Thursday, March 09, 2006

Egyptology & writing challenges, plus an excerpt from Light Play!

Egyptology! I'm studying 18th dynasty Egypt. We're talking a unified Egypt, the Valley of the Kings, and research through real books...

That research aspect - the real stuff of archaeologists - is one of the most valuable things about this class. Like most people, I've become accustomed to surfing my way through my research. Granted, you need to be wary of your sources, because erroneous info can be repeated online ad infinitum, with every copy and paste, but the internet's still a fantastic resource.

However, most of the subjects we're researching haven't made it online - they're in translations of the original hieroglyphs. Many of them are things like diplomatic documents, construction manifests...that kind of thing. I'm going to be visiting crusty tomes (well, maybe not so crusty, but I like the description!) to view translations.

I'm learning to read hieroglyphics, too, in another class. I thought Mandarin was difficult! I seemed to have forgotten that this was Egypt's written language, complete with grammar, adverbial clauses, and prepositional phrases. I think I believed that the walls of the temples would be inscribed with simple "Here lies King Tut..." stela, instead of complex documents depicting the departed's life achievements.

On writing:
I have a mission to accomplish - 55,000 words in the next 4 weeks. Not at all impossible, but difficult, given the work load I'm carrying. Still, this is my first romance - oh, I know I wrote ErRatic, but let's face it, it's more a SF suspense with romantic elements - but this one, I'm striving to make ROMANTIC. 55,000 words may not come easily in an unfamiliar genre...

There's an old saying: "Write what you know". To some extent, that's true, but if you don't know something, do the research and study to acquire it. There's no excuse for limiting your topics because you're unfamiliar with it. A better approach might be, "Write what you'd like to read". That's what I've always done, but it doesn't pay the bills. I'm only now - after 24 novels - attempting to write "for a market". The challenge will be to do this new genre justice. I really feel an author has an obligation to give the reader his/her money's worth.

I'll leave you with an excerpt. Have a great week!

Cheers,
ND
N. D. Hansen-Hill
http://www.fictionwise.com/ebooks/NDHansen-Hillebooks.htm (all my EBOOKS...except Gilded Folly)
http://www.lulu.com/NDHansen-Hill (my PAPERBACKS)
http://www.NDHansen-Hill.com (my website)
http://www.cerridwenpress.com/productpage.asp?ISBN=1-4199-0409-4 (Gilded Folly)

Excerpt:

LIGHT PLAY (a Franklin Ebook Award nominee!)
PAPERBACK http://www.lulu.com/content/83662
EBOOK http://www.fictionwise.com/ebooks/eBook4094.htm

Prologue

The woman stood quietly at the window, gazing unseeing at the day’s yellow glare. A sudden jolt stirred her from an unnatural stillness, and she turned away with a swift gasp of fear. "What next?" she wondered aloud.

Her dash from the room was halted by the recoiling of the cat, which cowered, hissing, near her feet.

The woman’s lips creased in a self-deprecating smile. "Damned cat," she whispered, recalling yesterday’s words. "Which of us is damned now?"

The feline slunk away—hiding its tomcat’s boldness beneath spiky hair and flattened ears.

Angry with the cat’s reaction, the woman moved swiftly toward the far wall.

The cat—hidden now beneath a chair—dared a backwards glance, just in time to see the human figure drift through the solid plastered wood partition. He chased her departure with a bold yowl.

The walls echoed his cry, seeming to hold it for just a second too long. When it came back to his ears, the distorted wailing was no longer alone, but held the lonely misery of a human’s despairing sigh.


Chapter One



"Ho, Rick!"

Rick could hear Cole’s footsteps thudding up the hall.

"Wanna shoot a few?" Cole’s shouts were interspersed with the pounding rhythm of a basketball.

Rick grinned, glanced at the pile of papers he had yet to read, and shook his head. "Go away. I’m busy," he yelled back.

Cole, certain now that Rick was home, jogged into the room. Rick was determinedly reading through some article—highlighting what must have been—for him—particularly edifying passages. "That’s not busy—" Cole argued. He threw the ball at Rick’s chair. It missed, rebounding instead off Rick’s arm, and onto his Coke can. "Now, you’ll be busy," Cole muttered, as he watched the sticky liquid flow towards Rick’s stack of journals.

"Dammit, Cole!" Rick looked around for something to mop up the spill.

Cole pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket and threw it to his friend.

