"Of course not!" She set aside her awe of him to be frank and clear.
“Sir George, no mythologist believes that the myths are historical fact. None
of us.”
"Well then what did Aneas talk to?" he asked her.
"What did the Witch at Endor see? Was it Hamlet's father that really came
and spoke to him?"
She sat back. “So you have read myths.”
“Yes. Those parts.”
"You mean all the bits about ghosts and demons?"
He did not become defensive. “Somebody wrote about them to
tell us what happened in their own point of view. You can tell me the truth. Do
you know what ghosts are? If you don't think they are real, just assume for a
minute that they are and tell me what they would actually be."
"Souls," she told him. "Spirits. The part of
you that exercises your mind and your will."
"Would they have mass?"
"Mass?" She was confused.
"Could you weigh them?"
"I don't think so."
He gave a curt nod, clearly unhappy with her answers, and
settled back into the leather seat. After a moment, he forced a rueful smile.
With a careless wave of his large hand at the cart in front of them, he said,
"Would you like something to drink?"
"Have you seen a ghost?" she suddenly asked him.
"Are there haunted ruins out there in space, like in the old myths?"
He cast a second glance at her. It seemed not to have
occurred to him that she would ask him about the very questions he was asking
her.
“We’ll speak more of it later, after you’ve met Carrie, my
wife.”
And then he said no more for the rest of the journey. He
looked out the window at the blue sky and wispy clouds below.

Chapter Three
Sandra had expected a household staff, but the snow covered
grounds of the estate lay silent and still. The limo, which had real tires for
driving on the primitive, non-magnetized road, passed between high banks of
snow and coasted slowly up a de-iced lane as straight and black as a dark
ribbon. The palatial house stood quiet and serene under the wintry morning sun;
multiple wings fanned out from a great central hall. Pale bricks and wide
rectangles of glass in the front spoke of a centuries-old edifice, most likely
remodeled, with modern rooms in back.
As the driver pulled away to deliver Sandra Lynn’s luggage
to her room, Stewart led her up to the vast entrance. The snow had been
shoveled away, and the flagstones were bare and de-iced. The great doors looked
like real mahogany or oak.
"Not much is automated on these old places," he
said. He pulled out a key, a real metal key with uneven teeth on one side of
it, and inserted it into a lock. He had to work it a moment. "We rely on a
modern side door for coming and going, but I was trying to impress you,"
he said. " There it is!" The lock yielded, and he pushed open the
door.
Sandra Lynn entered behind him. The high ceiling of the
entry way gave the place an atmosphere of hushed grandeur. She felt small for a
moment, but he was breezy. He closed the door. Coat open, hands thrust into his
pockets, he stepped inside. "Cat!" he called. "Carrie? You
about? We've got company!"
Sandra Lynn followed him onto an immaculate parquet floor,
white and inlaid with a pattern of black tiles placed at intervals. Even the
buildings of the Language Institute──remote and austere as they
were──were equipped with intercoms. Or people used the call cels in
their jewelry. But Stewart relied on his voice. "Yoo hoo, Carrie! Where
have you got to?" He threw a glance over his shoulder. "This way,
young lady. Carrie's likely dozing in a sunny spot. She detests cold weather.
She usually battles it by curling up in some warm corner. I can never get her
to budge." Several hallways fanned out from the entry way, and he confidently
chose one of them. "Follow me, if you will. Cat!" he called.
"I'm home!"
Sandra followed him down a wide hallway where the adjoining
rooms seemed to be a display of the fine history of the house: hardwood floors,
hand carved furniture, woven rugs.
"Well, let's try the large sitting room. That gets a
lot of sun, and it has a fire going." The hallway at last was terminating
into a great, open room with white walls and pale hangings. It looked light and
airy. "Now where──" he began, but suddenly a spry figure
with thick red hair leaped out from the cover of a doorway. It flew through the
air and latched onto him, arms around his neck. He caught this person
automatically.
Sandra Lynn stopped in surprise. It was a woman, but she had
leaped through the air effortlessly.
He made his voice polite and pleased. "Oh Carrie, were
you waiting for me?" he asked.
"I caught you!" the woman exclaimed. She kissed
his lips with three quick kisses, like an impatient little girl. "I missed
you!"
He quickly set her down, but she hugged him with that same
agility and speed. "All right, where's my present?" she asked, and──not
seeing Sandra──the women opened his shirt pocket to peek inside and
then, with a darting, inquisitive speed, looked in each of his jacket pockets,
one by one.
"Darling, we have company," he began.
"I know. We've got loads of company. Are you hiding it
behind your back? I'll find it, you know." And she unhesitatingly ducked
her head into his coat and tunneled into it so that she slipped behind him,
under his coat and jacket. She came around him and her head popped out from
under the coat, her large eyes now anxious as she looked up at him "I
can't find it. Didn't you bring me anything?"
"I don't believe you've met Sandra Lynn Smith," he
said politely.
The large dark eyes of his wife turned and fixed on Sandra.
"Oh my goodness." She whisked out of the coat and instantly faced
Sandra Lynn. Amazingly, she was at once completely still, completely poised,
and her large, dark eyes appraised Sandra with the calm welcome of an
accomplished hostess.
"You must be the young scholar. We are so grateful that
you could join us, Miss Smith. I do hope you find the snow to be beautiful. It
is a natural snow." And she extended her hand. Her eyes were now openly
friendly and yet calm. 
Sandra took the hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you.
Please, what shall I call you?"
"Carrie is fine, and may I call you Sandra?"
"Of course."
"Come in out of that drafty hallway, my dear." And
with that same agility, now softened, Carrie was suddenly at her side, an arm
around her waist, leading her into the great, airy room with a confident
warmth, as though they'd known each other all their lives. She was a small
woman, an inch or two shorter than Sandra, and much smaller than her tall
husband. Her hair was a rare orange color, and in spite of a single streak of
white in the front that may or may not have been artificial, she had no gray.
Her dark eyes were perfectly youthful, but tiny wrinkles around them spoke of middle
age. Otherwise, her skin was smooth and fresh, and there was a vibrancy about
her, even when she was being quiet and kind, that spoke of endless energy.
Sandra knew she would never forget the sight of that enthusiastic leap into
Stewart's arms.
"Here is a lovely easy chair if you would like to sit
in the sun," Carrie said. "Or maybe you would be comfortable in a
chair by the fire."
"You've been napping in the sun, haven't you?"
Stewart asked slyly with a nod at the easy chair. "We've been calling and
calling for you. You didn't hear us."
His wife cocked her head and fixed her eyes on him. "Of
course I heard you, Stewart. But I wanted you to come find me." She darted
to the room’s only sofa. “Did you drop it in the cushions just now?” And she
began digging with her hands into the cushions.
“There is no present in the sofa,” Stewart said.
Sandra Lynn was hesitant but said, "A chair by the fire
will be fine. Thank you." She sat down and was surprised but not offended
when Stewart's wife left the sofa, crossed to her, and stroked back her hair
with an easy and yet gracious familiarity. "And what shall I get for your
lunch, my dear? We could start with cheese. Would you like cheese? Do you drink
milk? Or cream?"
"I think," Stewart said. "That if we started
with a nice brie and fruit and crackers, and asked Cook to make lunch for
three, we would do very well. Is albacore to your liking, my dear?" he
asked Sandra.
"Oh fish! I love fish! And it is good for you!"
Carrie added, now as entranced by the idea of fish for lunch as she had been
about her present.
"Yes, that will be lovely." Sandra Lynn had never
had albacore before, and she wasn't sure what it was, but she knew that she
would eat anything put before her. Stewart grinned broadly. "Salmon, I
think, Carrie."
"That’s good too! I'll go tell Cook. Now, you be
comfortable here by the fire." And to her surprise, Carrie looked directly
into her eyes, stroked her cheek, and then walked out.
Stewart threw himself down onto a sofa. "So how do you
like my wife?" he asked.
"You did bring her a present, didn't you?" Sandra
asked back.
He grinned. "Of course I did. I always do. But she's
got to find it. And I gave up hiding her presents in my jacket, coat, or
pockets ages ago. But she still searches me. She's so afraid she might not find
it." He let out a laugh of sudden ruefulness. "But I can't hide
anything from that woman."

Chapter Four
Carrie brought them a platter with a hunk of soft cheese in
the center, surrounded by fragile crackers, and adorned with clusters of purple
grapes. She set this down on the coffee table, then handed them small plates so
that they could help themselves. Such service upon her husband was almost
embarrassing among actualized people, and Sandra didn't quite know where to
look. She wondered why Stewart didn't do his equal share of work as host. But
he was heedless of his manners and stayed indolently seated on the sofa, half
reclined into the cushions, with his legs crossed. His wife kept her large dark
eyes fixed on him as she served, her face so overly solemn that it was clear
that she was teasing him. She liked waiting on him, Sandra observed, as long as
he watched her. Carrie knew that she was beautiful, yet she knew it as a person
who shares a delightful joke.
Stewart's indolent gaze followed his wife as she would have
exited. "Aren't you going to sit with us?" he asked just as she
passed into the hallway. The question was timed to bring her back just as she
got out of sight.
"The tea," she reminded him from the hallway. And
then she poked her head back through the doorway. "You do want tea, don't
you?" And she asked it in a tone that said he was just dense enough to
forget about having something to drink with his food.
"Yes and no sauce, thank you," he told her.
"Oh, you always get sauce!" And she whisked out
again.
He smiled to himself and then looked at Sandra Lynn, his
eyes happy. "Do help yourself, young lady."
She was hungry, and so she eagerly served herself from the
platter.
He took up his favorite subject. "Now, about those
ghosts. I just wondered why people were afraid of them. What is it about
something that is hardly visible and may or may not have mass that would
terrify a solid and sturdy human being?" He hesitated "They're always
bad, aren't they? What powers do they actually possess?"
"Well, they're all dreadful. Hamlet saw his father's
ghost and the ghost simply imparted information to him. He had to tell his son
that he had been murdered and that intrigue was going on around Hamlet. But the
ghost itself wasn't evil──-just unnatural, a sign of bad things
going on."
Stewart pushed his lips together for a moment and knit his
eyebrows. "The ghost was good. It wanted to set things right."
"Well, not really. It wanted vengeance so it could
rest."
"What happened to Hamlet?"
"He carried out a vengeance on anybody who had anything
at all to do with the man who had killed his father. It was horrible, really.
He died in the end. Just about everybody died in the end."
"Was the ghost appeased by that?"
"The ghost is left out of the story after its first
appearance."
This news disappointed him. Carrie came in with a silver tea
tray, and now her husband stood and gallantly took it. Carrie peered around him
as he set down the loaded tray. "Sandra, dear, would you like some nice
hot tea? Or would you prefer coffee? Tea would be nice, and there's plenty of
sugar." Without waiting for an answer, Carrie took up a lovely china cup
and poured steaming tea into it. Then she loaded it with four cubes of sugar.
"There you are, my dear. It's very cold weather, and you need to keep your
strength up." She set a tiny spoon on the saucer and brought the cup to
Sandra.
"She's not a child you know, Cat," Stewart said,
his voice gentle.
"How old are you, Sandra?" Carrie asked. Sandra
took the tea, and Carrie surprised her by sitting on the arm of her chair.
"Twenty two."
"Oh twenty-two is very young." And Carrie again
stroked back her hair in a motherly and self assured way. "How old is
twenty two for people these days, Stewart?" she asked her husband.
"Isn't she very young?"
 "Old enough to
know how much sugar she wants in her tea," Stewart said. He set a tea cup
half filled with cream and milk onto the coffee table by his place. "Here
is your cream and milk, dear." He sat down on the sofa with his own tea.
"All right." But she stayed for a moment, perched
on the chair, her hand on Sandra's shoulder, as though making it clear that she
felt she ought to look after their young visitor.
