Chapter 2:

A Chance Encounter

Memory-Memorium: Mind Games


“No. I don’t think you understand.”

“I understand quite well, Blaire. What you’re thinking of doing is insane!”

A heated argument had erupted between Blaire and someone whose voice Anli didn’t recognize as she began to stir. She rubbed her eyes before attempting to sit up. The last thing she remembered was a conversation about a pair of socks, though a mysterious ache in her side promptly refocused her attention.

“Alph. I’m headed to the surface and that’s final. Anli has something we know nothing about and—”

“So, take her with you.” Alph’s response was blunt.

“You... don’t actually think I’m going to risk taking her out of quarantine to bring her somewhere she hasn’t been in over a decade, do you? What if we’re dealing with two things here?” He shook his head. “I can’t risk it. Hell, you can see for yourself what she...”

“I can and it looks like she’s awake,” Alph said disdainfully.

Blaire turned to face Anli, surprised she was finally awake. “I guess we woke you up, huh? Sorry,” he said softly.

She struggled into a sitting position, leaning against her bed pillows, exhausted by the effort. “It’s fine,” she groaned, “but can someone explain what’s going on here?” Alph and Blaire looked at each other then back at Anli. Blaire was the first to speak:

“While you were out, we confirmed the presence of an unknown biological entity on the surface. Likewise, we discovered something in you as well.” He folded his arms across his chest, shaking his head. “That’s really all we have so far. We aren’t sure what you’re sick with or how you might have even contracted it. So, for now, you’re going to hang out here in quarantine.”

“Either way,” Alph interrupted, “you need to leave immediately. There’s no way the Medbay can hold you when we have no means of treating you.” His tone was calm, but his face told her he was serious.

Shakily, Anli slid out of bed. The tile floor was so frigid it sapped what little energy she had as she leaned against the glass walls of the tiny room. Steel cabinet drawers lined the wall closest to the airlock door, illuminated by dim white lights that made it feel more like a prison than anything else.

“So, what do you suggest I do, then?” she asked.

“Go to Ea—”

Blaire stomped on Alph’s foot, putting a prompt end to the reveal of his mission to Earth. “Alph means to say we don’t know what to do with you, yet; we’re still working on the finer details. Regardless, you’re too ill to worry about it.”

Her back slid down the wall as she curled into a sitting position, hugging her knees against her chest. “Blaire,” her voice was low, “there’s something we need to talk about. I think, maybe, this whole thing is my fau—”

“I’m going to stop you right there. Even if you were somehow to blame, what good would that do us now? We don’t even know if recent events here and on Earth are related.” Blaire was careful about his word choice. “Until someone can get down there and retrieve a sample, it’s foolish for anyone to jump to conclusions.”

Alph opened his mouth to speak but was abruptly cut off by Anli. “Alph, was it? Do you mind giving us a little… room?” She sounded out of breath. “Please?”

Reluctantly, Alph pulled himself away from the glass wall. “I’ll be in my office, then, if you need me, but I have my reservations about holding her here, Blaire. Don’t be reckless.” He disappeared down the hall into a small office.

Blaire tried to explain the apprehension. “He’s just being cautious; he isn’t saying those things out of spite. There are legitimate concerns of an outbreak here on the ship, and we don’t know anything about this thing yet. If word gets out that you’re sick, the damage control would start with his job.”

He waited until he heard the faint swiish of a closing door before returning his attention to Anli, now shivering as she pulled her knees in closer. The thin medical gown offered little respite from the icy floors, but she was too tired to stand; she wasn’t about to attempt a shouting match from the bed, either.

Her ombre brown hair was tangled and unkempt; her skin reflected that of a pearl versus its usual healthy, tanned appearance. In just a matter of days, she’d gone from happy and excited about a possible promotion to being stuck inside quarantine, defeated and distressed. What else could she do but sit there and feel pity for herself? She hated herself for it.

Blaire sat against the exterior wall, back even with Anli’s, separated by the glass. “Anli, this is probably just a fluke, you being sick at the same time Earth is dealing w—”

“Blaire!” she cried, burying her face in her knees. “How can I even begin to tell you what’s happened to me the last couple of days?”