Rick looked at it dubiously. "Got any forceps?" He took the cloth by the corner, and dropped it in the path of the runaway Coke.

Cole laughed. "If it sticks, it won’t be because of the Coke—"

"If it sticks, I’ll use your face to scrape it off."

"If you had more dirty clothes laying around, I wouldn’t have to donate my stuff to the cause."

"Go away. I’m trying to concentrate."

"Why? Because you’re on some fool fungus hunt?" Cole reached over, and flipped through the pages of the article Rick was trying to read. "What is this, anyway? ‘Protein synthesis during spore formation in Aspergillus’? I hate to tell you this, Rick, but I think your brain is warped."

Rick gave him a shove. "At least with me, it stops at my brain."

"You should get a burglar alarm—"

Rick interrupted him. "To keep out unwelcome guests?"

Cole grinned, then grew serious. "I mean it, Rick. Half the time, you don’t even remember to lock your door."

Rick shrugged. "Then, what’s the point? I’d probably forget to set the alarm, too." He gestured at the stacks of books and journals. "What are they going to steal? My computer?" he asked seriously. "I’m insured, and all my files are backed up at the lab."

"What about your TV?" Rick shook his head. Cole tried again. "Your stereo?"

"Old. They wouldn’t be able to unload it."

Cole grinned. "What about you? Isn’t any of that so-called science worth something?"

"Only if you’re in horticulture." Rick jumped up and plopped his journal on to the floor. Creeping to the window, he took a quick, guarded look outside, then flattened himself against the wall. "My God, you’re right!" he whispered loudly, infusing horror into his voice. "The farmers—they’re massing!" He fumbled with the cord to the drapes, as though his fingers were slippery with sweat. With a grand gesture, he yanked it, while the rod squeaked in protest. Dropping to his knees, he wiped his brow, and said dramatically, "I think we’re safe now!"

Cole threw the basketball at him, and missed again—this time knocking over a stack of photocopied articles.

Rick looked at the mess and sighed. "I give up," he said. He swooped up the basketball, and shoved Cole ahead of him out of the room. "Someone’s got to teach you some basketball, and it might as well be me."

*

I’m too damn tired for this. Dark spots in the room shivered and writhed, under the doubly potent assault of fatigue and nerves. Daniel Vizar found his eyes shifting again and again to those elusive centres of activity. Beneath his brooding self-derision, there lay a very real fear. Relax, Danny Boy, he told himself. Aberrant genes don’t lurk.

Justin Sacchara’s entry was noisy. Shaking hands restlessly jiggled his keys, and he slammed the door unnecessarily loudly in his efforts to ensure it was fully closed.

Daniel didn’t know whether to be relieved by Sacchara’s company, or annoyed by the man’s irritating nervousness that rubbed so gratingly against his own.

It didn’t take him long to decide. Go to hell, Justin, Daniel thought. He sensed the slight, but unquestionably envious, resentment that was always part of Justin Sacchara’s personality in this office. The resentment that always triggered Vizar’s own feelings of guilt at the plushness of his surroundings. The reaction bothered him—especially now, when he had so many other things to worry about. His claims to all this re-emphasised just how much responsibility sat on his shoulders. Daniel Vizar would have relinquished the lot right now for just one moment of unburdened peace.

He was over-reacting, and it didn’t take him long to realise it. Sacchara didn’t give a damn about their surroundings—his quick glance around the room was merely to reassure himself that they were alone.

Guilt and fear were obviously weighing heavily on Sacchara’s shoulders as well, and Daniel guessed the other man was fighting a losing battle against his doubts regarding their work. Vizar thought back to the days when his own personal convictions had raised havoc with his work habits. It had taken years before the guilt associated with his job had faded—carefully suppressed by the firm conviction that he was actively moulding the future.

"What the hell are we going to do?" When Justin Sacchara finally spoke, his voice was almost strident. Vizar could see the panic in his dilated eyes; in the sweat glistening on the other man’s brow.

"Calm down, for crissakes! You look like you need a fix!"

"You familiar with junkies, Vizar?" Sacchara retorted nastily. "Should we add them to your list of would-be consumers?"

Vizar sat down behind the desk, and dropped his face into his hands. "There’s got to be a way out of this, Justin. None of this should have happened." His words were earnest. "Caroline just—" He left it hanging.

"Caroline just opted for a little self-experimentation."