Her voice was soothing. "Tell me about what you were
discussing. Ghosts, is it? Do you believe in ghosts?"
"Oh no, of course not."
“I think I'll have my cream now." And with that
surprising agility of hers, Carrie whisked away from Sandra and took her seat
on the sofa next to her husband. He handed the cup and saucer to her. She
accepted it, folded her legs up under her, then bowed her head and stared
straight down into her cup, as though fascinated with her drink of cream and
milk.
Stewart changed the topic. "As far as Hamlet's father's
ghost," he said. "I mean, nobody sent the ghost. The ghost was
autonomous?"
Sandra nodded.
"Are they always autonomous? Independent
individuals?"
"Well──" For a moment Sandra was
distracted by the sight of Carrie, who was sitting with her legs folded up
under her, her spine perfectly straight, her eyes now closed, the cup held in
her hands at chest level. She was enjoying the cream and milk so much that it
was almost a transcendental experience. 
Sandra caught herself and continued: "Aneas and Odysseus did
converse with ghosts in a straightforward way. So did the Witch at Endor. In
those instances, the ghost came when summoned."
Stewart's eyes were astounded, and even Carrie opened her
large dark eyes.
"Ghosts can be summoned? They can be ordered
about?" he asked.
Sandra inclined her head. "To an extent. It's called
necromancy. In the morality of Tribal Actualization, necromancy was considered
extremely evil. Aneas and Odysseus used it only at great extremity. And Saul
was condemned to death for using the Witch at Endor."
"Yes it would be evil," Stewart said, his voice
absent. "It's evil." Carrie closed her eyes and seemed to withdraw to
her cream.
He hesitated and then said, "So when these people who
used necromancy called up the ghosts to do their bidding, did they make the
ghosts take up residence in people? Did they make armies that way?"
"No," she said. "Ghosts don't inhabit people.
That would be something that demons do."
"What's a demon then?"
 She was puzzled,
unable to recall this obscure distinction from her studies. "I'll have to
research that for you. Demons differ somehow from ghosts. If you can spare me a
screen, I'll check the Language Institute's archives."
"Can you check to see what sorts of bodies they have?
Maybe one distinction is that demons have more or less mass than ghosts."
She realized that she had failed to convey to him that
entities of the supernatural world were not physical at all. She decided to
wait and explain everything in proper order.
"Yes, I'll be glad to do an exhaustive search," she
said.
"But she should get unpacked first," Carrie said,
bolt upright and eyes closed. "And play in the snow if she likes."
Stewart nodded and looked at Sandra with friendly eyes.
"Of course. We've got plenty of time to hear about the myths of old."

Chapter Five
Carrie appointed herself hostess to Sandra Lynn's comforts,
so after their tea she led her young guest down the long, narrow halls of the
modern wing, back into the wider, wooden walls of the older section of the
house. Their footsteps clapped on the wooden thresholds of the entryways, and
their voices echoed off the hard walls.
But it was beautiful. Rugs had been laid down to protect
feet from the cold floors. Carrie explained where some of the pictures on the
walls had come from and where the furniture in the rooms had been purchased or
made. At last she brought her young guest to a wide, antique wooden door and
turned a real door knob that actually had a tongue-in-groove fitting instead of
the typical magnetic plates used in modern homes. They entered the guest room.
The entire outer wall of the room was windows hung with
draperies, all in shades of blue, all pulled open to welcome the day. A
fireplace of stone, in which a small fire cheerfully burned, formed the
centerpiece of this magnificent wall of windows. Against the near wall, an
enormous canopied bed, nearly as big as Sandra Lynn's bedroom back at the
Institute, was made up in blue and white covers, the sheer curtains drawn back.
Other items of comfort and luxury dotted the room, all in dark woods: a
wardrobe, a vanity with a scanner. An easy chair sat in easy reach of the fire
place.
Carrie sniffed cautiously as they entered. She turned her
head and sniffed again. "Oh good. It's all natural fibers for you. But we
must make sure you've got enough covers. " She went purposefully to the
bed and drew back the quilt to get a count of the blankets underneath.
"Yes, that should be warm enough, I should think. Stewart both tells me
that one thermal throw would keep anybody plenty warm, but I grew up with
flannel sheets and wool blankets, my dear, and they are so comforting on a cold
night."
She slipped out of her shoes and with that agile grace of
hers, she slid under the covers in an experimental sort of way. She drew them to
her chin and looked over at Sandra Lynn. "Yes, I think it's just right.
The down quilt is perfect." Then her eyes got big. "Say, did Stewart
tell John, the limo driver, to put your luggage in here?"
"Yes." Sandra nodded to the neat stack of cheap
duffel bags in one corner.
"Maybe John hid my present in here!" And Carrie's
head disappeared under the covers. She tunneled under them so that for a moment
Sandra Lynn saw only a long lump that moved across the vast bed. This lump
traveled all the way to the opposite side of the bed and went over the side.
Sandra expected to hear a crash or at least an exclamation,
but Carrie slithered down to the floor and then swiftly popped up, on her feet,
none the worse for wear. She ran her slender hands through her thick, brilliant
hair to smooth it back. "I know he's got it hidden around here somewhere.
He hasn't sworn you in on the secret, has he?"
"No! Sandra Lynn exclaimed.
"He's very clever. He knows you would tell me in a
second, so I'm left on my own to find it." She came around the bed and
stepped into her shoes. Then she re-made the bed properly and smoothed the
blankets, tucking them under the pillows. She tried to appear off hand, but
Sandra Lynn knew she was still looking for the hidden present. However, it wasn't
there.
But as Carrie straightened up, her wide dark eyes suddenly
lit up as she spied something on top of the nearest post of the bed.
She whisked past Sandra Lynn and gave that same agile leap
that Sandra had already seen once. But this time, the elegant older woman
caught the post of the bed and shinned up so quickly that she seemed to slide
straight up.
With a laugh of delight, she seized a small, sparkling
ornament that had been fastened to the top of the bed post with thread. Without
bothering to shin down, she simply threw herself away from the post and landed
on her feet, as lightly as if she had skipped off a doorstep. She held up her
prize.
"I found it!"
This performance astounded Sandra Lynn. With no handholds at
all, Carrie had climbed a relatively lightweight pole, quickly enough to get to
the top and leap off without letting her weight pull it over.
"It's a pretty pin," Carrie said, completely
absorbed in her new treasure. She turned it over and over in her hands. Then
she fixed her large eyes hopefully to Sandra. "Will you pin it on me,
please, Sandra?"
Sandra found her voice. "Certainly," she said.
"Now let's see, it ought to be in a good line of sight
to my eyes so that it sets them off. Stewart says I have lovely eyes. Do you
think so?" Carrie asked.
Sandra measured with her eyes and selected a place just
under the collar bone on the right side to set the pin. "Yes, you have
very nice eyes," she said. "Very big."
"You have nice eyes too," Carrie said quickly. "Very
blue. Mine are dark. Some people think blue is best of all, but Stewart told me
that my eyes go very well with my hair."
She actually seemed anxious about being pretty, and Sandra
felt an odd twinge of pity and sympathy. "I think your eyes are perfect
for your hair," she said. She finished pinning the small, sparkling brooch
into place. "And I think your hair is terrific. It's so thick and
perfect."
Carrie smiled with genuine happiness at this pronouncement.
She suddenly came up on her toes and then came back down, her face shining.
With her new pin and Sandra's praise, she was very happy, with the innocence of
a small child. Then she instantly became her gracious, elegant, hostess self
again. "Well my dear, I must go thank my husband for his kind gift. But
what about you? Would you like to unpack now?"
"Oh yes," Sandra Lynn said.
"Now if you get home sick for your Staff, you can call
them from here, of course. There's a screen recessed in that wall over there.
And if you've left anything behind, just let me know, I'll look after you. And
if you want to play outside in the snow, there's an exterior door just down the
hallway. Or you can find me, and I'll show you around the grounds."
"Thank you." Sandra was sure she would simply
unpack.
"Now that doorway leads to your private shower and
bathroom, and I'll just draw this easy chair up for you so that you can enjoy
the fire." And saying that, Carrie pulled the cushioned chair to a proper
angle for staring into the flames in the fireplace. "I'll come get you for
lunch in about an hour."
Sandra Lynn’s eyes fell to one of the small decorative
tables. "Are those Mags Hardbottle books?" she asked.
"Oh yes. We have the entire collection."
"I grew up with these." Struck with wonder, she
picked up one of the well worn, ragged volumes from the small stack. She
flipped it open.
 
"Awright Snopes, don't be
stupid." Mags Hardbottle, eyes hidden by the visor, kept her hands
relaxed. The guilty man cast one hungry glance at the blaster in her holster.
He reached into his jacket.
"Like this," she said. The
blaster seemed to leap to her hand. A neat hole suddenly appeared in the wall
alongside his left ear. A tongue of flame on the edge of drywall licked the
side of his head before it flickered out.
He cringed, pulled his hands away from
his jacket, and seemed to shrink into himself. "You'll never get out of
here alive," he said, his voice still defiant, though he cast his eyes
down and kept his hands up. "My boys have you surrounded."
"Oh? How many of your boys was
there?" she asked. "Hey Kogrik!" she yelled. "C'mere!"
The door behind her suddenly exploded
into flinders as Kogrik stepped through it. He ducked his massive head to
enter. "Fifteen his boys. All lights out," her hulking Wakrung
assistant reported.
She grinned wryly. "It never does
to ferget about Kogrik, Snopes. Now let's all wait for Major Hawke."
 
"That's Crimes of
Rations," she said out loud, and then looked at the cover to verify
her guess. She was right. Mags Hardbottle
#105.
"If Stewart finds out that you were ever a devotee of
the illustrious but rather florid adventures of Miss Hardbottle, he will be
very pleased," Carrie told her, her own voice not unlike a slightly
disapproving parent.
Sandra Lynn had assumed that the playful and slightly
eccentric Carrie had printed up and read these volumes. The comment startled
her. "Stewart reads these books? He likes them?"
"It's probably not a fact that Stewart would advertise
in the presence of heads of state or Corporate Presidents." But Carrie's eyes
became disdainful, as though heads of state were more trouble than Stewart's
time was worth.
"But, I mean, Stewart knows that there's nothing out
there," Sandra Lynn said. She glanced down at the book. "If there
ever could have been a Mags Hardbottle, she would be dead now." She
frowned. "They all died so horribly when Diversification went wrong. When
the viruses went out of control."
Carrie's eyes suddenly showed a glint of sympathy.
"Yes, Mags was not a diversified creature, but all her adventures were set
out in the diversified planets," she said. She touched the open book in
Sandra Lynn’s hands. "But here, in the universe of Mags Hardbottle,
Diversification never suffers the tragedy that it suffered in reality. It's
just a pleasant fantasy. All those hideous, alien-born creatures making friends
or making enemies, fighting for justice, solving crimes. They are very good
reads." Carrie became more business-like. "I'll let you get on with
your unpacking, if you like."
And with a polite nod, she exited.
Sandra Lynn looked down at the book and felt a moment's unexpected longing.
Long ago outdated and obsolete, Mags Hardbottle stories continued to reign
supreme in popularity among those who read for entertainment. All those garish
outlaws and equally garish good guys romped from one adventure to the other,
drawing actualized, intelligent readers after them like the Pied Pipers of
throw-away literature.
Sandra Lynn sank into the throne-like chair and glanced from
the piece of pulp fiction to the duffel bag that held her mythology books. For
one sharp instant, like a knife thrust deeply into her, she knew that people
before her had felt a close kinship with an invisible world that she did not
comprehend. That to them it had been real and true; both horrible and
beautiful. And for a moment, an idea that something more vital and true than
her polite, hierarchical world really existed seared her with a painful,
burning hope.
Then the moment was gone. She turned to unpacking and set
aside the detective novel.

