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The First (PG-13 version)



"Two weeks?"

"Roger that, old bucko." The owner of Skinny Sal's Used Mech & Hoverbody picked his teeth with a greasy, blackened thumb. "At least. This ain't the Sylvian Strip, my friend. Don't see a hell of a lot of ships out here. Might be able to get somethin' out from the spaceport at the capital, but more likely hafta order it from offworld. It'll cost ya."

"I'll pay," Dusty said wearily. Normally he would have haggled, and perhaps thrown in a bit of bullying as well -- few people tried to cheat someone two meters tall with a scarred face and broken nose -- but right now he was too weary and dispirited to care. The credit was coming out of Elaine's account, anyway, and Elaine had a credit well that never ran dry. "You know how to get in touch with us?"

"Sure do, bucko." Skinny Sal grinned around his thumbnail. "Come out there and knock on that fancy ship of yours, is what I do."

"Right, sure, but if you do come out that way, be sure and knock three times quick, then three times slow, then three times quick again. That way the ship'll know you're friendly. Otherwise it'll fry you. You wouldn't even know what hit you. That thing has some nasty defensive mechanisms, trust me. I've hardly figured out how all of 'em work. Oh, and warn your kids, would you? Yesterday I noticed some kids from town poking around out there. I don't want to be responsible for somebody getting hurt or worse by accident."

Much of the smile appeared to have dropped from Sal's face. "Right-o, mate."

"Oh, and don't get any ideas about trying to heft the price too high," Dusty added. "A percentage is fair, and I'll pay it, but keep it fair. I have some nasty defensive mechanisms, too."

The smile was almost completely gone now. "Right-o. Have a right good stay in Harry's Hell, there, friend."

"Right delightful, I'm sure," Dusty muttered, as he turned to walk away. He hoped that the grapevine worked in this little town. Maybe a few rumors about the ship and its inhabitants would spare them the annoyance of chasing drunken teenagers away from the blast vents.

"So when do you be introducing that woman of yours about, anyhoo, friend?" Sal called after him. "She's a right looker, she is."

"Oh, I dunno," Dusty said, "probably, oh, never."

He slouched back through the drizzle toward The Keys to Infinity. It wasn't exactly going home, but the ship was starting to feel like home, at least compared to this place. If nothing else, the Keys was dry.

Bingle squeezed his wrist comfortingly, appearing to sense his foul mood. He stroked her leaves in slow circles with his thumb, then added in the forefinger as well. Bingle relaxed and seemed almost to purr. Bingle was a kraken; he had picked her up on ... on a space station, on some space station from a smuggler, and they'd kicked him off for violating organic-material quarantines. He remembered getting deported, but not where, or when. It couldn't have been that long ago, since he knew krakens got fairly big, and Bingle was still tiny.

He tried to think about Elaine, to get his mind off this latest hole in his memory. For some reason he couldn't define, Sal's assumptions about his relationship with Elaine irritated him -- not so much because he found the idea of touching the woman unpleasant, but because there would never be anything there, could never be. Cyborgs weren't his type. Elaine was a nice person, but he doubted there could ever be anything between them, even if she'd let him close enough to find out.

She doesn't have to let you close, you don't even have to ask, all you need to do is push down that sweet little body -- she can't even kick back --

And do what, Raymond? Dusty thought viciously. He was pretty sure that had been Raymond's thought; he pushed that other voice back down into the dark pit in his mind where Raymond normally lived. She's not just missing her legs, man; it's the whole enchilada.

He started wondering what sort of female companionship might be available in Harry's Hell. The place was a mining town; surely there were brothels around. Could ask Sal if he had a sister. The image of a woman who looked like Sal popped into Dusty's head, and he cringed. Perhaps not.

The steady drizzle had slackened to a constant mist. As far as Dusty could tell, it didn't ever stop raining on this planet. It didn't help any that the air was blood-warm and reeked of the jungle's heady musk. Before leaving the air-conditioned comfort of the Keys Dusty had stripped off everything but a pair of now-mudcovered cargo pants and the ankle-hugging plastic sandals the natives wore, also covered with mud within five steps off the ship.

The whole damn planet had to be made of mud. Dusty was a desert-world kid, or at least Raymond had been, and he really couldn't think of anything he hated more than humidity.

Two weeks! Two weeks in this moldy hell, without a woman in sight.

The Keys was in a muddy field just outside of the cluster of ramshackle houses that its inhabitants charitably called a town, with a swath of damaged vegetation behind the ship, pointing back into the jungle. Their only stroke of luck so far was that they hadn't actually crashed on top of Harry's Hell. Flattening four blocks of buildings wasn't a good way to get the locals to help you out. Not that it was easy to imagine the locals being any less helpful than they had been so far. At least they hadn't come out with the pitchforks and torches, but maybe that was only because torches wouldn't burn in this murk.