"Not exactly," Daniel muttered.

Sacchara stopped his pacing and whirled to face the other man. "What do you mean?" he asked incredulously. "What’s this ‘not exactly’?"

"It got away from her." Vizar’s eyes were grim as he corrected himself. "Into her."

"Jesus Christ!" There was whispered horror in the words. "How?"

Daniel Vizar shrugged. "I don’t know. I tried to decipher her notes, but they’re encoded." He gave a grim smile. "I don’t think Caro trusted us."

Sacchara started to pace again. "So you’re saying there might be some of these rogue genes running around her lab? Waiting to do this to someone else?" He glanced at Vizar. "Do we even know the method of acquisition? What vectors she was using?"

Vizar shook his head. "We can establish some parameters, and we’ve locked down the lab against contamination."

"Not good enough—" Sacchara began.

"You’re right," Vizar agreed. "If it’s airborne, we might still be in trouble."

Something in the other man’s tone made Sacchara look at him hopefully. "But you don’t think so—" Vizar’s smile was strained, but Sacchara read what he wanted to see. "So it’s a one-off. A singular event." Sacchara rubbed tense fingers across his unshaven chin. "Unless Caro dies." He dropped into a chair, and looked at Vizar with tense eyes. "Are we going to be able to put this behind us?"

Vizar met his inquiry squarely. "No," he replied firmly.

"Why the hell not? Are you worried about the doctor? The technicians?"

Vizar shook his head. "Nobody knows enough to put it all together, Justin."

"Then why?" The strain was back in Sacchara’s voice.

Daniel Vizar shook his head in disbelief. There were times when Sacchara could be really obtuse. "Because, Justin—for better or worse—Caroline’s damned procedure worked."

*

Cole did a body builder’s flex, showing off the line of sweat staining his T-shirt. "It all goes to show you," he began. He tried to spin the ball on the tip of his finger—only to have it wobble off and bounce on to Rick’s foot.

"What?" Rick grunted, trying to rub his big toe through the fabric of his shoe. "That the hoop’s only slightly bigger than the hole in your head?"

"You’re just hacked off because you were going to refine my game, and I beat your tail off—"

"Just because you can push someone around on the court, doesn’t mean you win—"

"Sure it does," Cole replied casually. "I didn’t score, but I didn’t let you score either—"

"What about that one I sank at the beginning?"

"When we were warming up? Doesn’t count."

"’Warming up’ my ass—"

"I don’t give a damn about your ass, but mine’s getting cold." Cole grinned. "Want to come over to watch the game?"

"What game?"

"Typical. Don’t you ever keep on top of anything?"

Rick grinned. "Not recently. Or a-breast of it either—"

It was an old joke. "There’s this girl—"

"No, and no, and no."

"But—"

"No," Rick said firmly. "If you like her so much, you take her out."

"I tried," Cole said mournfully. "She turned me down."

Rick grinned. "In that case, maybe I would like to meet her. At least she’s selective."

*

It was happening again, and Caroline Denaro had no way of stopping it. Vaguely, in her somnolent state, she was aware of her existence, in some subconscious world far from the tubes and respirator that were keeping her alive. In that dim world she was at least able to find peace.

It was now—at times like this—when the separation was about to happen—that Caroline felt the agony. Screams that never brought help. Torture that went on and on and on.

None of it was physical. She could have borne it better if she could have rid herself of it by chopping off a leg, or surrendering an organ. No, it was the uncertainty of eternity that ripped at her. The knowledge that she wasn’t dead, yet had no prayer for living. The ever-present danger that her body wouldn’t accept her back.

She’d tried to puzzle it out—to determine where the gene had come from that could make the transition from body to out-of-body so easy to accomplish. The one that could turn a normal existence into a dual one. The one that could forever lay to rest any doubts about the human soul.

"It must have been the meristematic genes," she whispered, wondering by what means she could hear her own voice—all accomplished without the aid of a larynx, or those lovely, tiny bones of the inner ear. "Something about my body chemistry changed them. Gave them a purpose they were never meant to have. God!" she cried out, all the while wondering how a concerned deity could allow someone to suffer like this, "Please, God! Find a way to get me back! To make me whole again!"

*

They were tearing through the quiet streets at Cole’s customary gravel-spinning speed before Cole spoke again. "Hey, Rick," he said, a little too casually. "While we’re out, what d’you say we go by the house I want to rent?"

"I knew it!"