Chapter Six
After an elegant supper, in which John, the limo driver and
porter, also acted as waiter, Stewart and his wife retired with their guest to
the sitting room. Sandra Lynn had time to feel a slight misgiving. Down in the city,
Stewart had spoken of many guests and a bustling household staff. But apart
from John, they seemed entirely alone at this remote estate. With the frigid
darkness closing in, she felt an isolation that she had never felt before.
But her hosts were congenial, and the sitting room blazed
with light and warmth. Stewart surprised Sandra Lynn by having a cigar with his
sherry. She had never actually seen a person smoke a cigar. Carrie didn't like
it at all (though she blew out the match for him), but she was accustomed to
it. She retreated to the ottoman near the window and sat bolt upright on it.
Sandra Lynn offered her own chair to her hostess, but Carrie shook her head.
"I am fine, my dear. I like the ottoman. I often sit here when the sun is
coming in the window."
"Yes, and sometimes she goes to sleep and nearly falls
over," Stewart added. Completely relaxed and at a distance from the two
women, he released two gentle smoke rings into the air. They were quickly
seized by the silent but efficient ventilation and purification system and
whisked away.
He noticed Sandra Lynn's amazement. "Nasty habit I
picked up out in space," he told her. "Nothing to do for long
stretches out there but smoke and read, try to keep from going mad."
"You have a crew don't you?" Sandra Lynn asked.
"Not always. Once we're at the first port station, we
often split up for the survey work. I mean, we can communicate by wave motion,
with very little delay, but you can't spend the whole day tied up in
communication."
The confidential subject of traveling out there, beyond the
solar system, tempted her, but she didn't dare ask. It wasn't proper.
"Are you familiar with the ideas of amplified wave
motion?" he asked her. "It's how we get around once we're in deep
space."
"I understand that propulsion out there is different
than it is here," she told him. "I mean, in the vacuum of space
there's nothing to push against. So the pushing force that rockets use in our
atmosphere doesn't do any good."
He laughed. "No, not much. We use the energy-wave
motion of the few electrons that are out in space. It's a relative vacuum, not
a perfect vacuum, so there are some particles here and there. They can actually
be ramped up, energy wise, and our detection devices amplify their energy and
then seize it for a sort of slingshot effect. We actually zip along from
electron to electron. But when you're moving that fast, the size of the ship in
reference to the size of the electron particles no longer matters. In fact,
distance itself becomes much less of an issue. You can cover as much space as
you want in little more than an instant. The real challenge is direction.
Direction and coming to a stop without vaporizing you and your crew into
shadows."
Mouth open, Sandra listened to his offhand account. He made
it sound so easy, like traveling at the speed of light squared wasn't all that
difficult, as long as you had a good compass and a decent set of brakes.
"I take off from right here you know," he said.
"Got my command cabin adjacent south wing on its own magnetic pad."
"But when the ships blast off──" she
began.
"Yes." Still off hand, he flicked the cigar into
his saucer. "You're thinking of the propulsion ships that are used for
solar system work, of course. Those have to be launched at official sites
because they're stuffed full of explosive and radioactive fuel. My command
cabin is just pulled along, so to speak. The port station simply directs it in
from earth by a series of relays. That's always the longest part of the
journey, getting out of the atmosphere."
"It is? Why?"
He took another puff on the cigar, let out one smoke ring,
and tried to blow another through it, but the ventilation system whisked both
rings away before he could succeed. He grimaced. Then he looked at her.
"What's that? Oh, the command cabin is a pretty boxy thing. I mean, it's
only large enough to be my living quarters, but it's not very aerodynamic, so I
travel through any atmosphere pretty slowly to avoid friction problems. But
once I break free of the atmosphere, I'm almost instantly pulled to the nearest
port station by the wave motion relays. From there I join my crew and off we
go."
She wanted to ask him more about what he did. There was a
sense of forbidden delight in hearing these things. But just then there was a
short outcry, a bump, and then Carrie leaped from the floor straight up to her
feet.
"You do insist on falling asleep while you're sitting
on that thing," Stewart told her. "Are you all right?"
"I caught myself." His wife instantly regained her
dignity and regarded Sandra Lynn with regal hospitality. "Your cup is
empty, my dear. Let me get you more coffee." 

Chapter Seven
 In spite of wanting
to stay awake and participate in this soiree for as long as it might last, Sandra
Lynn's eyes began to close against her will. It had been a long and active day,
with many changes. She tried to appear alert and interested, but she began to
become sleepy.
She might have been embarrassed in any other situation, but
now she was only disappointed in herself. One of the most amazing men in the
world, and his equally amazing wife, were enjoying a conversation with her, and
she could not stay awake.
"I think we had better let you retire for the night, my
girl," Stewart said at last as he saw her force her eyes open. "Or
we'll have you taking headers onto the floor as well, and you might not catch
yourself as adeptly as Carrie does."
"Yes," Sandra said. "I suppose I had better
call it a night. Oh, but I do love talking with you."
"Well, we'll be right here tomorrow," Carrie,
suddenly at her elbow, said. "I'll show you to your room."
It was a companionable walk, now. Sandra Lynn wondered if
Carrie and Stewart had ever had children. Sandra's own parents were unknown to
her. Their actualization had prompted them to register her for staff shortly
after her birth, and she had never seen them again, nor did she have any memory
of them. She knew from her records that she had become staff nurtured just
short of her first birthday, so she assumed her birth parents had been married,
at least briefly. They'd obviously wanted to give child rearing a try, but it
had not worked out for them, so they had used the staff options available to
them and suitable for her intellectual, sociological, and actualization
potential. And her own staff had been so delighted with her and so affirming
that she had no regrets. She had been held, rocked, talked to, played with,
scolded, taught, and over indulged at least as much as──and often
more than──parented people. Like many of her staff-raised peers,
she thought parenting to be over rated. But in this new environment, she felt
this assumption also being nudged aside to allow for other points of view.
"You're so quiet, my dear," Carrie said.
"Oh, I'm just sleepy and happy," Sandra said.
"You and Stewart have been so kind to me." They reached her door and
stopped.
"Kindness is the only thing left," Carrie said,
and her dark eyes were very sober. "Good night, my dear. Sleep
tight."
Sandra passed into her room, slightly. But it did do no good
to try to figure out Carrie. Sandra liked Stewart's wife enormously, but she
already realized that everything Carrie said and did was simply right for
Carrie.
She pulled off her formal attire with glad relief. Even with
the efficient heating system and the low fire, a steady chill penetrated the
room at the draperies. After Sandra changed into her night clothes and donned a
new robe and thick slippers that had been provided for her, she drew back the
drapes on two of the windows.  Outside,
the wind blew scudding clouds of white across the grounds in swirls and eddies.
Then everything would become still for a breathless moment. And then the wind
would begin again, whipping up the looser, powdery layer so that it swirled
across the crusty, frozen layer that remained from previous snowfalls.
She was very tempted to turn out all the lights, turn the
fire low, and take the easy chair for a half hour or so, simply to enjoy
herself and look at the lovely, pastoral scene by the fire's glow. But sleep
was becoming an overbearing necessity, She turned down the fire, darkened the
room, and climbed into the great, old fashioned bed.
The incredible comfort of the weight of the blankets, the
softness of the flannel sheets, the gradual accumulation of her body's warmth
stayed with her even as she drowsed and then slipped into the first, light
stages of sleep. She heard the even tread of Stewart as he walked past her
door, and she heard his voice, slightly muffled by the heavy wooden walls as he
asked Carrie if she'd gone to bed. Carrie's voice was quieter, less distinct,
but apparently telling him not to disturb their guest and to keep his voice
down.
Pipes tapped. The wind outside picked up and blew a spray of
snow against the glass. She seemed to be floating in comfortable warmth. But
then her observations and mental impressions became much less well ordered. The
clearest thing that she recalled later was an image of Carrie, her ginger hair
with the white streak in front fluffed out as though it had been teased, and
Carrie was staring down at her, eyes concerned and anxious. But she was angry,
or actually defiant, towards someone else. Somebody else was in the room with
them, and Stewart and John were racing up and down the hall outside her door,
shouting to each other. But surely that was a dream.
Then she realized that a man was in her bed. He was
stripping her──not just her clothing, but her flesh as well, trying
to get to something deep inside her. Her heart. He wanted to seize her heart,
and he was tearing her apart to do so. She tried to scream and found that she
couldn't. She couldn't move.
Then she opened her eyes and was snapped into light. The
lights in the room were turned on. Stewart's voice was calling terribly. She
had never heard such a terrible tone in a human voice. Carrie was leaning over
her. Sandra Lynn's hands were flung wide, and she couldn't bring them in. She
couldn't breathe.
Something pricked her skin, and then a tremendous lance of
pain went into her constricted heart.
"I know, dear, I know," Carrie said. Carrie's eyes
had been no dream. Stewart's wife was frightened and concerned.
Sandra Lynn tried to beg her to stop hurting her, to let her
go. Stewart's face, haggard and resolute with the expression of a man trying to
master his fear, appeared next to Carrie's face. "What are you
using?"
"Maculotoxin. It will block the sodium release and stop
the constriction of the heart."
"She's not breathing, Cat!"
"We've got to get ready to intubate. Tell John to get
that portable unit up here!" This was not the eccentric, elegant Carrie
from the dinner party. She was clear, decisive, and knew what she was doing.
"She's moving her finger tips. She's afraid." And
then Stewart moved around his wife and spoke directly to Sandra Lynn.
"Sandra, we're trying to help you. You've had some sort of attack. We're
helping you."
She suddenly took in a great breath, and she felt her heart
give one strong beat that almost crippled her with pain. She dimly knew that
her heart and breath had been stopped by some forcible attack.
Carrie touched a pulmonary sensor to Sandra's chest and took
a reading. "Give her a breath from the tank," she said.
Stewart put his hand over Sandra's eyes. As she gasped, she got
a rush of cold, rejuvenating air. It brought sensation back to her limbs.
"Try again," he said to her.
She gagged. He took his hand away.
"Lift her, Stewart,"  Carrie ordered.
They both lifted her and pulled her higher on the pillows.
John rushed in, dragging an emergency medical unit on wheels. His arms were
full of packets of liquid, each in clear sacks with small numbers printed on
them in neat rows.
"Set up the machine for calcium and potassium slow
releases," Carrie told both men. She plucked a single packet from John's
arm, ran the tube that dangled from it into a fitting on a syringe, and then
leaned out of Sandra Lynn's vision. Sandra felt the prick in her wrist where
the flesh was soft and the veins close to the surface.
"I'm doing this by eye," Carrie said tersely.
"Get that machine set up as quickly as you can."
But then, suddenly, Sandra's voice came back to her.
"Oh please let me go," she begged. "Please
don't hurt me. Please!"
Carrie's eyes showed an astonished horror, and Stewart
whisked his head around at her plea. Even John looked up.
"Nobody's going to hurt you," Carrie said quickly.
She set the sensor in place again on Sandra's chest and said, her voice almost
broken with thankfulness. "The calcium levels are approaching normal. Her
oxygenation is at 80 and rising."
"Sandra Lynn," Stewart began, quickly leaning over
her.
"Oh please let me go!" Sandra Lynn begged him.
"Why have you brought me here? Please let me go."
"Stewart," Carrie said quickly. He stepped back,
and Carrie offered Sandra Lynn the oxygen mask, this time letting her see the
handheld tank. Sandra instinctively tried to lift her head to it, and Carrie
fitted the plastic cone over her nose and mouth and let her draw in several
breaths of the oxygen rich air.
"All right, all right," Carrie said soothingly.
"Now you're much better. Now you'll be all right." She removed the
syringe and threw it down.
"How did it get out?" John asked.
"John, take the heavy equipment back to the lab,"
Stewart ordered swiftly, and John instantly gathered up the materials, face
averted, and did as he was told.