Dusty slogged across the field and rapped on the hull. He didn't bother to knock in any particular pattern. Elaine would have seen him coming on the screens, and besides, he hadn't just been fibbing to Sal, he'd been lying through his teeth. The Keys had absolutely no defenses whatsoever, and no offensive capability either. It was about as dangerous as a large wooden apple keg. Well, a large wooden apple keg built on top of a small nuclear reactor, but at the moment that part wasn't working so well.

"It's me," Dusty added.

The airlock hissed open. Dusty stepped inside, waited while the ship cycled through its little battery of tests for 1,034,502 known pathogens, then stepped squishily into the interior. The little ship was not by any means chilly, but the air conditioning hit him like a blast of ice water after the furnace outside.

"I know it's you," Elaine said, floating down through the ceiling hatch in a trailing cloud of copper-brown hair. "The options are basically you, you and you."

Dusty wrung out his hair. Warm water dripped onto his shoulders, tingling like blood on skin made cold by the cooler air. "Don't forget Seedy Sal, everybody's favorite lecherous hoverbody repairman."

"You went back to Sal?" Elaine raised the hoverchair to glare straight into his eyes. "You gave my credit chip to that piece of human filth?"

"Had to. He's the only person in this town who can get us spaceship parts, at least semi-reliably. You should have seen some of the gutter rats I've talked to."

"The man doesn't know a thing about spaceships. He fixes landfoils. Don't be surprised if we ask for Wergenheim vanes and end up with a rubber flare curtain." She drifted in tight little circles.

"I hate to break it to you, but it's not like we have a choice." Dusty looked around for something to dry himself off, something that Elaine wouldn't yell at him for getting wet. He wondered briefly if she'd even noticed that a wet, half-naked (and not badly built, in his own opinion) man had just walked through her airlock. He found himself hoping that she'd notice.

You really need to get laid, man; you're getting pathetic.

"You're dripping," Elaine said, floating into the head to get him a towel. Well, she'd noticed the wet part, at any rate.

"You're pacing," he retorted, catching the towel she threw him.

"I pace when I'm anxious, Dusty. Is this what they call cabin fever?" She stared at the windowscreen, which showed a scenic view of mud, rain, and mud. "You can go out there. I can't. I'm basically stuck in here."

"Lucky you," Dusty remarked, toweling his head.

"Lucky? Do you think I'm enjoying this?" She spread her hands in an elaborate gesture encompassing herself, the hoverchair, the ship, him. "So how long, anyway?"

"How long?" Dusty repeated.

"Until he can get us the vanes, or repair the ones we have. Tonight? Tomorrow?"

"Uh, two weeks."

"Two what?" Elaine did a tight one-eighty spin to face him. "I hope you mean Hadean weeks or some sort of time measurement on some planet where the days are four hours long and the--" Her voice trailed off; she said, "Two weeks standard? What are they going to do, forge the damn things to our custom specs, polish them and take them for a test drive to Anubis and back?"

"We're on a frontier world, not Amaranth Station. They're going to have to order them from off-world. Then ship 'em out here on the next supply drop. Two weeks is probably optimistic."

"Two weeks? I have to stay in here for two weeks?"

"You don't have to," Dusty pointed out. "We could look around. Maybe find a chair with jets, or maybe even the old kind with wheels. Planetside people must get around somehow."

"You can't seriously think that we're going to find a wheelchair in a place like this?"

"Well, no, but maybe I could build something."

"Build something. You could build something." She rotated and stared fixedly out the window.

"Where's my shirt?" Dusty said, suddenly wanted to change the subject. Anything else.

"You cold, cowboy?"

"Damn straight. It's freezing in here."

"It is not. It's barely comfortable."

"That's another thing," Dusty said, shrugging a jacket over his damp shoulders. "You can't keep the life support going like you have been. There's not enough sunlight coming through this cloud cover to keep the Keys' batteries going with that kind of draw."

Elaine sighed and looked over her shoulder. "I know. Believe me, I know. I was sort of hoping we'd get out of here, you know, in two or three days. Do you have any idea how hot it's going to get in here without the LS? Hotter than it is outside, I'll tell you that."

"Believe me, it'll get a lot worse if we don't shut it down. You really want to spend two weeks here without indoor plumbing?"

Elaine shuddered. She spun to face the window again.

"You know what the biggest draw on the batteries is," Dusty said.

"I'm quite aware of that," Elaine said without turning. "The Helmann field."

"Elaine, we have to shut it down, or it'll fold anyway in a couple of days and then we won't have the juice to get the engines going again. There's gravity here. The Helmann generator was never meant to run off the batteries. In a planetary grav well, there's no need."

"There's need," Elaine said, her long hair hanging down, hiding her face.

"What need? Vanity?"

He hadn't meant it to come out like that, only to point out the absurdity of her reliance on the hoverchair balanced against their chances of getting back to galactic civilization. Elaine spun about again, and her brown eyes were filled with fire.

"You don't understand. You couldn't possibly. You don't know what it's like, Dusty Winters! Don't you dare presume to make decisions on my ship! My ship! I decide which systems are essential. Which ones we need. Understand that?"