“Days?” Confusion piqued his voice. “Anli, you’ve been asleep for a week. I’ve been given special permission by Commander Wrait to, uhh,” he hesitated for a moment, wondering if he should tell her, “head down to the surface to investigate, but I didn’t want to leave until you woke up.” It was better she knew he was doing everything he could to help her, he decided.

“Why? Why are you still here if it’s been that long, then?” Her whisper was barely audible through the glass. “The surface could be in full outbreak mode at this point, and you would have missed the safest chance you had to investigate… I’m holding you back.”

“The surface is stable for the moment and cases have been slow to rise. Now,” he said, changing the subject, “how about you tell me what’s been going on with you?”

She lifted her face from her knees, eyes puffy from crying, and settled her gaze on the floor. She craned her head just enough so she could see him from the corner of her eye. A heavy sigh escaped her lips as she realized he had turned to look at her. “How do I tell him? Ugh. Just send it.

“When I was a little girl,” she started, “I stumbled across a meteorite that literally fell out of the sky. Knowing me, I was curious and wanted to investigate.” Her voice rose in pitch. “I ended up slipping in the sand and lost my balance. I had to push myself off the meteorite, but it cut my hand,” she said, holding it up to the glass so the scar was visible. “That was right before I got sick the first time.”

“When was this…?”

“Back in Colony 96, fourteen years ago.” She proceeded to explain her nighttime venture to Blaire. “So, the other day in the Lounge, when you tried to wake me, I was having a terrible dream: I was back in Colony 96 but there was no one around. Like, I was completely alone, and I was kinda freaked out at first,” she said, still avoiding his gaze. “To make matters worse, there was a literal voice inside my head and it was telling me things… Scary things…”

“Anli, look at me.” Blaire said.

She shook her head before continuing. “It told me my memories looked delicious and that’s when the scene changed. I was standing at the meteorite. The voice went, ‘this is where it all began’. It was telling me that the meteorite is where this,” she said, gesturing to herself, “all started and probably the reason for what’s happening on Earth right now.”

Blaire folded his arms, still composed. “Anli, please look at me. I don’t want to have this conversation staring at your back. Let’s talk about—”

“Talk about what, Blaire?” She turned to look at him, tears streaming down her face. “About how this is all my fault and how they’ll not only revoke my Officer status but send me to live on the surface,” she lowered her voice, “away from you?” She turned away, embarrassed. “I can’t.”

She stared into his blue eyes, imagining she was sitting on the beach instead of a cold, tile floor. Compared to her, he looked well-kept. His hair was combed across his forehead, but his face was serious. She wished she could reach out and rustle it. He had such a pretty face, she thought.

“You know that’s not going to happen,” he said. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you, ok? We’ll get this figured out. We’ve been friends since you came to Lagrange 4—nothing about that has changed and I’m still going to do everything in my power to keep you safe, you know that.”

“Take me with you, then.”

“Take you where?”

“Take me with you.”

“Anli, you’re too sick for me to take you anywhere.”

“So?”

“So, you will be staying right where you are until we figure something out and get the situation on the surface under control.” Blaire scratched the back of his head. “What else are you keeping from me?”

“Nothing. I told you everything.”

“Your face tells a different story. If you’re just feeling guilty, that’s one thing—it’s another if there’s something else I should know.”

“Such as?” she pouted.

“Well, for starters, what happened to the meteorite? That’s where I need to start my investigation. If it’s still there, that is.”

“I have no idea. Blaire,” she said impatiently. “It’s been fourteen years since—” She erupted into a coughing fit as she moved her hand to cover her mouth.

He waited until she stopped coughing to continue. “Can you at least tell me how far from Colony 96 you were? Considering how young you were, I doubt you wandered real far…” Blaire pulled the device from earlier out. A three-dimensional map of the colony hovered above the screen.

“I haven’t been to Colony 96 in fourteen years,” she said, still holding her hand over her mouth. “There’s no way I’d know if the meteorite was still there or not.” She finished as she moved her hand away, now red with fresh blood. “I hope he didn’t see that.”