"You'll be able to move in a moment," Carrie told
her. "You've had some sort of heart trouble, my dear. A seizure of some
sort. We heard you calling out." And she stroked Sandra's forehead and gave
her the cone again to help her breathing.
Sandra Lynn began to cry, and Carrie swiftly assigned
Stewart to gather up the half used syringes and packets of liquid.
"Now, now," Carrie whispered. She gathered in
Sandra Lynn's paralyzed arms, lifted her head, and rocked her. "I am a
famous cardiac doctor, my dear. I'll set things right." But she pressed
the side of her face to the top of Sandra's head and held her close, and Sandra
Lynn felt that Carrie had been badly frightened by something. The sense that
Carrie felt frightened on her behalf assured Sandra that these people meant her
no harm. Whatever had happened, they had been taken by surprise and had acted
quickly to save her. But Sandra Lynn had no experience with needing courage.
She couldn't stop crying, and she couldn't stop being afraid. Carrie didn't let
her go, and suddenly Carrie seemed perfectly suited to the situation.
"Oh you gave us such a scare," Carrie said, as
though chiding her. "One of the sweetest, nicest young people to befriend
such pokey old duffers like us. We'll have to look after you much more
carefully." She rocked her and let the quietness of the room do its work.
"Carrie, it hurts," Sandra whimpered. She felt
humiliated by shedding tears in front of an actualized person. But Sandra had
no experience with prolonged pain, either.
"What hurts, dear? An ache in your chest?"
Sandra nodded. Carrie's sympathy made her feel grateful, but
behind her fear, pain, and uncertainty, a certain puzzlement continued. Carrie
behaved astonishingly like Sandra's own staff: the same attentiveness, as
though Carrie had no actualization of her own to cultivate.
"I can give you a few drops of a pain killer. You may
have a bit of edema built up, a temporary swelling from the sudden imbalance
you suffered in your heart. You lie back and take a few more breathers from the
oxygen, and I'll give you a little stick of the sedative."
She was afraid to lie back because of the sensation of a
weight in her chest, but Carrie piled up the pillows for her so that she could
lie reclined instead of flat, and Sandra Lynn was now strong enough to hold the
small tank and take some more restorative breaths. Carrie rummaged among
materials out of Sandra's line of vision──some sort of medical kit
on the floor by the bed. She loaded a new syringe out of view.
"This will make you more comfortable," she said,
her voice coaxing. "And if you don't like lying down, we'll prop you up in
the easy chair."
Her fingers were oddly strong as she gripped Sandra's near
arm, but she slipped in the tiny needle point and watched carefully as she
depressed the plunger.  The syringe
counter chimed to count the dose. She withdrew it quickly and disposed of the
syringe out of sight.
It took only a moment to act. Sandra Lynn's tight chest
relaxed. She looked at Carrie. "Somebody came in. He wanted my
heart."
"Oh dear, you had a bad dream." And Carrie stroked
back her hair.
"It was the ghost. Is that what Stewart wanted to know
about? He's real." She took in a breath and burst out the words with a sob.
“Ghosts are real!”
"No, no, my dear. Stewart's just interested in a bit of
mythology. All alone out there on his ship. There are no ghosts here. You had a
bad dream. We've overworked you. You're such a young little child, and here we
are bothering you about ghosts and demons and all the rest. We've been hard on
you without meaning to──" And her voice suddenly broke. She
kept stroking back Sandra's hair from her forehead. But Sandra's last clear
sense, as she drifted into a drug-induced doze, was that Carrie was very
distressed and suddenly had to fight back tears.
She didn't know if she dreamed the rest, but she thought she
heard Stewart say, "All right, there was a brief power interruption. And
it got out during the millisecond out-of-phase. She was sleeping, and it
detected that she was the closest, in that state, to being right for it to take
her over."
"It's gained more power then," Carrie said. “It
knows its environment.”
"More skill and knowledge, anyway. Carrie, he's able to
teach himself how to adapt. He could be human."
"My vote is termination," Carrie said. "We
haven't been able to save her, and now it's broken free and attacked somebody
else──"
"But he failed. You know we didn't really stop him. He
simply wasn't able to do it."
"He almost did! She deserves our protection!" And
her voice was angry. "Where is he now?"
"Back where he's in control. The phase error enabled
him to get back in as easily as he got out. But he can’t get out again. I’ve
seen to it."
Their discussion hazed out of her sense of reality. She
clearly heard Carrie say, "If it has to live by preying on people, it has
to be terminated." But Sandra had no idea of the context of the
discussion, and──oddly enough──though her dream of the
man tearing her flesh from her bones to get to her heart felt very real to her,
this more realistic conversation seemed very dreamlike.
She came back to herself to find herself struggling to sit
up.
"Oh, she doesn't want to lie down. She's not
comfortable. Over here, Stewart," Carrie said.
Stewart, his lined face now less haggard and more calm,
smiled at Sandra, and she realized that he was going to pick her up. It
embarrassed her, but he was so quick and deft as he scooped her up that she
felt that she weighed almost nothing.
"There!" Carrie's voice was satisfied. She had
been arranging soft flannel throws on the easy chair. Stewart settled her down,
and Carrie selected an appropriate angle of recline that allowed Sandra to
breathe more easily as she rested. Carrie wrapped the covers around her.
"Now we can put your feet up higher if you become
uncomfortable," Carrie said. "But we'll see how you do with this
setting, first, feet on the floor. Stewart, is all the medical waste cleaned
up? All right. To bed with you then. I'll stay here tonight. Sandra Lynn needs
some looking after."
Stewart passed a small, turtle-shaped device to his wife.
"I'll set this up on the bed frame," she said. They saw Sandra
watching them.
"This is a monitor for the room, dear," Carrie
said quickly. "It will sound an alarm if it detects an arrested heartbeat.
It's very sensitive. It senses all of us right now, and it will know when
Stewart leaves the room. So you'll be very safe, even if I fall asleep."
"I'll make sure that John's got everything put away
properly in the lab," Stewart said. He bid them both good night and left.
Carrie remained business-like and comforting. She wrapped
blankets around Sandra Lynn's legs and made sure she was well covered.
"Now I'm going to look after you," she said, as
she dimmed the lights halfway. Carrie took another reading on her medical
sensor and examined the display. "Oxygenation is at 95," she said.
"Heart rate is within normal parameters. You've had a bad scare, but you
seem fine, now." And she stroked Sandra's head. "Well, I'm staying
right here."
She suited her actions to her words and sat right on the
floor. She gathered a blanket around herself and over her shoulders and leaned
against the front of the chair. Her weight was heavy against Sandra's legs, but
it was a comforting pressure.
"I just love looking into the fire," Carrie said.
"So I'll stay right here. I'll watch out for you and keep you safe."
And then she rested her head against Sandra's knees and instantly fell asleep,
huddled comfortably in her blanket. The sedative took effect again on Sandra
Lynn, and in a moment, she too fell asleep. Her sleep was punctuated by
recurring dreams that a beautiful young lioness had befriended her. But
sometimes it turned into a ginger colored cat that arched its back and fluffed
its tail when the guest room door started to open. Then the door would close,
and the cat would settle down. At last, as everything remained peaceful, it
curled into a comfortable swirl and fell asleep on her knee.

Chapter Eight
Brilliant sunlight that fell in wide planks of gold across
the blue carpet woke Sandra Lynn. Carrie was gone, and a tray of covered plates
had been brought for her. The ache in her chest had subsided to a mere feeling
of sensitivity along her sternum. She felt weary and now was quite ready to lie
down on the bed, fears forgotten, and sleep for a couple hours in the sunny,
snowy morning. Everything from the night before seemed like the disjointed
pieces of bad dreams.
Before she rose from the chair, somebody knocked cautiously
on the door. At her call, Stewart poked his head inside the room.
"Feeling better?" he asked her.
"Quite tired," she said. "But better."
He stepped inside. "Carrie's gone off with your readings
to confer with a heart specialist. She should be back by late tonight. She
wanted another opinion on what caused the seizure."
"Does she have any ideas?"
Stewart tried to sound assuring. "The mostly likely
cause is that you've got an allergy to something in last night's meal. We'll
get last night's recipe list from Cook and make sure you're not served anything
on it until you're tested." He cocked his head. "Are you all
right?"
"I'm very tired."
"Carrie said that would be normal. Would you like company?
The sensor there is still tracking you. It will page both me and John if it
detects an abnormality in your pulmonary function."
"Oh no, I'm fine. I think I may nap a little
longer."
"Of course." He actually seemed relieved.
"John's going to stay nearby and attend to you. And I won't be far away.
I've got to do host duty with the couple that's just arrived. Marjorie and
Steven Whelass. Very well known in space travel innovations."
"Yes, all right." She was surprised that Carrie
had left so abruptly, but it was reassuring to know that such an expert was
doing a thorough review on the seizure, or whatever it had been.
After Stewart left, she took to the bed, and she slept,
untroubled, until well after ten.
By then she was hungry. She ravenously ate from the generous
helpings of fresh fruit and then turned up the fire, opened the rest of the
draperies, and sat down to enjoy oatmeal with cream and maple syrup. Her dream
from the night before now seemed impossible to her. The sun sparkled on the
clean snow all around the estate house; the sky was such a clear blue that it
seemed both very near and yet very far away.
She enjoyed her leisurely breakfast, took seconds from the
coffee pot, and then decided to get her shower and "go play in the
snow," as Carrie had suggested the day before.
Less than an hour later, Sandra Lynn donned her jacket,
boots, and gloves. Following her hostess's advice from the day before, she
followed the hallway down to a side door and emerged into the clear, cold day.
She had no idea of the lay of the land, and so she trudged around the side of
the great estate house, making for the front.
She gave herself up to some genuine exploring. A hill
alongside the house was crowned by a golden, metal structure, rather box-like
in shape. She wondered if this were Stewart's ship. He'd called it a command
cabin and had impressed her by telling her it sat right by the estate. She
toiled up the short, steep hill to visit this amazing structure. How many
people, she asked herself, actually got this close to a ship that traveled the
vastness of space? How many people ever touched a real space ship? She decided
that she had to do this, just to tell everybody back at the Institute about it.
Big boot prints from Stewart traversed the hill in several
different tracks. Apparently he visited his command cabin every day or so, but
this was no surprise. Even when he wasn't piloting through space, he probably
had maintenance and diagnostics to attend to, and surely he had to communicate
on specialized equipment with his superiors. She felt a thrill of admiration
for his secret work.
As she neared the crest of the short, steep hill, she was
surprised to see a set of smaller prints: Carrie's, no doubt. One set of tracks
of small tracks was filled in by snow, but the second set was clear. Fresh, in
fact, uneroded by the constant wind on this hill. Carrie and Stewart had both
come here within the last few hours, since last night's fierce, driving wind
had died down. Carrie had not left the estate at all. She had come here.
Sandra Lynn looked up at the structure with more of a sense
of misgiving. But it was silent. She pulled off a glove and swiftly touched it,
keeping her promise to herself, but she felt troubled.
The command cabin itself looked completely earthly. In fact,
it looked like disappointingly a machine shed. She wondered if the lightweight
metal exterior was merely a "skin" that hid the craft underneath. She
walked along its exterior until she found a very ordinary door. Experimentally,
she tried the conventional door knob, and to her surprise, it gave. She swung
the door outward, and as she did so, she felt a thrill of humiliation in
suddenly realizing that perhaps, after all, this was merely a machine shed.
But then this fear vanished. The lightweight door and
prefabricated walls sheltered a much heavier interior wall. She found herself
looking at an open hatch, and the bulkhead was several feet thick. Through the
hatch, she saw a large but disappointingly empty room. She hesitated only for a
moment and then stepped inside.
She had expected a command chair, banks of screens, numerous
switches and small lights. But what she saw was simply an upright, podium-like
device in the center of the room. And on one wall, somebody had hung a quickly
lettered sign that said, "ALL LUGGAGE TIED IN 50 KILO BUNDLES. CLEAT WRAPS
REQUIRED."