Dusty stared back at her.

"I need a shower," he said finally.

He passed her, heading for the bathroom.



********



Elaine floated disconsolately into the bedroom, and flung herself down on the bed. She did this by rotating the hoverchair 90 degrees; the motion was so automatic by now that she might as well have had legs to propel her body.

She'd had the hoverchair so long, and never even thought of its limitations. But then, she'd rarely left Amaranth Station, and had never been down to a planet's surface since losing her ability to walk under her own power. This was the first time she'd ever been anywhere the chair didn't have a Helmann field to repel against.

The thought of spending the next two weeks having to crawl everywhere terrified and shamed her. The knowledge that she'd have to do it in front of Dusty raised the shame to paralyzing levels.

He already saw her as half a woman; now he'd have his theory proven, and she'd never even had a chance to show him what else she could be.

Lying on her back on the bed, she plucked at the silky fabric of her light shirt. She had to laugh at herself. How blatant, how desperate she must have seemed to him. The problem was that she didn't really know how to entice a man anymore. Ten years ago? No problem. Everything was easy then. Walking across a room was easy. Carrying a cup of coffee without spilling it all over yourself.

Then she'd found out what it was to look mortality in the eye. Found out what it was to watch your own body fall out of control. What it was to grow old.

I'm old, she thought. I'm thirty-five, and I'm old.

There had been a time in human history when thirty-five had been old. Hell, for most of human history, eighteen had been old. This rapidly advancing decrepitude, this rotting of her flesh, had been nothing new or unusual. It had been the natural human condition. Every day was just another step into death. Now Elaine found herself alone in a universe of people who, at age thirty-five, were enjoying the flush of youth, and could continue to look forward to it for thirty or forty years yet to come. Only, the universe seemed to have passed her by somehow.

In seventy years, give or take a few decades, the people in Elaine's graduating class, her friends, children of her parents' friends, would be growing old. They would be starting the final decline, eased by technology, and barring bad luck could look forward to an easy and painless death, maybe a hundred and fifty years after their birth.

In ten years, Elaine would be dead, and her death would be neither easy nor painless.

I wonder if that's what Dusty sees, when he looks at me. Mortality. The reminder that, no matter how far we've come as a race, we still must be born and we still must die.

God, I'm getting maudlin, and I haven't even been drinking yet. Much.

A drink sounded good. She'd already had one, waiting for Dusty to return. Maybe it was time for another. Elaine oriented herself vertically and drifted out of the bedroom nook into the main room of the little yacht. She ordered a virgin Scotch and water from the Keys' rather thinly equipped bar, and then, reluctantly, knowing Dusty was right, instructed the Keys to shut down its non-essential life support systems. Climate control, down. System recyc, down. They'd get air and water from outside. Non-essential lighting, down. Windows, down; they'd make do with the portholes in the observation dome if they wanted to see what little there was to see outside.

The only one she couldn't bring herself to disconnect was the gravity.

Elaine floated to the ladder to the observation deck and hovered herself up inside it. When Dusty wasn't around, she spent most of her time up here. It was big enough for one comfortable person, or two slightly cramped. It was also not equipped for someone who didn't carry their chair around with them. Dusty had carried a couple of cushions up from the main room, because he did like to look out at the stars now and again, but Elaine still fancied that this was the one place anywhere that had been made for people like her. A place the exact opposite of the real world. It was a place where normal people weren't entirely comfortable, but she was.

With the windowwalls off, and most of the lights, the room was illuminated only through its natural windows. It did not envelop Elaine with the usual feeling of floating in a sea of stars, but rather, with an enclosed, womblike sort of sensation. She liked it. Rain streaked and beaded on the portholes. She shifted her drink to her artificial hand and touched one window gently, expecting it to feel cold, instead surprised by the slick warmth.

The room was already getting noticeably warmer, as the ship no longer maintained its internal temperature. It's going to be really hot in here before too long, Elaine thought. It's going to be one heck of a couple of weeks.

She sipped at the drink and thought that no matter what anyone said about virgin Scotch mimicking the real thing, she could still tell the difference. She reached up into the sensitive hollow behind her ear and made a little adjustment. She wanted to be just a little bit drunk. Not very. Not yet.

"Elaine?" Dusty's voice came up to her from down below.

"Up here." What did he think, she'd gone outside? She waited a suitably long time (as if she'd come running when he called!), made another little adjustment, and then floated down, hoping to achieve a sort of featherdown-like drifting effect. Sinking is really more like it, she thought. Ungracefully sinking, at that.



********



She was gorgeous.

She floated down from the observation dome like a belle in one of those Gaian epic holovids drifting down a spiral staircase into some ballroom, with a drink balanced in one graceful hand. Only the Gaian belle couldn't really drift; she would always be hampered by the jerky motion of setting one foot in front of the other. Elaine had no feet, so she could float as smoothly as dandelion seeds on the summer air.