“Looking at the logs for Colony 96 that night… There was a mining operation to the west, so if you ran to the other side of the colony, like you said…” He placed a tiny marker just outside the perimeter. “I’ll look for the meteorite there first since it should be in the vicinity, pending its current location.” He turned the device off, addressing Anli. “If you really want to head down to the surface with me, you have one week to find Alph’s keycard that unlocks your room. How you’ll find it and how you’ll get it, well, I’ll leave that up to you.”

“That’s not fair!” she exclaimed. “You know no one in their right mind is going to walk in here, much less Alph of all people—he’s already made that clear…” She attempted to walk around the room, a façade to prove she was well enough to tag along.

Blaire watched, unimpressed. “It’s either that or you get well enough that I can take you. If you’re as well as you claim to be right now, explain the blood spots on the floor.”

She stopped. “Wh— What are you talking about?” she stammered nervously. Several tiny red dots marked the floor where she’d been sitting. “It’s just that—”

“Do you really want me to pull up your charts? Lagrange has an extensive medical system. In fact, your—”

“Ok, ok! It was from the coughing fit a minute ago… You don’t have to out me like that, you know?”

“Sorry, but you have to realize lying to me or withholding information from a senior Officer is punishable by chore duty.” He winked.

“Senior… Officer?” She tilted her head in confusion. “You… are my senior Officer?”

“The actual title is Lead Planetary Systems Agent, but yes.” He rubbed the back of his head awkwardly. “That kinda slipped out—you weren’t supposed to know that. I guess I blew my own cover. Oops.”

“You know I can see right through you, too,” she mumbled. “So, you’re giving me a week, then? Let’s say I don’t get the keycard or get better. Then what? Am I just stuck in here until you get back?”

“Heeey, you’re catching on!”

“Don’t be an ass, Blaire. I’m serious,” she scowled.

He sighed. “Yes. For the time being, you need to stay in there. If, after a week, you’re either not better or we’re unable to clear you for a surface mission, you’ll have to stay in there until we can clear you. Look, I don’t like it either, but you know the rules.”

She wasn’t thrilled with his answer, but it wasn’t like she had many options. Either she risk exposing the Lagrangian population to an unknown illness or stay put until there was a course of treatment. Even so, she was already tired of looking at the same glass panels that separated her from the outside world; she felt as if she’d done something wrong. She hated the feeling, yet she couldn't decipher what exactly it was she was feeling. Guilt? Frustration? Was she mad at herself for always being so stubborn?

“I’m sorry, really. I’ll be back to check on you later. We’re still getting new reports in from the surface, but they haven’t been able to crack the genetic sequence either, yet.” He looked to the wall above Anli’s head, checking the time on the holographic clock. “It’s not that late, I suppose. How about I bring you a few books from your room or something?”

Anli huffed. “Books? I’d much rather play video games if you wouldn’t mind bringing just my console and a few games. I can hook it up to the display in here.” Her eyes were pleading. “What’s a poor girl to do, stuck inside a glass box, sick and with nothing to do?”

“Sleep. Your body needs to rest so it can heal.”

“How could you possibly deny me such a request?” she said flauntingly.

“Honestly... I don’t know how you do it,” he said defeated. “How am I supposed to refuse you when you do that?”

                                                               ***

A week passed in the blink of an eye. Anli’s condition slowly began to improve, but she remained easily winded despite making strides in her recovery. Most of her time was spent between sleep and video games; she’d all but forgotten about the voice inside her head.

However, it remained unclear why she fell ill in the first place and with what. Alph had scoured the medical databases for anything that resembled her initial symptoms and while there were several hits, what truly confounded him was the genetic makeup of what hid inside her body. The results of her workup were finally in, and he was stumped; it didn’t fall into the family of viruses, bacteria, or fungi, yet it was made of parts from each classification.

He'd called Blaire over as soon as he’d made the discovery where they held an emergency meeting with the Medbay Director who remained just as puzzled, subsequently escalating the danger such an entity posed to the other four Lagrange ships. Meanwhile, Anli remained blissfully unaware of the danger lurking inside her, assuming the worst had passed.

Alph walked up to the glass wall, giving it a light tap with his knuckles. He was going to have to lie to her, as was agreed upon with Blaire, but how was a different story. The danger she posed was immense, yet the unknown nature of whatever was lurking inside her body was arguably even more dangerous; there were no records of anything even remotely similar at any point in history and he was the one that had the unfortunate luck of making such a discovery.