She felt a dull sense of disappointment in realizing that
she had entered a ship that had been piloted into the heart of space, and it
was more like a storage room than anything else.
Yet she found herself unwilling to cross the great, open
floor to get to the open hatch that led into the back. A sense of being exposed
and vulnerable assailed her, even though she knew that she was alone and
undetected. At last she made herself step forward. Just as she did, an air
compressor let out a click and a great sigh, and her heart jumped. She was
trembling. When she stepped forward again, the lights brightened. She resisted
the urge to run out. But she did look back to make sure that the exterior hatch
remained open. She did not want to be trapped inside. After only two forbidden
steps, the command cabin was quite an oppressive, unwelcoming place.
But she forced herself, a step at a time, across the great
control room. Beyond this, she knew, were more rooms. She decided that she
would simply take a peek at the back, confirm that it was just as dull as the
front area, and then go back outside. Maybe she had dreamed everything.
The first two rooms that she found were nearly bare. Bits of
equipment lay scattered around each of them, as though these rooms had not been
used in some time. She should have felt more assured, but instead she felt
unease growing on her. The entire place had a sense of too much space and too
much silence. She felt that she was being watched.
Just one more, she thought, and then I'm out of here. But
she no longer liked the command cabin. She was amazed that she had ever wanted
to explore it. It was a brooding and alien place, and now, through it, she
sensed how very alien Stewart's line of work was.
She found another hatch, closed. As it didn't open for her,
she pushed it open. It yielded, and she peered inside. This room remained dim,
even when she poked her head across the threshold. It was not perfectly dark,
and it emitted different rhythmic noises than the other rooms. She carefully
entered.
Across the room, there was what looked like a blast wall,
with a reinforced clear panel in it, so that somebody could duck behind it and
still see out into the room. Far more alarming was what lay in the center of
the room, in direct view of the observation panel in the blast wall.
A stretcher had been set up, and on it lay a young woman.
There were flexible cords running from her to the blast wall. A sophisticated
ventilation machine, its front panel checkered with digital meters for
displaying information, was at her head. Its tube snaked into her mouth, which
had been forced open as far as it would go. Her jaws were impossibly far apart,
and were frozen in place as though in a silent scream. The sound in the room
was of her breathing. The machine magnified it.
Only then did Sandra Lynn realize that the blast wall was
shielding a dimly lit operator's station, where a person could stand and direct
something from cover.
This room, of course, changed everything. Several
possibilities, all of them dreadful, rushed into Sandra Lynn's mind. The
crucial issue was whether or not the woman on the stretcher was alive, and if
she could be taken out of this place.
Sandra Lynn crept forward. She did not see a white suited
figure behind the blast wall suddenly step into view of the reinforced glass
and quickly look at her in surprise. This figure quickly ducked out of sight
again.
"Can you hear me?" Sandra Lynn said quietly before
she reached the stretcher. "Miss, can you hear me?" She made herself
come right up to the stretcher and ventilator, and she looked down at the young
woman.
There were electrodes fixed at the woman's temples, and more
wires ran under the thin blanket that covered her, indicating that electrodes
had been fixed all over her body. The wide ventilation tube was crammed into
her mouth, and a thin tube of clear liquid also ran from the sophisticated life
support machine and snaked along the top of the blanket, disappearing into the
girl's wrist.
She seemed not really to be alive, or at least not able to
be alive apart from this dreadful machine. The idea that she was being kept
alive struck Sandra Lynn most forcibly──that her life had been
stripped off of her and then forced back into her only a very little at a time.
Sandra Lynn looked up just in time to see an angular,
robotic figure slip out from behind the blast wall. For a moment her eyes could
not define what she was seeing, and then she realized that it was a person
dressed in a white protective suit such as might be worn for an extremely
radioactive area. The head was encased in a non-conductive globe with a
metallic finish, and air hoses ran from a light weight tank in the back up into
the sides of the mask.
It was a horrifying sight to see.
"Get back!" Sandra Lynn exclaimed, and the
newcomer skittered back. "What are you doing to that girl? Who are
you?"
A voice behind her suddenly exploded into angry speech.
"What the deuce are you doing here?"
It was Stewart.
Sandra whirled to face him, and then backed away from the
both of them.
"What is that?" she asked of the white clad
figure. "What are you doing to that girl?"
"Trying to save her life!" Stewart snapped.
"How did you get in here?"
"I──I walked in. I just came in."
"Do you realize how many laws you’ve broken in entering
this cabin!" His eyes were angry and indignant. The white suited figure,
its face hidden by the helmet, tapped its own wrist, a signal that time was
passing.
"Get behind that wall!" he exclaimed at Sandra
Lynn. "Right now!"
She was frightened, but she made herself speak clearly.
"I w-want to know what you're doing to that girl!"
"That young woman has been invaded by a single parasite
that we have not been able to shake loose from her. She's been in stasis for
three months, and we have finally figured out a way to bring her back by
expelling him. This is a very dangerous place for you to be!"
The figure in white tapped its wrist again, more urgently.
"Yes, all right. You!" And he caught hold of
Sandra Lynn's arm. "Get back behind that wall, and don't touch anything.
Stay well away from the controls. All right, you see to her," he said to
the helmeted figure, and he gave a nod to the woman on the stretcher. Sandra
Lynn found herself moving behind the blast wall with him.
"And stay there!' Stewart exclaimed. He strode back to
the ventilator. "Get ready for a whopping attack of anything he can
throw," he said to his masked companion. "You've locked on the
frequencies?"
It nodded. It took a position at the girl's chest and set
down a small array of capped syringes. Stewart adjusted the air flow. He
appeared to be increasing the rate of ventilation.
"Are you ready with that calcium?" he asked, and
the white suited attendant nodded. It tapped a flat iron plate that lay
alongside the girl's body, which even Sandra Lynn could recognize as a
defibrillator, to restore heart action. Stewart strode behind the blast wall,
ignoring Sandra Lynn. He operated several controls and kept his eyes fixed on a
small oscilloscope screen set into the panel. "I'm elongating the cycle
now, pulling out the sine wave."
The other person spoke, but her voice could travel only from
a microphone inside her suit to a small speaker grill on his panel. It was a
Carrie's voice, cool and observant. "The nervous system is agitated. Blood
is acidifying."
"You lied to me! What are you doing to her?"
Sandra Lynn exclaimed.
"We are bombarding her nervous system with an extremely
low voltage, long wave transmission. We may be able to knock the Insider out of
her. But he's going to play a game of Chicken with us, sending her body as
close to death as he can get her, so close that he thinks we'll back off from
fear of killing her."
“Insider?” she
gasped.
“It’s what we call him.”
"You've been doing this to her for three months?"
she gasped.
"No," His voice was calm, his eyes steady as he
watched the long, almost level line that slowly traversed his screen.
"We've had her stabilized in what you would call a comatose condition.
Carrie wasn't ready to attempt this until now. We had to come to a better
understanding of the effect that sine wave harmonics would have on her nervous
system as well as on the invader inside her."
Sandra Lynn could not resist the most urgent question on her
mind. "Are you going to do this to me? Make me like her?"
"What, give you to him? No!" For one moment he
darted a hurt look at her, amazed that she would think this. "It did
attack you last night. We never thought it could escape the containment field.
But we're trying to save that young woman. She's one of my crew. She's
suffering."
"Her heart is flat lining, Stewart!" Carrie’s
voice over the speaker said.
"That's from the blood acidity. Give her the
calcium!"
"I've got it." The figure, discernible through the
reinforced glass, expertly set a syringe directly into the chest of the prone
young woman, alongside the sternum, and with a practiced, smooth strength,
depressed the plunger. It was surely Carrie. Sandra Lynn recognized the
motions.
"You've got to try an electrical contraction," the
voice said. "She's not oxygenating properly. He's taking her!"
"Stay calm," Stewart said steadily. He activated
more controls. "I told you he would tax our nerves. You've got to trust me
on this, Carrie. I've tried an electric contraction. Did you read it?"
The figure in the helmet glanced at some LEDs on the
ventilator. It nodded, and the voice said, "Yes. But she's not going it on
her own. The heart is still moving towards a flat line."
"Steady on," he said calmly. "There's heart
activity. I can see it on the panel. Here's another."
"I'm giving another two cc's," the voice said as
the figure used the syringe again. "I'm ready to start heart massage. Her
brain activity is declining."
Sandra Lynn's voice interrupted their tense concentration.
"That girl's going to die!"
"Something's going to die," he said. "It
couldn't be helped. He wouldn't compromise with us. This is our ghost, Sandra
Lynn. Only it's not a ghost. I realize that, now. But we didn’t know. Not a
ghost and not a demon, and I hope──" He cut himself off. His
voice suddenly became alarmed. "Carrie, the signal is just now creating
harmonics. Something's creating an inductance in the machine!"
"It's him! He's using his own slight mass to effect the
electrodes!" the voice exclaimed. "Can you rectify it?" Carrie's
voice, slightly mechanized by being transmitted, caught itself. "Wait, her
life signs just jumped up. She's coming back to us. She's gagging on the tube──"
"Signal harmonics are jumping. The signal's voltage has
increased. What's he doing?" Stewart exclaimed. "He's taken over the
signal!"
The limp figure on the stretcher suddenly came to life. It
lifted its hands and jerked at the tube that had been forced into its mouth.
The white suited figure quickly grabbed the young woman's hands to stop her.
Sandra Lynn, amazed at this sight, rested a hand on the control panel and
peered through the glass.
"Sandra Lynn, get back!" Stewart shouted. But just
as suddenly the control panel erupted into several white and blue arcs. A
tremendous shock threw Sandra Lynn back against the wall. Something burning hot
and black seared a path up her arm and into her heart and spine. She heard a
voice scream, "Not again or I'll kill her, Stewart! Something's got to
make due! She should have died!"
That's my voice,
she thought, and then a hot, electrical fire tore through her. Stewart's voice
was terrible, and for a moment she thought he was angry with her, and that he
was going to rip her apart. She had no means to orient herself. She had lost
the conscious use of her legs, but she didn't know if she were standing, or
somehow hanging as though from a hook, or lying on the ground. And then
Stewart's eyes were going into hers, looking for her as though she were at the
end of a tunnel. Her heart gave a great leap and then constricted as though a
hand had seized it and crushed it. She couldn't breathe.
"You have the succinylcholine?" he asked.
"Give it here."
The white suited figure would not come into focus. Sandra
Lynn felt the constriction on her heart increase, and she sensed an anger and a
desperation of something that was resting alongside her heart. It was angry
with Stewart. And then Stewart's voice was articulate to her. He had been
talking ever since the electricity had arced into her.
"This is going to quiet your limbs, Sandra Lynn,"
he said. "It will quiet your nervous system."
"It gives us only about two minutes Stewart," a
clear, urgent voice said, Carrie's voice, now free of the helmet. "He's
learned how to combat it. He'll be smarter with this attack."
"He's already proved that," Stewart said ruefully.
"Do we intubate and try the same thing again?"
"No, he's figured out how to harmonize the sine wave.
Is the girl alive?"
"Yes."
"Keep her sedated. Get this one intubated."
Stewart looked down at Sandra Lynn. She realized that he had carried her to the
stretcher. Her limbs, as he'd said, were now useless. But the constriction on
her heart had slackened to a more bearable level.
"Carrie is right here," he said. "She's going
to look out for you while I take this other young woman to a safe place. I'll
be right back."
And then his face whisked from view. It was replaced by the
professional, concerned, but somewhat detached eyes of his wife, whose face was
shining with moisture from having been encased in the helmet and breathing
apparatus. She did a quick survey of Sandra Lynn's face, and then she said, her
voice suddenly very professional, "This is a sedative. You have nothing to
be afraid of. We've got to make sure that you keep breathing. You'll be able to
hear us, and we'll keep talking to you." A sedative, Sandra realized,
meant they were going to put the tube down her throat.