Dandelion fluff ... for an instant he had a vivid mental image of the stuff, drifting in a golden sunset. Raymond's memory, or just some random scene from a holovid? He thrust the image away; he didn't want to think about Raymond, not ever, but especially not now. The lights in the main cabin were much dimmer than usual and Elaine's shirt billowed around her body in a way that made Dusty dizzy. Raymond could be allowed no part of this.

"I shut it off, as you can see," Elaine said.

"The lights?"

"Lights, climate control, everything. You'll notice the effects fairly soon, I assure you." Her head ducked slightly. "Everything but the gravity. I'd like to leave that on a bit longer, if you don't mind."

"I don't mind." He nodded at the drink in her hand. "That looks good. Have what you're having?"

Elaine laughed. "I don't think you'll want exactly what I'm having; there's no alcohol on board, remember? But help yourself to whatever I have."

Oh, well. One thing he'd been looking forward to about being planetside was getting drunk, now that he was no longer restricted to Elaine's non-alcoholic bar, but when in Rome ... He found that she had several good Anubian pseudobrews and had the computer make him up a beer. "You seem pretty relaxed for having a virgin drink there. Sure you're not holding back on me?"

"I never said I'm not getting drunk. I can't have alcohol, but I learned long ago ..." She smiled, almost shyly. "Show you a secret. Not even my doctors know this. I learned by accident." She tilted her head forward, the brown hair falling enticingly across her neck. It was hard to see in the dimly lit room, but Dusty caught a metallic glimmer in the soft hollow where her throat met her ear.

"I can make adjustments to the hormone content of my body, to compensate for my reduced endocrine count," Elaine said. "I figured out without too much experimentation that I can mimic the effects of getting drunk. Or high. As smashed as I want to be. No hangover, either, unless I want one."

Dusty grinned. "You are holding out! Good deal! So why bother drinking at all? I mean physically. Like the taste?"

She'd adjusted her chair into the low stationary hover that meant she was sitting down, so he sat too, and she drifted nearer. "Not exactly. Well, yes, I do enjoy having something to carry around. Most social drinkers do. But more than that, it's part of a deal that I made with myself shortly after I discovered that I can do this thing." She sipped from the glass. "Imagine it, Dusty -- an alcoholic high without the repercussions. No physical damage. No hangover. No guilt. How easy it must be to get into that high state and stay there forever." She spoke as if reflecting on someone else's problem. "I carry the drink around to remind me that it is alcohol, after all. And I take no more of the effect than I can drink. I think I overdid it a little just now, so I've actually finished this drink." She raised it quickly, drained it. "Now I can't drink again until I pour myself another."

"If you don't mind my saying," Dusty said, "that seems like ... I dunno. A cop-out. Rationalizing. Sorry, but it's true."

She gave him a long, inscrutable look. "To me, it seemed a very mature, rational decision."

"If you truly fear becoming addicted," Dusty said, "then why are you still drinking? That's the first thing that comes to mind, anyway."

"Well, what do you think? Do you blame me? Wouldn't you drink if you were me? Don't you think I'm doing well by limiting my intoxication?"

"I never said I wouldn't do the same," Dusty protested. "I mean, I doubt if I'd do as well. I'm more of a, what do you call it, an addictive personality."

"You were a memory junkie. I know." Elaine drifted across the room. "Want another drink while I'm up?"

"Sure." His beer was actually only about half-gone, but he thought that he'd be needing another pretty soon here, if the conversation kept going the way it was going. The drink might not have any alcohol, but it helped to have something in his hand.

"Same?"

"Sure."

She brought his drink along with her own. It felt so ... domestic. She handed it to him. He took it, felt the chill of the glass and the quick brush of her warm brown fingers. Was this what it might be, to have a wife?

"You phrased that wrong, by the way."

"What do you mean?" Elaine asked, sipping her Scotch.

"You said was. You mean is. I am."

"You are what?"

"A junkie."

Elaine fixed him with one of her cool stares. "You told me you haven't jacked up in years. Raymond said so too."

He almost choked on his drink.

"You've talked to Raymond?"

"Briefly." Elaine looked away. "He's ... not a very nice man, I guess I'd say."

A laugh caught in Dusty's throat, didn't quite make it out. "I'd say."

"Look, he didn't ... we didn't ... if you're thinking..." She cleared her throat. "Anyway, you said you hadn't jacked up, and I believe you."

It was easy to forget how sheltered Elaine's life had been. In some ways she wasn't nearly as old as her chronological age suggested. Dusty decided not to worry about when or how she'd talked to Raymond. It was more disturbing than he wanted to admit, knowing that enough of Raymond still existed to hold a conversation that Dusty didn't remember. He liked to think that Ray was dead, but the image that sometimes came to mind was probably more accurate, imagining Raymond Alvarez chained to the wall of a dungeon deep in his mind, trapped in rat-infested darkness far from the light. If Ray ever came out far enough to hurt Elaine, Dusty swore that he'd kill him, even if it meant killing himself.