Anli looked up from her book. “Is there something I can help you with, Alph?” she asked.

“Yes, in fact. I have the results of your workup.”

Anli’s heart began to race. She knew it was only a matter of time before the results came in, though she was surprised it took two full weeks. “I’m ready for whatever you tell me,” she said, putting on a brave face.

How the hell am I supposed to lie to her? What do I even say? ‘Oh, yeah, you’re fine. You can go back to your regular life now?’” He sighed. “You had a run-in with a nasty virus. With a little more rest and time off, you should be just fine.” The lie rolled off his lips. He hated the way it made his mouth dry. While he had his reservations, he never enjoyed lying to a sick patient, especially when he had no answers.

Anli breathed a sigh of relief, putting her hand over her chest. “Thank God. I was really worried… But what about the, you know, voices…?”

As if lying once wasn’t bad enough already,” he gripped internally. “You were likely running a, ugh, fever for about a day before you ended up here. High fevers can cause hallucinations which is probably why you were hearing voices.” He bit his tongue. Another lie.

“Oh. That actu—”

Good explanation. I wonder how he’ll lie this one away, human girl.

Anli jumped straight out of bed, knocking the book off her lap, pages rustling as they hit the floor. “W-what was that? Did you hear that voice just now?” she asked, terrified.

“Voice? No, I… didn’t hear anything. Are you sure you heard someone?”

Suddenly, Blaire stood in the entryway of the Medbay, wrapping up an online meeting. “How’s everything going?”

“Ah. You must’ve heard Blaire,” Alph said, making note of the flurry of voices on the other end of his device. “No need to worry!”

He wished he could take his own advice. Easing Anli’s nerves was no easy task, and he knew what she’d supposedly heard was not Blaire. This was concerning for two reasons: one, she was not running a fever and her brain scans came back clean. She wasn’t schizophrenic which meant the voice wasn’t attributed to anything neural. Two, no one had any answers to Anli’s symptoms—there was no way to determine whether “voices” were a symptom or disease progression.

Blaire finally ended the meeting, still hanging onto the device in his hand. He watched as Alph tried to unsuccessfully coax Anli back into the bed, still skittish from whatever she had heard. He motioned for Alph to meet him in the hall, out of earshot, but close enough to keep an eye on her.

“I can’t take her with me if she’s like this,” Blaire said, watching as Anli attempted to calm herself down. “What did you find out?”

Alph leaned against the wall, stuffing his hands in the pocket of his lab coat. “Nothing good, Blaire. No one knows what this thing is or how to even begin treating it, yet. Other than hearing voices in her head, her condition has improved.”

“What are the voices saying?”

“Hell if I know,” he said in a harsh whisper. “I’ve been trying to get her to settle down since before you showed up! Dude, this thing is like some kind of hybrid bacteria-virus-fungi thing, yet it’s entirely its own being. Do you have any reports from the surface at all, anything of use, because I’m stumped?”

Blaire thought on the question for a moment before responding. “Honestly, nothing that would be of help here. Earth’s resources are limited which is why I can’t wait for her any longer.”

Alph’s voice grew even quieter. “You don’t think this has anything to do with the anti-aging serum, do you? It takes a shitload of rare-Earth minerals to make. Supplies have been dwindling as of late…”

“I know what you’re getting at, but no. I realize Anli is talented, and she was indeed in line for a promotion, but I don’t think she’s faking this.”

“That’s actually not what I was getting at. Remember the sample you gave me? When you first brought her here? The same test vials used to identify known or unknown organic substances, in Anli’s case, disease, are made from the same anti-aging serums.”

Blaire raised an eyebrow. “Are you saying there’s a connection between the two?”

“Follow me to my office for a minute. I was playing around with some stuff and, well… You’ll just have to see it.” Blaire was already way ahead of him. “As hasty as ever,” he smiled.