There was a distant sting from somewhere on her paralyzed
body, and she felt the constriction around her heart try to tighten, as though
in protest. Carrie had said only two minutes. Two minutes until what?
There's something inside me, Sandra Lynn thought. The thing
that had tried to seize her heart last night had now captured her heart. She
tried to say it, but the two drugs prevented her from speaking. She only
managed a small moan. Carrie rested a hand over her forehead. "We'll get
you out of this," she said kindly. "Stewart is here."
"Clear the room, Carrie," Stewart’s voice said.
"The electronics won't work in time. Not now. He has a better idea of what
to do. Clear the room. I'm going to try something else. A light ray that will
kill off the components of her immune system. The macrophagic activity will
cease. The light wave disturbance will drive him out."
"Stewart──"
"We're running out of time!" he snapped. "Do
it and go! There's less than a minute left before he gets himself completely
entrenched!"
"Cover her eyes," Carrie said, all business, and
he rested his big hand over Sandra Lynn's eyes, covering her with a darkness.
But his voice assured her. "Don't be afraid, Sandra Lynn. This will be
over in a minute. I'm staying with you."
The sedative's effect had been growing, and she didn't
struggle against the tube. His other hand grasped her hand, and the job was
finished quickly. "Go on," he said to Carrie. "Throw the
emergency controls and get out. Wait for us." And then, as two tears
trickled from Sandra's eyes, his voice, much more kind and calm, was all around
her. "I won't let harm come to you, Sandra Lynn. I know you're frightened,
but it's going to be all right. I'm going to force him to come into me."
He lifted his hand from her eyes and stroked her head. "Let it put you to
sleep. I have you, and I'll help you."
There followed a sudden warmth and a sharp cramp in the very
pit of her stomach, and then she felt her lungs lose their effectiveness.
Before it could really frighten her, she drifted away on a sea of dark
confusion.

Chapter Nine
From very far away, she heard a great yell, from a man. And
then quick and light footsteps, and a dreadful voice, Carrie's voice,
exclaiming, "Stewart, what have you done?" But the constriction had
left her heart, and that residue of a burning sensation was gone from her arm
and spine. She felt somehow freed. But she couldn't bring herself back to
complete consciousness. She heard somebody furiously working, and then
Stewart's voice, weak and not loud enough to catch the words.
When she came back, she first saw Carrie, her eyes still
intent, concerned, and analytical. She was wearing the white protective suit,
but a more conventional surgeon's mask was down around her collar, hanging by
its strings. She was also wearing a sensor 'round her neck.
"I'll have to complete some mildly uncomfortable
procedures," she said to Sandra Lynn. "We've got medications to
restore what we destroyed in your immune system, and I've added some to your
air intake, but the others must also be directly applied. I'll make you
comfortable first."
Sandra wanted to ask if Stewart was all right, but she still
could not form words. She felt another slight sting, and then she became very
woozy indeed. She stopped being afraid at all, and she stopped feeling any
regrets, and she stopped knowing where she was. She felt a furious pushing, and
it began to annoy her, because she would have liked to drift off to sleep. Her
entire body was being rocked, hard, from hips to neck, and then suddenly she
felt an enormous stomach cramp. In spite of the anesthetic, she nearly doubled
over in sudden agony.
"All right, all right," she heard the woman say.
"That's how it should be." And something warm and heavy was pressed
to her abdomen to ease the cramping. "It's working, Stewart."
And then Carrie, her surgeon's mask now in place, stepped up
to Sandra Lynn's head, covered her eyes with her hand, and before Sandra could
fear anything, the tube was smoothly extricated from her throat. Her jaws were
sore.
The woman applied the sensor to Sandra's chest and read the
output. "Yes, respiration is being conducted normally. The oxygen exchange
is restored. Stewart, you're sure you're all right?" And Carrie’s
intelligent eyes flicked across the room. Sandra Lynn followed the glance.
Stewart sat on the floor against the wall, as a man would do if he were
exhausted after a great fight. Scorch marks were burned into the flooring
around him.
"My heart almost stopped when I realized you'd taken
hold of those power cables. You might have killed yourself," Carrie said.
She hooked her index finger over the mask and pulled it down.
"I killed the Insider anyway," Stewart said
quietly. "Burned my hands and feet. But it worked."
"You're certain that thing is dead?" Carrie’s
voice was concerned.
He nodded at the scorching on the floor. "I told you
that it has some slight amount of mass. This scorching here is the evidence of
it. You might say that those burns are the evidences of his mass being
converted to energy. His bodily remains. He came into me when he thought he
couldn't use Sandra's body, when the macrophages and spirochetes were
destroyed. And then he tried to escape from me when I sent that power jolting
through me. But the arcing caught him. He's dead."
"And yet he traveled into Sandra by means of an
electrical charge," Carrie said. "Why didn't the first charge kill
him then?"
"He entered Sandra Lynn by means of a controlled
electrical charge," Stewart added wearily. "A low voltage charge that
he was able to increase. But he couldn't withstand several hundred volts coming
at him at several hundred milli-amperes. It burned him up. Almost burned me up,
too. But everything's all right." His voice was weary, but satisfied.
Sandra lifted her head. She was regaining a sense of shame
from what she had done.
"You're all right," Carrie said instantly. She
brought a cup of water to Sandra Lynn and lifted Sandra's head on her own arm
to help her drink. But in spite of her kindness, her voice was stern.
"Though you don't deserve to be. You endangered that other young woman,
and you endangered Stewart, not to mention endangering yourself. You don't
belong here. It’s a violation of worldwide law for you to even be in
here."
"Oh, she's very young, Carrie. She didn't know. She was
probably looking for us," Stewart said.
"You lied to me," Sandra Lynn gasped. And now, in
spite of their quickness to act on her behalf, she felt both anger and tears.
"I was attacked last night," she said. "And you knew it!"
Oddly, though Sandra Lynn would have expected Stewart to be
offended and Carrie to quickly sue for peace, it was Carrie that stiffened up.
"We could not tell you that," Carrie said. Her voice was neither
friendly nor unfriendly, merely detached. She set aside the cup and carefully
applied a soft cloth to Sandra's bruised lips and mouth. "There are things
you are safer not knowing about, young lady, even if they attack you."
"Carrie." Stewart's voice was mild, and not just
because he was weak. With a great effort, he got to his feet.
"Stewart!" Carrie said reprovingly. "You
shouldn't stand up──"
"No, no." He managed to stand, and he walked
shakily to Sandra Lynn's side. He rested his big hand on her forehead. "It
was something we encountered in space, Sandra Lynn. A left over from the
plagues, I imagine. It was a wandering sort of parasite. A creature of very low
mass who does very well manipulating micro-voltage cellular operations. These
creatures prefer to find a host newly dead to inhabit. They can make use of
people who die with a fairly healthy metabolism, which they then take over for
a few weeks.”
"Like nosferatu," she gasped. "Walking
dead."
“No, no, no, my dear. Nothing that dramatic. The dead bodies
they inhabit stay dead, don’t move, and are routinely buried. But the parasite
inside continues to activate the calcium channels of the body’s cells to open
mechanically and create the ion exchange with residual sodium in the cells.
That creates the micro-electric field that feeds them. It's a matter of good
timing, as they have to catch their prey just dead to take over
successfully."
“Then what happens?” she whispered
"The parasites just keep certain low level cell
chemical exchanges going until the body they inhabit is depleted. But their
host isn't any less dead, and there's no revival of any type of consciousness.
They don't enliven a dead body any more than we enliven a motor when we
re-start it and let it idle."
His eyes showed that he found the creatures distasteful but
not horrifying. "They are unpleasant, of course, and I know that humans
dislike the idea of body snatching, but they never have been aggressive that
I've heard of. But my young crew member was over-stressed on one of our
voyages. She attempted suicide, as far as I can determine, by overdosing on
depressants so that she would die in her sleep. This parasite apparently tried
to gain control of her cell functions as she was dying, so that he could garner
some micro-electrical activity. And then, she didn't actually die. Normally the
human immune system walls out this parasite. But when she super-depressed her
system, he'd got a foot hold in her nervous system. Her body couldn't expel
him. He was having a go at either driving her out or controlling her. We had to
keep her in stasis until we could figure out how to get rid of him without
killing her. I'm afraid that in three solid months, even with the controls we
had over him in here, he still figured out far more about how to inhabit a
living person than I would like."
"It's an intelligent
parasite?" she whispered. "Not just an insect sort of thing or a
germ?"
He nodded. "Very intelligent.” He became rueful. “I’d
had no idea how intelligent.”
"How do they live out there?" she asked.
"Only a dozen or so humans travel all of space."
"They did live as carrion consumers of Diversified
species when they could," he said. "Before the other plagues swept
through. Now they make due with the leftovers: rodents and insects left behind
on the plague infested worlds. This one came across us at the worst possible
moment, I'm afraid. We must have blundered into its territory."
Carrie spoke up. "I finally figured out a way to
counter act its signaling, which is its means for staying in a body and
controlling the neurology. We needed a perfectly pure signal of our own at a
perfectly tuned long wave frequency. But it's so smart that it began to degrade
our signal, causing harmonics. That gave it enough time to sense you and run
itself through the wires to the panel and give you a strong
shock──-"
"And while your system was paralyzed by the shock, it
entered you," Stewart added. "But we made you a rather unpleasant
host for it by destroying the microscopic creatures that you depend on for
oxygen exchange and other biological processes. Then it went into me, guided by
the electrical signal that I fed into it──"
"You let it in?" Sandra Lynn whispered.
“Yes, and then gave myself a walloping big electrical
shock.”
Her eyes widened. “So you killed it?”
He was grim. "I had to. It had gone from being a
scavenging creature who takes advantage of death, to being an aggressive
predator who causes death. It would have killed her, and it would have killed
you──eventually──to make itself a nice home. The change
occurred when it learned that it could take over a living person's nervous
system, provided it got a strong foot hold." He took her hand, asking for
her understanding. "I couldn't keep it captive indefinitely, and I
couldn't protect other human beings from it."
"But I heard you. You thought it was human. You thought
it was a ghost or a demon."
"I've been in space!" he snapped. "What do
people on earth know about space? When you get out there, you start to see that
the myths might be true. How did I know that this creature wasn't a degraded,
diversified human being? Reduced to the lowest body mass possible and designed
to subsist on micro-voltage energy? How do we know anything about
Diversification?"
"Stewart, stop!" Carrie shouted. He turned to her,
and Sandra Lynn saw him try to gain control of his facial muscles. He looked
like he was struggling with sudden rage. This was so unlike Stewart that for a
moment it looked like a mask over his real face.
Carrie forced her voice to rigid calmness and courtesy.
"And you're sure you're all right?" Carrie asked him.
"She may as well know that there are still diversified
human beings out there," he said. "What right does she have not to
know it? They should all know what mankind has done to itself."
"Stewart!" Carrie shouted, and now she ranged
herself between him and Sandra Lynn, her hair fluffed up as it had been the
night before. And now Sandra Lynn suspected a horrible truth. Carrie was not
purely, unaltered human. She was Diversified. A throwback to a subspecies that
had been exterminated centuries ago.
For a moment Carrie and Stewart stayed locked in place,
staring at each other. Then he became entirely subdued. "I'm sorry,"
he whispered. "I don't know what I'm babbling about. It was the tremendous
electrical shock. It creates paranoia."
Defeated, Carrie slumped down. "What have you
said?" she whispered. Then she turned to Sandra Lynn. "Oh what
possessed you to come up that hill today? I only meant to befriend you."
But Stewart came through for her now. He strode back to
Sandra and rested his hand on her forehead. "Sandra Lynn is a great
friend," he said gently. "She understands us, Carrie. We can trust
her."