"Look, Elaine," he said. "I don't know if I can really explain this myself. You don't ever stop being a junkie. It just gets easier to deny yourself a fix. Just because you haven't done it lately doesn't mean you're not ... I mean, I still walk down the street and every piece of electronics I see reminds of the one I'll never ever again let anywhere near my head. I'm afraid to stick a music jack into my skull because one part of me is afraid it might do something I don't want, and the other part of me wants it to. Does that make sense?"

"I ... don't know," Elaine said.

Bingle squeezed his wrist gently. The little plant's touch relaxed him with its affectionate familiarity, pulling him back to the now. His eyes had gone to her, and so had Elaine's, following his look.

"Hey," Dusty said, wanting to break the tension. "I taught her a trick."

"I didn't know you could train krakens."

"Neither did I. Bingle's still young, and babies of any species are impressionable. Maybe it makes a difference."

"Oh dear," said Elaine. "You? Teaching the young?"

"Watch," Dusty said.

He set the unopened beer between his knees and steadied it with one hand.

"I don't know if I want to watch this," Elaine said.

Dusty grinned at her. "Bingle, Daddy's thirsty." He let the kraken slide from his wrist onto the top of the beer. The creature wound itself around the damp container and started to lever itself under the pullstrip. After a few hunches of the kraken's little body (or stem?), the strip ripped with a satisfying hiss.

"Good girl, Bingle. Good plant."

Elaine laughed. He looked up, surprised to hear that sound. She was watching the little plant raptly. Her dark eyes were alight with childlike delight, her lips parted. "Dusty, it moved!"

Dusty just barely stopped himself from the first three or five responses that came to mind. "Krakens do," he said instead.

"Well, I know they do. I just never saw anything like -- It's so cute!"

"Cute?" Dusty looked down at what resembled, to him, a bit of seaweed wriggling intently across his leg. It was headed for Elaine. He wondered how she'd respond to this, and soon found out: she laughed again and put her hand out, then pulled it back.

"Do you mind if I hold it?"

"Aw, hell no." She rested her hand on his thigh, palm up, and the kraken wiggled its way on in. Dusty could feel Elain's warmth through his light slacks. Bingle crawled up over her fingers and she laughed again.

"It tickles!"

"You get used to it."

Elaine cupped the kraken delicately in both hands; Dusty was aware of a cooler spot upon his thigh, the absence of her body heat as her hand drew away. Bingle found its way to Elaine's wrist and settled itself in the accustomed spot. Elaine's eyes shone. "Where did you say you got it?"

"On a space station. They wouldn't allow pets, so I bought Bingle from a guy who swore up and down that plants were excluded from the regs. He was wrong. I found out later and got deported." The story came easier now; pieces of it were filtering back. He still couldn't remember where it had happened and hoped she didn't ask. "Some people buy souvenir T-shirts," he added with a shrug.

"It's cute." Reluctantly Elaine teased it free of her wrist and let it slide from her palm into Dusty's. Maybe her fingers lingered just a little longer against his than they really had to.

The Keys was definitely getting warmer. Elaine's white shift clung to her skin, and Dusty felt his own clothing doing the same.

"I think it's time," Elaine said suddenly.

"Huh?"

"Time to shut down the rest of it." Elaine tossed back her non-alcoholic drink. The quick movement of one hand to the base of her skull might have passed unnoticed, a mere adjustment to her hair, if he hadn't known what she was doing. No doubt she'd had plenty of practice at getting drunk without being noticed. She drifted to the room's little food nook, lifted the lid and deposited her glass, all very casually. Then she turned to look at him, and her dark eyes, in the dimly lit room, both melted and broke his heart.

"Would you do it?" she asked, in a voice barely above a whisper.

"Do it ...?"

"Turn off the gravity. It's easy." She pointed to the console. "The computer will walk you through it."

Dusty couldn't explain his hesitation, even to himself. "Watch me screw up, and have us walking on the ceiling," he said finally.

Elaine choked on a laugh. "Please let me lie down before you do it," she said, and floated into the bedroom.

Was that a come-on ... or just Elaine being Elaine? Dusty wondered.

"I'm ready," Elaine called.

Dusty did the thing as she had asked. The lights flickered slightly, but he felt nothing, not even a pop in his ears. There was no sound from the bedroom.

He entered softly.

Elaine lay on the bed, on her back, her hands laid across her stomach. Her hair spread out in a broad dark corona about her head. The white shirt was unbuttoned halfway to her navel and its sheer folds fell across her breasts and exposed a chevron of darker chest. Below her crossed hands, the fabric dipped to the bed in white swaths. As accustomed as he was getting to the absence of her legs, Dusty still got an unpleasant chill every now and again. Such as now. Those times when he wanted to see her whole, when he almost expected it, and then was caught anew by the rude ending of her body just below her ribs.

He stepped across the hoverchair and sat carefully on the edge of the bed. Elaine turned her head as the bed bent with his weight, and her eyes flickered half-open. "I feel rather heavy," she said. "Pardon if I don't rise, sir."