The dimly lit office was small but well-furnished. Several photos hung on the tan walls, likely family photos. Stacks of books and papers were mounted in every corner of the room, ranging from extensive medical essays to books about pandemics and plagues. A dark, oak desk stood out most amongst the office’s décor, also littered with papers and empty glass vials. The desk chair was a dark leather, letting out of a soft shhh when sat in; it was covered in a thin layer of dust and the seat was filled with papers and boxes of various medical supplies. Clearly, it hadn’t been sat in for some time.

“Wow. I’m surprised your desk is oak. Materials like that are hard to find since the Earth is practically one giant wasteland now,” Blaire whistled, rapping his knuckles on a clutter-free corner.

Alph walked in behind him, kicking empty boxes around as he made his way to a small shelf mounted behind his desk. It was the one piece of furniture that stood out like a sore thumb; it looked like it had been tacked together with various kinds of glue and pinned to the wall with stripped screws. Like everything else, it was also coated in a fine layer of dust, yet it was somehow the cleanest part of the entire office.

He carefully removed two glass vials: one of a similar blue liquid to what Blaire had used in Anli’s room and another of an amber-like color. “The amber vial is the anti-aging serum we were discussing. The blue vial is, well, you already know. Watch carefully.”

He tipped the amber vial, allowing a trace amount to spill into the blue one. Several seconds passed before it reacted, bubbling, and foaming over the edge. The reaction was nearly identical to the one Blaire had received two weeks ago.

“How did you discover this?” Blaire was stunned. “The serum is given to all children as soon as they board any Lagrange ship, but if there’s something in the serum, why is it only just now reacting?”

Alph shook his head. “Before we get ahead of ourselves, I don’t think the serum is the cause for whatever she contracted or why she’s ill, but there’s clearly some connection somehow.”

Given the influx of new information, Blaire decided to relay what he knew of Anli’s condition so far. “I guess I’ll let you in on our little secret, then,” he said. “The voice inside her head is clearly sentient. It can think and it’s aware of everything that goes on around her.”

“Ayo? Are you for real right now?” Alph shivered. “So, it can see us when we’re in her field of vision… But why didn’t I see anything on any of her scans? Just where exactly is this thing hiding?”

“That’s a great question. Unfortunately, I don’t have the slightest idea how to answer it. We need to operate under the assumption that it watches every move we make.” Concern grew in his voice. “To make matters worse, it consumes her memories, from what she’s told me.”

“I don’t suppose you’d like to…”

“Put her through a trial run?” Blaire finished.

“Damn, it’s great when you know what I’m thinking. This is why we’re friends.” Alph gave Blaire a high-five. “You can take the lead, though. I’ll monitor her vitals to see if there any unusual fluctuations that might indicate where this thing is hiding.”

“By the way, what are we calling this? We can’t call it a ‘thing’ forever,” Blaire shrugged, “and it might give Anli a little comfort if we can give it some sort of preliminary distinction.”

Alph wiped the two vials off before replacing them on the shelf. “Considering everything you’ve told me and the little experiment with the vials—”

A loud crash came from the Medbay, causing Alph and Blaire to jump. They stared at each other for what seemed like an eternal second before rushing into the main room. Anli had managed to flip her bed over, ripping medical equipment from the wall in a fit of confusion and frustration.

“Ahhhh! Get out of my head!” she screamed. IV tubes were wrapped around her arms, the needles digging further into her skin. “I want to go home! I don’t belong here!”

“I’m going in,” Blaire said without hesitation. “We can’t calm her down from out here. From what we know so far, I don’t think she’s infectious.”

“Blaire—”

“She’s delusional, Alph! Someone has to calm her down before she hurts herself.”

Blaire swiped Alph’s keycard and pressed it against the Quarantine Room scanner. The door hissed open as Anli continued thrashing about. Carefully, he approached her, maneuvering around fallen trays of medical equipment and strewn bed covers.

“Anli,” he said softly, “calm down. It isn’t real. Just listen to my voice.”

If the thing inside her really could see everything she did, there was no better time to test his theory than now, but he needed to get the needles out of her arms first. With a quickstep, he wrapped his arms around Anli and hugged her tight.

“Anli, it’s me, Blaire. Calm… down. It’s all in your head,” he soothed. “You have IV needles digging into your arms and we need to pull them out, okay?”