"Knew what?"

"That once I left the house I’d never get back to work. I need to finish that report by Monday, Cole."

"That’s almost forty hours away. Plenty of time." He added reasonably, "You said you’d help me move in. How’re you going to do that if you don’t know where it is? Don’t you even want to see what you’re letting yourself in for?"

Rick replied, just as reasonably, "Sure, I want to see it. I just don’t want to see it right now—"

"Great!" Cole replied, turning into the driveway of a newer stucco Spanish-style residence. "This is it!"

I should’ve known I was wasting my breath. But, in spite of his irritation, Rick couldn’t help being impressed. "Nice place!" Then he remembered what Cole had said about the rent. "Why is it so cheap?" he asked curiously.

"It’s owned by some corporation. They usually house their own people here, but for some reason, it’s come up empty." Cole grinned. "I guess they’re worried about vandalism. They think I’ll keep out ‘undesirable elements’."

"They figured once you were in, there wouldn’t be room for any more?" Rick asked innocently. "What corporation did you manage to mislead?"

Cole pulled a tattered business card out of his ashtray. Everything in Cole’s car tended to get tattered. "Genetechnic Industries—"

Rick snatched the card out of his hand. "Genetechnic! They’re headliners in the gene machine market."

"Didn’t I tell you you’d like this place?" Cole pulled a tagged key out of his pocket.

Rick looked at it. "You had this all planned, didn’t you?"

Cole shrugged. "Sure." He pushed open the door, and gestured at the interior. "This place is me—"

"Vacant?" Rick interrupted, grinning.

"No—great looks, flash exterior—"

Rick poked his head into the stark entryway. "Any piles of bullshit in there?"

*

It was no good. God wasn’t listening. Caro fled, unable to endure the sight of her empty body poised on the edge of non-existence.

She drifted through the halls of the facility, searching for Tom or Sutte, the only people who understood her research enough to do something to correct it. If she could locate one of them, she’d find a way to make them acknowledge her—just as she had with the cat. She’d fought hard to develop some physical presence—so that she could access her lab book and research notes, still hidden in her former residence. Without them, no one would have a hope of deciphering the route her research had taken.

When she’d hidden her lab notes, she’d felt slightly paranoid, but she had to admit that the fear of industrial theft wasn’t her real motivation. Caro knew her successes were big, and probably worth a helluva lot more than she was being paid. Encryption was a small effort for what could have eventuated into a large reward.

Caro thought of the greed and recognition that were so important to her then. It took an incorporeal existence to put me in my place, she thought. Religious fervour arriving on the tail of desperation. Some things about her hadn’t changed, however. I’d do anything—say anything—to get myself out of this non-living hell—


*

The thud was muffled, but it still sounded loud in the empty room. "Shit! What was that?" Cole was feeling jumpy, and he couldn’t figure out why. Maybe it’s just because I want Rick to be as impressed with this place as I am. Impressing Rick—at least in this small respect—was important to him. And a little twinge of envy on his part wouldn’t hurt either.

He knew that Rick had worked hard to become a scientist, but sometimes Cole got a little sick of it when Rick was introduced as Dr. Richard Lockmann. Somehow, he couldn’t equate his old friend with the fancy title. And, his work ain’t all that fancy either. Cole couldn’t imagine working with fungus and bacteria all day, any more than he guessed Rick could imagine doing marketing.

Rick never expected to be called by his title, and he hated it when Cole ribbed him about it. Cole used to ridicule Rick’s use of dung as a model substrate for fungal growth, and had taken to calling him "Dr. Dung." The name had stuck, and Cole still used it whenever he thought Rick was getting too aware of his title.

"Well, what do you think, Dr. Dung?"

"Unfair. I haven’t rubbed your nose in my Ph.D. for at least a week." Rick squatted down and wriggled his fingers. "Here, Cat—" When the cat slunk across the floor to sit by his feet, Rick picked him up and rubbed the top of his head. "Here’s your intruder. There’s probably a window open."

Cole nodded, reached over and gave the cat a quick scritch on its belly. The cat promptly tried to bite his hand. Cole chuckled, and scritched its belly again, deftly avoiding the claws.

"Quit bugging the cat. Are you going to show me this architect’s delusion, or do I have to show myself?"

"I’ll give you the tour, as long as you remind me to lock that window before we leave. I don’t want any vandals ripping apart my little hi-tech lovenest." He rubbed his hands together in anticipation. "Wait till I get my furniture in here."