Carrie nearly retorted. But as she fixed her eyes on him,
she did not answer him.
She forced herself to speak more quietly. "Very well,
then," and she softened her voice. She addressed Sandra. "You'll have
to stay right here for at least several hours. Your immune system was
completely destroyed, and we've been able to restore its foundations, but it
needs a bit of time." Her voice suddenly sharpened. "Stewart? Your
hands are shaking. What's wrong?"
He lifted his hands quickly. Sandra Lynn could see that they
were trembling visibly, as though from a palsy.
"Must be an after effect of that great electrical
shock," he said. He frowned at his hands. "There, I've stopped
it."
"No you haven't!" Carrie was concerned.
"Well, I almost have. Look, you've got to see to the
other young lady: Joan. She's been in stasis for three months. You've got to
look after her, Carrie. Call John up here and take Joan down to one of the
guest rooms. Make her comfortable.  I'll
watch over Sandra Lynn. I don't want to leave her alone."
"You'll have to help us. It will take all three of us
to get her down the hill," Carrie said.
"Right. Go see to her, will you? Start switching her
over to the portable support equipment. I'll be right along. I want to make
sure that Sandra is comfortable."
He was picking up the discarded syringes that had been set
aside during the rapid rescue of Sandra Lynn. Carrie nodded and then stopped.
"Do be careful, Stewart. One of them has succinylcholine in it. If you jab
yourself with it, you'll paralyze yourself──or worse."
"Right, here it is. I'll be careful." His voice
was cheerful.
Carrie hurried out. Stewart turned to Sandra Lynn. His hands
were still trembling. "That's him," he said to her. "Trying to
get control again." He examined the syringe and quickly fixed the point
against Sandra Lynn's arm, in spite of the tremor in his hands. "I've
taken him by surprise, just like I'm taking you by surprise." And he
deftly injected her. She tried to get up, but in spite of the trembling, his
hand was strong. He set it against her shoulder and pushed her back down. He
held her in place on the stretcher. In a moment, she couldn't move at all. His
eyes were filled with that sudden rage again. She realized that it wasn't
Stewart speaking to her. As he saw her fear, his expression suddenly turned to
one of satisfaction.
"We're going to my home, Sandra Lynn, where I have many
lovely companions. They'll all want to meet you, especially once I've taught
them how to take over a living body. It's not so difficult."
"Stewart?" Carrie's voice called.
He adopted Stewart's persona. "Coming!" he called
back. He sounded just like Stewart. Then he leaned over her. "And I'm
going to pick one, just for you, and we'll come back here with a host of our
friends."
She couldn't speak. The paralysis was too complete, but he
explained himself. "A fellow's got to start a family. Create healthy,
genetically normal human children to host my people. At the start. And then
develop better ways to take them over." He rested his finger on the tip of
her nose, a gesture of playful gentleness. "Don't go away. I'll be right
back, and then we'll be on our way."

Chapter Ten
It hardly seemed possible to fall asleep in such danger, but
Sandra Lynn was still feeling the effects of the sedative, and with her body
paralyzed from the succinylcholine, she drifted back to the dark sea of
confusion that she had known before.
She came back much later, and she knew from the throbbing
under the floor of the command cabin that they were traveling. Carrie, she
realized, had exited safely, believing that all was well, and so that thin veil
of protection was gone, taking with it the other young woman. But Stewart──was
he still alive and aware inside his own body? When he had been untouched and
Sandra Lynn had been invaded, he and Carrie had given her only two minutes
before the parasite──whatever it was──would take her
over. How long would it take the parasite to take him over, and what did that
mean?
She used her eyes to scan the room, and she saw with a slight
shock that he was at her head, looking down at her. She met his eyes with hers,
and she also saw that he had set up an IV drip into her hand. Certainly, he was
maintaining a slow supply of either the paralyzing agent or the numbing
sedative.
"We normally enter those who have just died," he
said to her. "But now I understand human cell chemistry better. It's
advantageous to enter before the person is dead. We can use that enclosed
energy system, with certain operations suppressed, to maintain the body, so
that we can enjoy it longer." He rested two fingers on the very center of
her forehead and carefully rubbed the spot in a slow circle against her skin.
"But there is far more to understand about you, and he has a vast
laboratory here."
With the back of his hand, he stroked her cheek, and then he
produced an empty syringe from his jacket pocket, intending, she realized, to
take a sample of her blood, directly from her neck, the readiest source of her
blood to his uneducated understanding.
He reached forward with the syringe, but his hands trembled
more severely, and the trembling increased violently as he would have pressed
the needle to its target in her skin. She couldn't move, and so she could only
watch his face. He was surprised at his body's refusal to obey him. Clearly
against his will, his arms flexed back, withdrawing his shaking hands from her
neck. He strained against this, but the arms slowly but relentlessly retracted
from her.
"You can't keep this up," he gasped, but not to
her. "I can keep her here for weeks. Are you going to fight me for that
long? I'll exhaust you."
But sweat broke out on his forehead, and his arms would not
extend to her. The syringe dropped from his fingers. He leaned forward, not
far, but sharply, as though his stomach cramped.
"All right," he gasped. "So you can learn,
too. But I'll deal with you."
As he backed away from her, his trembling became much less,
and he was able to stand up straight again. Clearly, Stewart was fighting him,
and with precision, letting him have his way with anything except Sandra Lynn
herself. She took a deep breath, for suddenly she felt the presence of Stewart
more clearly than if he had spoken to her from his prison inside his own body.
"We'll see," he said, but again not to her. He strode
away, and she heard the door open and close. She took in another breath and
made herself refrain from shedding tears, at least until she could move well
enough to lift her head. If Stewart was fighting him, then she had to fight
him, too, even though she was paralyzed. A mental battle, a battle to out think
him.
She had to take stock of her strengths. What could she do?
How potent was the solution going into her? When Stewart and Carrie had
intubated her, they had administered the drug to prevent a gag reflex and allow
the ventilation tube, fearing that the shut down of her immune system would
stop her ability to get oxygen from the air. Was the parasite's administration
based on their method? She clenched her eyelids closed and opened them. She took
a deep breath and exhaled it. She tried to make a fist with her right hand. It
didn't work, not very well.
The drip was running into her left hand. But now she was
more aware of the pressure of the tap into the back of her hand. She had not
felt that before. Surely, some of the effect of the drug combination had made
this monster think she was under a deeper paralysis than might be maintained by
a single drug alone.
She grit her teeth, suddenly realized that she could grit
her teeth again, and flexed her left hand. She could not bring her fingers
together into a complete fist, but a manic stinging in the back of the hand
told her that she was stressing the point of insertion of the drip tap. That
was something.
She took another deep breath, calmed her mind, and flexed
the fist, trying to push it forward. It moved less than a quarter of an inch,
but the muscles tightened at her will, and that was encouraging.
She was suddenly dizzy. The chemicals had other effects that
she had not yet negotiated. She rested and unexpectedly slipped into a long
doze again. When she woke again, she was hungry. Her facial muscles had more
sensation. The bag was still dripping at a slow rate into her hand. But the
fluid level was low. He would be back soon.
She grit her teeth and flexed her left fist again. She
flexed it forward, and the stinging was much more severe as she slowly bent it
so that the needle point of the tap was eased out of her flesh. There came a
point where the pain brought tears to her eyes, but she could not move her hand
any further forward. The drugs were still influencing her, restricting her
ability to move at her own will.
She heard the door open. "Now he's subdued," the
parasite said through Stewart.
Sandra Lynn tried to say that she was hungry, but the finer
motor skills of using her lips were still impossible to her. He noticed the
bag, hanging limply on its hook over her, and abruptly strode to the wall. She
heard him pull a door open, a cupboard built into the wall.
He came back to her, a clear bag of water in his hands.
"I was imprisoned in here for three months," he said. "I know
every inch of this room, and every function of that control panel."
He would have lifted the draining bag to exchange it for the
full one, but suddenly his hands began trembling again, violently. This, once
again, startled him, and now it infuriated him. She realized that, whatever he
had done while absent from the room, he thought it had successfully terminated
Stewart's interference. And Stewart had fooled him. Good for you, Stewart! She
thought.
"No!" he exclaimed. "I set up the bag before.
It's nothing! Be still!" In part, he was successful at mastering himself.
He flipped the draining bag off of its hook, and Sandra could not resist a
sound of pain as it fell to the floor and the connecting tube pulled at the tap
in her hand. But the pull further dislodged the tap. And the tape that held it
in place was pulled loose.
He tried to hang up the full bag, but the renewed trembling
of his hands would not allow him to do so. It was a long struggle, and he was
very determined. But in the end, he could not lift his shaking hands high
enough to hang up the bag.
"She's going to suffer anyway. If she fights, I'll hurt
her. This protects her!" he exclaimed. "It prevents her from fighting
me!" But the trembling became more and more pronounced, and his arms
retracted at the elbows. He finally dropped the full bag, unable to keep hold
of it.
"Do you want to see me hurt her? I will! I'll make her
pay for your defiance!" And he lurched towards her and would have simply
slammed himself onto her with his forearms, but his legs faltered, and he
doubled over again in pain.
This bout of pain was quite severe. "Stop! Stop! All
right!" he exclaimed. He slowly went to the floor, out of the line of her
vision. But as his breathing became more regular, she realized that Stewart had
let up on the pain. What did it cost Stewart, she wondered, to struggle to the
point that he inflicted pain like this on his own body? Surely, he felt it,
too. And how was he doing it?
"You kept me in here for three months," he said.
"Drove me from the home that was rightfully mine. That girl killed
herself! What kind of a barbaric race brings back the dead! The dead belong to
me! To us! And you imprisoned me in her! I didn't commit a crime! That female
was dead!"
He was panting, still too weak to stand.
"Yes," he said out loud. "This one's alive.
She'll live for as long as I say. She'll pay me back for my three months. I'll
beat you down yet, and when I'm good and ready, I'll take her for myself if you
make me. I don't have to stay inside of you. I'll enter her. I'll bring her to
the point of death and have my way with her. Her life will feed my life!"
She heard him struggle to his feet. "We'll just see. I
know lots of places where humans can die slowly. It won't be difficult to make
her suitable."
She heard the hatch close as he staggered out. She realized
that, at first, very slight movements had been the only possible movements for
her, but now it felt probable that she would do better by using large muscles
rather than delicate muscles. And all that was needed to dislodge the loosened
tap was a good roll away from it. She might be able to pull against the weight
of the bag on the floor now that the tape had pulled free. She took a deep
breath and tried to roll to her side. She moved so little that she gave it up.
To jerk her hand free of the insertion tap, she would have to move suddenly.
She experimented with rocking on her hips. In a few minutes,
she got the rhythm of how she would have to roll, and she rocked back and forth
to build up momentum. She rested, and then she experimented with rocking again.
After a few more sets of this exercise, she felt able to do a good roll. She
built up her momentum, and then she rolled abruptly away from the bag and tube,
keeping her left hand steady and flexed. The sharp tap slipped from her flesh.
She groaned with pain as it jerkily slipped out, and she realized that she
could move her lips and jaw slightly more. She came to rest awkwardly, almost
on her face, but not completely face down. Most of her weight was resting on
her right shoulder, right hip, and her forehead.
But lifting herself would be impossible. If he came back, he
would easily overpower her.
But only if he overpowers Stewart first, she thought.
Stewart's helping me all he can. I've got to work with him. He wants me to
escape, too.
Dizziness, a new nausea, and hunger washed over her. She
couldn't bring up her knees to ease the stomach cramps. But she panted quickly,
filling herself with oxygen, until the nausea subsided again and her vision
cleared.
He can starve me in here if he locks me in, she thought. But
then she pushed that thought away with another that was more optimistic: There
are bags of water in the cupboard. I can survive in here, at least for a while.