"Pardoned," Dusty said. He placed a hand over hers. This time, she did not pull away. Her head turned a little more; her chest lifted slightly with the inhalation when she said:

"Just to avoid any possibility of misunderstanding, you did come in here to have sex with me, correct?"

"Uh," said Dusty. "Technically correct, I suppose."

Elaine closed her eyes, as if a profound weight had lifted from her shoulders. He could not stop looking at the dark lashes brushing her cheeks. "Oh good," she said. "I'd hoped so."

She squeezed his hand; Dusty squeezed back, and then let his hand slip from hers, onto the loose fabric upon her stomach.

"Is this okay?"

"Yes," she said softly. "That's okay."

He stroked her belly. The shirt was soft and silky. Elaine laid her hand on his thigh.

"Elaine," said Dusty. Elaine -- her name was liquid and nice to roll around on his tongue.

"Dusty." She reached up, cupped the back of his neck and drew his head down. She tasted as good as he'd thought she would.

"Go slow, Dusty," Elaine whispered, letting him go. "I'm not sure if I know how to do this. I think I can figure it out, but I'll need some help along the way. Pretend I'm a virgin, if it helps."

"If you're a virgin, hon, I'm a Gaian monk."

Elaine started laughing. She laughed so hard she almost choked. There was a desperate edge to it. When she stopped laughing, she lay with her eyes closed. Dusty lay beside her, and went on rubbing her stomach gently. Memories crowded close, of other girls, the touch of their hands, the smell of their skin. Most of the memories he knew weren't his. Some might have been. Images -- a single black hair curling against a white thigh, a butterfly painted on a fingernail, a rose tattoo bisected by the spaghetti strap of an evening gown. A hundred different pairs of women's eyes, some of men, some of children. He remembered a five-year-old girl, and didn't know if he was the child in that memory, or her molester.

He focused himself on the now by concentrating on Elaine, her smell, her softness and warmth. Did she anchor herself now with his presence, he wondered, or in some other way that she had learned through the years?

"It's truer than you know," Elaine said softly, interrupting his thoughts.

"What is?"

"I am a virgin, in a way. No one wants to touch me. Especially not on Amaranth Station. You have no idea how they hate me there, for my disease."

"I know that, but I still don't understand why."

"You wouldn't. Your homeworld is not the same as mine. Where I come from ..." She hesitated, and raised her right hand, wrist upturned. "Do you see?"

He saw a pale stippling on the dark skin of her forearm. Thought for a moment that it was some sort of outward sign of the disease he knew was rotting her body away. Like leprosy. But it was only scarring.

"From tests," Elaine said. "By the time a child of Amaranth Station reaches adulthood, he or she has been tested so many times ... you could hardly believe how many times. They could take samples from anywhere on the body, from far less conspicuous places. But they don't. Why? So you can look at another citizen's arms and know that she's been tested so much she's got to be clean. Genetically unmodified. Most Amaranthian families can trace their lineage back, uncontaminated, to the nineteenth century and even earlier. Including my own."

"Obviously yours was contaminated, as you say, at some point along the way." He winced. Way to be sympathetic, there, old boy.

She laid her hand down on her chest, next to his. "Everyone is, Dusty. I doubt if there's an individual alive who couldn't find multiple examples of reproductive genetic manipulation somewhere along his or her family tree. It was universal in the twenty-first century, widespread throughout the twenty-second. It wasn't enough to cure your own case of ... of whatever, of sickle cell anemia or cancer or myopia or whatnot. You had to fix it in your gonads, so every generation to come could reap the benefits. Reap the benefits unto the nth generation. Benefits like mine."

"They did a lot of good for us, I guess, those ancestors of ours. I can't even imagine how they dealt with some of the things they cured in us. Even little things. Can you imagine being born with crooked teeth? How would you eat?"

Elaine laughed, a short, harsh bark. "You know, I've thought about it sometimes, if I had it in my power to go back and stop them, or just talk to them, tell them what the consequences of their actions would be. They meant to do good. Hell, they did a lot of good. If I'd be willing to cause so many people to suffer from genetic diseases they eradicated ... just to spare myself this ... aw, damn it, Dusty, I didn't mean to go all maudlin on you. I'm not used to talking about this. On Amaranth, it's a vulgar topic. I don't know --have I offended you?"

"You're kidding, right? I don't offend so easy, kiddo."

"No, perhaps not." Elaine touched his face, the scars, the places where his nose had been broken through the years -- he knew it had happened, though he could not remember how. "I hope not. I hope you won't be ... disgusted by me."

"I'm not." Though in perfect honesty, Dusty wasn't sure yet. He resumed rubbing her stomach, and she relaxed at the motion of his hand. Dusty could feel the curve of her belly under the light fabric of the shirt, and he wanted ... he wanted ...

His fingers curled. He wanted to plunge his hand into her skin, in as deep as it would go, hurting her, digging, shredding --

He recoiled, jerking his hand back.

That had been Raymond.