Tears streamed down Anli’s face. Her eyes looked distant as she stared off into space, but her body recognized Blaire’s embrace. He could feel her heart begin to slow, retreating from its tirade against her ribcage.

Without warning, her legs gave out as she nearly crumpled to the floor. She blinked several times, slowly regaining awareness. “Blaire?” she said weakly. “I guess I’m not going with you now, am I?”

“We’ll address that later. For now, I need you to just relax. I’m going to take the IVs out of your arms. They dug in while you were moving around.”

“Ok,” she said, closing her eyes, “but I think I’m gonna take a nap…” Her head fell against Blaire’s shoulder. She was asleep before he could respond. He heaved a sigh of relief.

“Alph, how do I pull these things out?” he called.

“Slowly. Apply pressure and wrap the insertion point with a bandage so the blood clots.”

With a little effort, he removed the first needle with ease. Her other arm, however, was a different story. The needle was buried, askew just beneath the skin; the IV tubing was awkwardly bent and ready to separate from the parent needle.

“You really got yourself into one of a hell mess, didn’t you, Anli?” He turned his head around to face Alph. “The needle and IV tube are about to separate. I’m no doctor, but if we lose the needle in her arm, that’s probably not a good thing. Either come in here and help me or find me something to get this thing out.”

“You two are such a hassle, I swear,” he mumbled, still standing outside. “Just pinch the arm and force the needle back through the injection site like you would restring the drawstrings on a hoodie,” he said. “You only need enough needle to show to grab it and then you can pull it out the rest of the way.”

Blaire was already on it, forcing the thin piece of metal to retreat. A small splatter of blood dotted his cheek, but the needle was out. He wiped his face off… and was presented with an unfamiliar scene: he stood in the middle of a desert as sand blasted his skin in conjunction with the scorching sun overhead.

He shielded his face with his hand, squinting in the broad daylight. “How the hell did I get here? Wasn’t I just in the Medbay?”

He climbed to the top of a nearby dune only to be greeted with an endless sea of sand. The wind would occasionally ease enough he’d catch a glimpse of something on the horizon—probably some kind of mirage from the heat’s refraction of the air. Regardless, there was no plausible explanation for the sudden change in venue.

You are an interesting one.

Blaire did a three-sixty only to find himself alone. Putting two and two together, he decided to test a theory. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet the thing that’s been giving my best friend such a hard time,” he said. “Let’s not waste any time here. What is it that you want?”

Perceptive. Why is it that I cannot seem to infect you as well?

“Heh. So, I am talking to this thing after all.” He checked a mental “Theory Tested” box before taking a moment to ponder the question. “I think, since you can’t infect me, we’re going to have a little chat,” he chided. “What is it you want with Anli?”

An eerie silence hung in the air before he received a reply. “I want her memories. All of them. I hunger for such succulence.

“And what happens if I manage to root you out before that happens?” He didn’t pull any punches; he needed to know what exactly this thing was capable of.

You threaten me with such impossibilities,” it said. “You are playing with fire, human. I have already unleashed a plague upon your kind. The suffering will be immeasurable.”

Blaire stuck his hands in his pockets and pursed his lips. “You know what I think about that? I think you’re full of it. While we’re at it, why don’t you show yourself. What are you, anyways? Some ugly little microbe I could wash away with a little water?”

If he could manage to evoke some kind of emotion out of whatever this thing was, he could string it along. The only way to get the answers he needed was to hold conversation, but he knew if it couldn’t infect him, their time together would be short. He had to glean as much information as possible before he was whisked back to reality. Boundless questions pervaded his mind: “Is there more of this thing? How does it infect the host? Where did it come from?”

You pester me with such impotence,” it said. Your human friend has a choice to make and the more you berate me with your unabated questions, the less time she has as herself.

It seemed disinterested in establishing a parasitic relationship with anyone other than Anli. However, if contact with the infected host’s blood was made, it could jump hosts. “Or is it more like it can inhabit multiple hosts at a time? And what is it about Anli’s memories that hold such value to this thing?” he pondered.

“Tell me, what is it you like about Anli’s memories so much? Though, I should warn you: I don’t really care what your end goal is. You do not have the free reign over her life that you think you do. You can infect as many people as you like, but your time is short and I’m not playing.”