She suddenly feared that he would enter again and see what
she was attempting. But then she pushed the fear back. If he came, he came.
She waited, breathing deeply and slowly, forcing herself to
exhale each breath completely before slowly drawing in the next. She focused
her mind on her feet.
She tried several times before she felt any assurance that
she could actually wiggle her toes.
It was time for a more daring effort. She rocked at the hips
again and then rolled off the stretcher, getting her feet under her as she slid
off.
This plan did not work quite so well as she had hoped. She
did get her feet under her, but her legs could not support her, and her hands
were useless at grabbing hold of anything to slow her. The result was a fall to
the floor that knocked the wind out of her and bruised her side and left
shoulder.
She took the pain as a setback, a sign of her body's
stubborn helplessness. The fall even hurt her feelings slightly. But the pain
was also a good sign. She was coming back.
She had first supposed that the IV had been feeding the
paralyzing agent to her, but now that another wave of doziness swirled her mind
and vision, she realized that it had been something to make her sleepy, a
sedative.
She was helpless as her dozing overtook her. With her face
down on her arm, she dozed off. When she came around, she was dry mouthed, even
more hungry, and now very thirsty. It panicked her. She had to get to water.
She still could not stand. And she had no idea how much time had passed since
she had fallen. She rocked her hips and upper legs and succeeded in lifting
herself to hands and knees.
Laboriously and unsteadily, she crawled towards the open
cupboard in the wall. Her mouth was so dry that her throat felt like it was
closing. Her sinuses were dry, and her eyes were dry and burning. This dryness,
she thought, was likely an after effect of one of the drugs.
She toppled over a couple times before she reached the wall.
And she had to make several attempts before she could reach her right hand up
to the lowest shelf of the cupboard. The cupboard was built right into the
wall, its door still hanging open.
She gripped the shelf and tried to lift herself, but her
legs would simply not bear her weight. Just when she would half rise, her sense
of balance would defeat her, and she would topple back. She became frantic, and
she made several attempts to pull herself up, but each time she fell. Finally,
she was too bruised to try again.
She crawled back from the cupboard and sat down, then looked
at it to see how difficult it would be to reach one of the bags of water.
The sight was not encouraging. The bags were stored three
shelves up. She would have to stand full length to get them, and she knew that
she could not do this.
In spite of the dryness and thirst that was now torturing
her, she gave herself over to tears. And yet, again, just when she seemed too
miserable to fall asleep, the insistent dozing overtook her. She had to put her
head down to the floor before she dropped over, and within a moment, she was
swirling away. A genie was talking to her, but she couldn't understand him. He
had a magic lamp in his hand, like Aladdin's lamp, and he was trying to explain
that if she only knew the right words to say, the lamp would pour out an
inexhaustible supply of water to her.
But she must have at least thought the correct words, for
suddenly the lamp tilted up in front of her, and she tasted cool, clear water.
She swallowed, and the first swallow was painful as her dry throat came
together, and then there was only the moistness of the water, washing deeply
into her cells, flooding the nausea out of her stomach, washing away the
burning of her eyes. She drank and drank.
It's all a perfect flow, she thought. The universe is a
perfect flow.
These seemed like the greatest, wisest words she had ever
known, and she knew that she must ponder them very deeply.
But instead she opened her eyes. She felt a hand at rest
alongside her head, and she realized that she was lying with her head cradled
in the crook of an arm, and one of the water bags had been torn at a corner so
that it formed a narrow tube that allowed water into her mouth.
She jerked her head away, and the stream of water spilled
down her neck.
The hand around her head started slightly as somebody woke
up, and then Stewart quickly pushed aside the water bag. He grasped it together
at the top corner and lifted it away. Then he looked down at her.
She was still too weak to fight or even run, but she felt a
moment's uncertainty. His hands were not trembling. Had the parasite won out,
or had Stewart won out?
"He's gone dormant inside me," the pilot said.
"He's been learning things about me, and now he's gone dormant."
"Who are you?" she asked in a small voice.
"I am Stewart, Sandra Lynn." He gave her head a
slight squeeze with his arm "We pilots – we’re purely human,
un-diversified. But we have had a few improvements worked into us. He wasn’t
expecting my level of resistance. But even with my advantages, it’s still no
good. He's winning, slowly but surely. When he entered my nervous system with
the electrical shock, I was fully open to him. He understood more about me than
I thought his subspecies could do."
"What are you going to do?"
"Unless somebody intervenes, I'm going to come under
his full control. As long as my cells continue to carry out a calcium sodium
exchange, he can stay alive inside me. He'll live off of my energy, the low
voltage that my own cells produce."
"But you said he's dormant."
His eyes were weary. "Yes. It was my trick, you see: go
dormant inside him so that he thought he had full control over me, and then
suddenly lash out with all my force and try to take control again. It worked
for short periods. I stopped him from hurting you, anyway."
She nodded. His eyes were still grim, and he looked unhappy
and defeated. "So now it's what he's doing to me. He's started to block
off pieces of my memory. I fought him there, too, but I'm losing. I can't
navigate us through space. I don't remember how to operate the navigation
system. Eventually, I won’t be able to remember who you are, or how to protect
you."
"We're trapped?"
"I must get you out of here."
She became more alarmed – for his sake. "And then
what?"
"I'll go completely dormant, once you're out of harm's
way. I'll let him have full reign, but I'll close off my own mind from
him."
"You know how to do that?"
"Yes. We pilots are equipped in mind control
biotechnology and techniques to keep us safe from rogue agencies that might try
to kidnap us. The Insider needs me to consciously react──muscle
twitches, conscious thoughts, faster pulse, to help him gauge what he's doing.
If I go dormant, he can't find his own set point within me. His instincts force
him to keep trying to take control because he won't know if he has control.
Eventually, he may become weary and come to terms with me."
"He'll just escape you, and he'll attack someone
else."
Stewart shook his head. "The electrical field of my
living body is too strong as a whole for him to escape. He traveled from his
previous human host into me by means of a conductive electrical path. But he
cannot leave me now, unless I deliberately connect to another electrical field.
Or unless I die." His eyes were rueful. "And I won't let him leave
me. He's a danger, now. I kept him imprisoned for three months, and he wants
his revenge."
"You said, you said, he might be human."
"Made from human DNA," he said. "Yes. It's
possible. Back in the days of diversification, all kinds of horrible
experiments were conducted on the human form and the nature of life
itself."
"So he survived the plagues?" she whispered. “Did
other creatures out there survive?”
"There are cities and empires that have survived
Diversification," he admitted. "We pilots interact with them all the
time. Maybe I thought this parasite, this Insider, was a ghost or a demon
because I didn't want to admit it could be made from human DNA. I didn't want
to kill a human being or something that might have been a human being if
mankind hadn't committed these sins."
"Sins?" she asked. She suddenly felt that she was
in a myth: a horrible, tragic myth. And the fate of young women in myths was
always gruesomely the same.
But he passed his hand across her forehead. "You must
be protected from him. If he becomes frustrated enough, he'll use my body to
operate devices to bring you close enough to death for him to get control over
you. Eventually, he might be able to finish me off and then cause you enough
harm to put you into a state where he could take over your nervous
system."
She realized what he was saying. "So as long as I'm
here, he really can't lose."
His eyes were sober, and he did not directly answer this
obvious conclusion. "As long as you're here, you cannot be made safe from
him. But I cannot get you off the command cabin. Can you sit up, now?"
He helped her, and she was able to sit up. She had regained
her sense of balance, and her strength was better.
"This is all my fault──" she began.
For the first time, his impatience showed. "All right,
then. We have to figure out what to do now!" And his voice was gruff.
"There may be a place in the command cabin where you can fortify yourself
against attack. Where he won't be able to get you. Or perhaps I can lock myself
away."
"How long will he stay dormant?"
"I've no idea. Oh!" And his face suddenly
registered surprise. "He's coming back." An idea seemed to strike
him. "Look, I've still got a syringe of the succinylcholine. Get away from
here. Hide in the command cabin. And if you can get out the doors to a safe
place – go!"
"But how long will you go unconscious?" she asked.
"Sandra Lynn, for once just do as I say!" He
pulled the capped, half-spent syringe from his pocket and without hesitation
jabbed it into his own forearm. A sudden tremor ran through him, and Sandra
Lynn jumped to her feet, for she knew what that tremor meant. For an instant,
his eyes became the eyes of her enemy, and then surprise registered on his
face, and then he simply slumped down, eyes open and aware, but his body not
able to move.
"Stewart!" she exclaimed. But the pilot did not
respond. She started to kneel down to check him, but then she stopped. If the
parasite should have control of him, it would be madness to get within its
reach. And she really could not help him in this struggle.
The pilot's body remained still, his eyes open, his face
relaxed. She backed away from him, found that her legs were steady enough, and
then she slipped out of the room.
She did not know if he would revive quickly, and there was a
fear in her mind that the parasite would force him awake, and then the pursuit
of her would begin. She had toured the command cabin, and she hunted in the
lockers until she found the pantries where Stewart's stores were kept. Quickly,
she took down a rucksack that had been hung nearby, and began stuffing it with
ration packs and cartridges of water. She wanted to be able to hide for long
periods, and her one bout of thirst had warned her that being prepared would be
crucial to winning.
She filled the sack until it was just heavy enough so that
she could still manage it. She slung it over one shoulder.
Sandra Lynn came out into the main corridor, and she
considered the best place to hide. Suddenly she heard the last thing that she
expected: a sound of depressurization and the noise of the command cabin
exterior hatch opening. The hope of a dash to freedom pushed her forward, but
then she made herself become cautious. He might be out there, waiting for her,
enticing her with the sound of a promise of freedom.
She crept up the corridor, all the way to the arched doorway
that led to the front room, and peered around the interior. The hatch was,
indeed, open. A whiff of fresh but dry and warm air reached her, and she saw a
vista of dull rock through the open hatch. In the distance, a long, low ridge
arched up, almost like a great ramp. It ran out of her line of vision, blocked
by the framework of the doorway.
But the interior of the front room appeared to be empty.
Sandra Lynn cautiously stepped into the room, keeping one hand tight on the
shoulder strap of the rucksack. Nothing disturbed her, and nothing blocked her
way.
The scene outside the doorway did not seem hostile, though
it was not an especially inviting sight. The atmosphere of the place was rather
reddish, like earth during a sunset, but only a very florid sunset, the kind
that a person would see only once or twice in a lifetime.
She sniffed the air as a breeze traversed the front room. It
was dry, and very faintly acrid. She crept forward, still listening.
At last she reached the doors, and she paused. She
considered her options. Had Stewart exited the command cabin? If so, would he
be bringing back something positively dreadful to do the parasite's will?
But just then, from the back rooms of the command cabin, a
long, drawn out scream cut the silence. It froze her in place for a moment. It
was Stewart. He was still back there, resisting the thing, but now agonized by
it.
The scream was repeated, even more drawn out, and then his
voice cried out, "Sandra Lynn! Run! Hide!" And he cried out again in
pain, and this scream was abruptly cut short.
To her horror and amazement, a great, shimmering and
translucent entity seeped into the corridor, flimsy and translucent as a
jellyfish, and it advanced towards her. The hatch began to close, as though it
had been set on a timer, which was now elapsed.
She would be trapped in the control room with it. Without
another thought, she plunged through the closing hatchway, into the warm and
acrid air of this foreign world.
The cloudy entity came after her. It exited just after she
did, and the hatch firmly closed.
"No!" she exclaimed. She turned back and then
stopped, helpless. The command cabin began a noise of some type of field
building up. It shimmered and then was suddenly gone, the only sign that it had
been there a streak from earth to air as though a great, frog-like tongue had
zipped it in like a fly. She was left on the barren landscape with the
shimmering parasite.

The
excerpt ends here. You can purchase this book on Amazon.com:
http://www.amazon.com/Insiders-Jeri-Massi/dp/1493585096/