No, Raymond, you can't have her. This isn't your body any more. It may have been once, but you forfeited all right to be in control here. You damned yourself, man; don't take me with you, and don't use my body to do it.

You're ME, you moron.

No, I'm not you, I'll never be you --


"Dusty --" She was looking at him, and he sensed tears somewhere far behind her wide, dark eyes. She probably thought it was her, that he'd recoiled because he couldn't stand to touch her. He didn't know quite how to explain. He tried to grin.

"If it makes you feel any better, hon, you're not the only one who's got the virginal blues here."

"What do you mean?"

"I've had sex. I know I've had sex. But I don't know if I can quite remember how to do it."

"How can you forget that?"

Forgetting wasn't the right word. There was no word for it. He remembered having sex. To men, to women; as a man, as a woman. But he'd never done it. It was like dreaming about flying every night, living it out vicariously, and then finding yourself on top of a sixty-story building, staring down at the ground and trying to figure out how you'd done it all those other times.

Raymond knew. All the other voices in his head, the other voices less insistent than Raymond's, knew. And it was useless to ask them about it, because he couldn't talk to them, and no way in hell would he let any of them take control again, ever. Especially Raymond.

While he went through all possible ways to explain to her, and then started over again, Elaine propped herself up on her elbows, and laughed.

"This is kind of pathetic," she said. "Here we're two adults with sex lives going back twenty years, at least I know mine does, and we're pretending to be a couple of virgins."

"But in some sense we are," Dusty argued. "Your brain knows what it's like to have sex, but your body doesn't. My body's had sex, lots of it, but I've never been in the driver's seat until now."

"Driver's seat?"

"That's what Raymond calls it," Dusty said, and then saw the spooked look come into her eyes, and thought, Okay, man, way to go -- you're in a beautiful woman's bedroom, so try to seduce her by reminding her how crazy you are. Casanova, eat your heart out.

But he had to be honest.

"Elaine, I'm -- confused. You know that. Ever since I stopped jacking in, my brain's been like a giant unsorted mess of memories. Way too many for one lifetime. But it's not just memories, it's--" He didn't know how to explain. He rolled over and sat up so that he could look at her. Hard to talk lying on his back.

"I think I understand," Elaine said.

"No, I doubt it. It's not just memories, Elaine. I wish it was. I think I could deal with that, with just not knowing who I am. But every memory -- every memory you've got isn't just a memory, it's you, a little piece of you, like a snapshot of who you were when that memory happened. You know what I mean? A memory is not just a still picture like a picture in a magazine. It's all the emotions and smells and thoughts and everything that you had at that time. When you think back on, oh, I dunno, on some bully kicking dirt on you when you were twelve, you get mad all over again, don't you? When you think about vacationing with your parents when you were five, it's not just sun and sand, it's feeling, whatever, feeling safe and loved and all excited by new places and maybe kind of sick to your stomach because you know you got your first case of spacesickness on that trip."

He was talking faster now, afraid to look at her and see her beautiful eyes close down with fear or, worse, pity. He'd never talked about this to anyone. Never had anyone to talk to at all. Elaine was the first. He knew he was probably blowing it completely, but she'd been straight with him about her disease -- it wasn't fair not to be straight with her.

"Every memory in my head is a snapshot of somebody else, and they all think they're still alive. Actually most of 'em probably are alive, somewhere, but they've left their ghosts in my head. A shadow of themselves that doesn't know it's a shadow."

"Now, wait," Elaine said. He made himself look at her; her brow was furrowed in puzzlement. "I've bought a few memories from time to time. It seemed pretty harmless. I was always myself in all of them, and most I kept -- I know I've never been swimming on the Iridian coast, but I like to remember that I did. I'm not confused about whether I did it or not. And anyway, if you're saying what I think you're saying, then every memory in my head, including the legitimate ones, would be a separate person from me. A snapshot, as you put it, of an earlier me. They'd all be trying to assert their independence. And they're not. I know who I am."

"Exactly. That's the difference. You know who you are. Not just intellectually, but deep down, right down to the most basic level, your psyche knows it's in charge. I mean, there's never any doubt. But I don't have that. Do you see, Elaine? Somewhere through all those years of jacking up, I lost my sense of self. Actual coherent memories, memories that I know are mine, go back only a few years, and they're real spotty. I'm only sure I've been Dusty for about two years. I have ID, the databanks confirm my identity ... but I can't find any records of me, that is, Dusty Winters, any earlier than the last few years. I have a date of birth, but no birth records. At least none that I can find, and trust me, I've looked."

He could see that Elaine was thinking this one through. "I knew you had other personalities," she said at last. "I've talked to Raymond, and I know that there's a woman too, and a child. I guess I always assumed that you were, uh, the original."

"Nice to think so. But I'm pretty sure I'm not."

"So ... I think I already know the answer to this, but who is?"

"Raymond."

Elaine nodded slowly.