I didn’t say it was I that would be the plague I told you of. If you desire the answer to your question, you should talk to your friend. She harbors a secret she’s afraid to tell you,” it taunted. “Once she is a mere shell, I will have accomplished what I came to do.”

“Yeah? And what’s that?”

The sand turned to a fiery orange as the sun began to set in the sky. Blaire gazed out onto the horizon again, this time receiving a much clearer image of what laid beyond the shifting scenery. The angle of the sun’s rays was just low enough to cast a luminous glow across the desert as they bounced off the ruins of a crumbling city… made entirely of glass.

Goodbye, Blaire. Consider this meeting a warning. If you intervene further, you will regret it.”

“Oh, so we’re parting ways here, huh? Let me repay the favor, then.” His voice grew deep. He spoke slowly. “I will find you, destroy you, and trace your origins back to wherever you came from. I will not stop.” He took a deep breath. “You can try as you might, but you will never outsmart the human mind. So, if we ever meet again, be ready for a fight.”

The microbe let out a sound, resembling something between a shriek and a humorous laugh. “I like you, human. It’s a shame I won’t get to hollow you out like I will your friend.

“Looks like it’s a race to the finish, then,” he said as the desert melted away like oil on canvas. “You better be ready, you abhorrence.”

Blaire opened his eyes, momentarily confused. He was back in the Medbay, still holding Anli as if time had stood still in his apparent absence. He looked down at his feet, shoes specked with sand. “So, it was real,” he whispered to himself. “Then that means, the city I saw—”

“Earth to Blaire,” Alph shouted. “Hello-o-o?”

“Alph, I’m departing first thing in the morning,” he shouted over his shoulder. “Believe it or not, I have a lead and it came straight from the source.”

“Did you just have a conversation with that thing?” Alph took a cautious step back.

“Sure did! Boy, do I have some off-brand stuff to fill you in on or what. Although,” he picked up an empty metal tray, “maybe we should straighten this place up first. Anli’s going to need a place to stay; I’m making the final call on her until this ordeal is resolved.”

“Great.” Alph rolled his eyes.

“Look. All you need to know right now is that infection can only occur when contact is made with the blood of the infected person.”

“And you know that because?”

“Some of Anli’s blood hit my check after I removed the IV needle.” He recounted the conversation he had with the microbe and the city of glass in the sunset. “It’s only a hunch for now, but I don’t think the meteorite will be my first stop, after all.” He leaned Anli against the wall as Alph, reluctantly, helped him tidy the room. “Though, I’ll admit I don’t know why it couldn’t infect me,” he mumbled to himself.

“City of glass,” Alph repeated aloud. “You don’t think it’s from the people who were left behind on Earth after the desertification, do you? I’ve heard stories they would do these horrific experiments on people.”

“That’s why I’m headed there first. Supposedly, as the stories go, they were trying to find ways to forcefully get the human body to adapt to the rapid changes in the environment. People were given stem cell injections that forced the body’s cells to divide, trying to grow new cells that were more adaptable. Unfortunately, the process was painful and led to incurable genetic ailments.”

Alph walked over to Anli, still asleep. “Man, I still think this is a bad idea, you know, but I guess I can’t stop you. To think this girl is the reason for such an uproar…”

“You’ll be taking care of her in my absence, just so you know,” he grinned, lifting Anli from the floor and back onto the bed. “Only Commander Wrait and the Medbay Director know about this right now—let’s keep it that way.” He looked Alph in the eyes.

Alph laughed. “Man, do I have the best luck ever or what?”

“Hey, if it’s any consolation, I’ll be the one dealing with the actual viral portion of this whole thing. You just have to keep your mouth shut and make sure you don’t come into contact with her blood.” He gave Alph a pat on the back.

“Am I being compensated for this in some way?” Blaire gave him a smug smile. “Forget I even asked,” he said, holding his hands up. “You’re scheming something, and I want none of whatever it is!”

“Aww. Now, don’t be like that, bro. How about I take you for a spin in my new ATR on the surface?”

Alph turned pale. “Sure, if I wanted to empty the contents of my stomach onto the ground.,” he groaned. “You know I just love those All-Terrain Rovers…”

“That’s the spirit!”