"I wish I could know for certain." Suddenly all of the frustration erupted out of him. "I mean, hell! I have no idea who Dusty really is! Am I some construct of Raymond's, some alternate personality of his? Am I some memory that Raymond jacked in, and now I'm living the personality of some memory junkie who long ago wiped himself -- or herself -- for a fix and has been living in technological duplication ever since? Am I an alias that Raymond used to escape the authorities somewhere? Am I the real personality of this body, who got submerged by Raymond long ago, and has only now emerged to take control again? Or is Raymond himself, his entire life, just someone else's memories? God, Elaine, I don't know!"

Elaine touched his arm.

"You're you," she said. "Right here, right now. As long as Raymond stays down in that place where you keep him --" Dusty started at her use of his own metaphor; had Raymond told her that? "-- I don't care who you were before. I care who you'll be five minutes from now, maybe ten. Is that good enough?"

He started to speak, but she touched his lips lightly with her finger. "Hush," she said. "I think I need to get undressed now, and when you see what you're about to make love to, then you can leave, if you like. I wouldn't be offended. Well, heck, I probably would, but it'll be your call." She looked him in the eyes. "You've stripped naked for me just now, Dusty Winters. My turn. I don't do this for just anyone. In fact, Dusty, you're the first."

She propped herself up on one arm and slipped the white shirt from her brown shoulders, shifting arms in mid-strip to loose the other sleeve so deftly that he knew this was how she did it, every night. Dusty's eyes traveled from her breasts down the line of her belly to her navel -- he saw that she had one. Below that, her body, in a sense, ended. It wasn't gruesome or messy. It just disappeared in a web of microfine equipment, hugging the base of her body so closely that he hadn't seen much of it even through the fine shirt. Tubes, knobs, little baggies, all no doubt intimately involved with her bodily functions. No skin was showing, no unsightly ends of sagging organs, nothing like that. He was just thinking, Well, this isn't so bad, when she went on with the next part of it.

The fingers of her right hand touched her left shoulder in a deliberate fashion; touch here like this, touch there like that. He still didn't quite realize what she was doing until a fine crease appeared in her skin, running right around her shoulder and under her arm. It was dark, a color like decaying blood or cooked meat. She pressed something under her arm. A sickening pop! such as a breaking bone might make, and her left arm swung loose from the top. She wrapped her hand around it and twisted sharply; it rotated, so now it looked as if she'd been mangled in some kind of horrible industrial accident. But there was no blood, only the glimmer of microcircuitry. He could see how the microelectrodes had withdrawn both into the artificial arm and its socket, so there were no unsightly dangling cables. Another twist, another pop, and the arm came loose. Elaine laid it on the edge of the bed, on top of her white shift.

Seeing him watching all this, she smiled and said, "Well, God did me a favor this once: He didn't make me a lefty."

Then she reached up with her one remaining hand to her forehead.

Dusty saw what she was going to do right before she did it, and he found himself thinking, Oh, God, please not that, not her hair...

But yes, she touched her hairline, here, here and here, and slid her fingers right under the edges of her scalp. The waist-length, golden-brown glory he had so admired came away in her hand and she laid it down beside her arm. It looked like a dead animal sprawled on the bed.

"So," she said, and looked at him. Legless, one-armed, bald. "This is me. The real me."

Dusty reached out a hesitant hand. He cupped it gently around the nape of her neck, felt her neck muscles relaxing into his touch. He ran his hand up her scalp and made a surprising discovery.

"You're fuzzy!"

Elaine's eyes had half-closed like a petted cat's. Now they came open again, shining with a sort of relieved amusement. "That's an interesting compliment."

Dusty stumbled. "Well, I was expecting -- I dunno. Smooth. Slick. Like skin. You're sort of soft and peach-fuzzy."

"That's all the hair I can grow these days," Elaine said sadly. "About a millem or two of peach fuzz."

"It's soft," Dusty repeated. "I like it."

He used his gentle grip on her head to position her for a kiss, and this time her mouth was starting to become familiar upon his.

"Dusty," she said, when they separated. "Before we do this, before we go starting something that may become very serious for both of us, you have to understand ... I have to know you understand that I'm dying. I've told you that before, but you have to really understand it. I only have ten years, tops, more realistically five. You are making love to a dying woman."

He looked down at her, lovely and bald in the dim bedroom lights. "You're making love to a rapist and serial killer. A guy who tortured women to death. I need you to understand that."

"I understand," she said quietly.

"Do you think that means any less?" he said, and lowered himself to her.



*********



The kraken woke him. It was squeezing his wrist so tightly that his hand was numb. He worked a finger under it and loosened it enough to give himself some relief.

Elaine felt his movement and woke up a bit. She shifted under his arm; her soft, sleepy weight moved a little closer.

"How long did you say we were going to be stuck here?" she murmured, and he could feel her lips brush his ear with each word she spoke, sending happy little shivers through him.

"Two weeks, I think."

"Oh, that's right." A moment's silence; all he could feel was her breathing brushing the tiny hairs on his cheek. Then she whispered, "That's not a very long time. Two weeks? Too bad it can't be longer."







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