Rick snorted with laughter. "By that do you mean your Sega Megadrive, or your model railroads? You’ve heard of ‘Babes in Toyland’? Wait till the ladies get a load of you: ‘Toys in Babeland’."

Cole grinned. "You wouldn’t believe how a hot arcade game can put ‘em in the mood."

Rick grabbed his shirt and gave him a shove. "Lead on, Don Juan. Next thing you’ll be telling me is how they toggle your joystick—"

*

On a previous expedition, she’d discovered that her lab was sealed—locked down against the possibility of her little toxin escaping into the environment.

God damn it! she’d sworn at the time. How can they fix me if they’re not even trying to find out what went wrong?

She’d been there when Vizar and Sacchara had had their little meeting. She knew that Vizar wanted someone to carry on where she’d left off—because, as little as they understood the mechanics of it, in Vizar’s estimation her procedure had worked. That means he must see some dollars and cents value to it, she reasoned. It didn’t matter to him what price she’d had to pay.

She’d even tried to approach Vizar personally, to demand action. The most she’d been able to do was squawk out a raspy "Help me!", which now seemed to her to have been overly melodramatic. Maybe a "Do it, or else" would have worked better with Vizar. He’d been so startled, all he’d been able to do was nod his head, which she’d optimistically taken for agreement.

Why don’t they get on with it? she wondered. She was terrified that they’d decide to terminate her body instead: to destroy any incriminating evidence. Knowing Vizar and Sacchara as she did now—after seeing the way they conducted business when no one else was present—she had no false impressions any longer about the personalities that ran Genetechnic. Most people viewed the future with a hint of awe—Vizar viewed it with an eye to control, even ownership. Control what went into the genetic make-up of a being, and you also managed its strengths, and its limitations. Vizar was playing at some levels that not even his closest cohort, Sacchara, knew about. Levels Caro had never suspected her research could sink to.

What if they were to destroy her body, during one of those times when her being was somewhere else? What would happen to me then?

At this point, she would welcome death, but she had the horrifying suspicion that, even if her inner self was in residence, the very act of her body dying would be enough to trigger another one of these little jaunts. Not in the normal fashion of the soul leaving the body, to travel away on those white lights death-freaks were always harping about, but on one of these empty wanderings, which would leave her without any hint of future: heaven, hell, purgatory—whatever was beyond.

*

Rick whistled. The cat, startled, jumped out of his arms. Rick let it go. "This place is incredible, Cole." He was looking up at the high ceilings, and large windows. "With all this light, it’d be a great place to work—" Rick was thinking about the poor visibility in his own, artificially-lighted lab.

"Uh-uh. No fungus is going to wriggle its slimy way in here." Cole stepped over and fiddled with a switch on the wall. "Wait till you see this." A fountain, in the middle of a tiled pool of water, began to spurt streams of water.

Rick’s tone was sincere. "I’ve never seen anything like it—at least, outside of one of those architecture magazines. Congratulations, Cole."

Cole’s eyes were shining. "Yeah. Not too bad, is it?"

Rick grinned. "Not too bad at all."

*

I’m back. Caro was filled with a nearly overwhelming sense of poignancy, as she stared at the tiles where her feet had so often tread. There was that one rough tile. She could remember the cool feel of it under her bare feet—the rippling unevenness that made it different from the others. Funny how important the little things can be.


The one thing that had eluded her wayward senses was smell. Vision wasn’t a problem—only the overwhelming endlessness of it. At this point, she would have given a lot just to be able to close her eyelids, and shut out the world for a moment. It made those times of residence in her body seem almost restful.

Tactilely, she found she was able to experience far more than she would have believed possible. The key seemed to be intense focus, in order to assume some semblance of her former being, and her hopes lay in eventually gaining some ability to manipulate. Intangible as she was, she didn’t know whether she really needed her previous form: whether her arms and fingers were essential to achieving her goals. But, the thought of using any other shape—of seeing herself as a formless blob—horrified her. Even at her most detached, she couldn’t concede that much of her identity.

The soft swish and trickle of the fountain drew her attention. Someone must be here. The fountain was on a timer, and someone had activated it. She wondered who it was.

They’d been quick enough to empty her house. It went along with the fiction they were spreading—the one about her sabbatical abroad. It had also given them an excuse to search the structure for her notes. She had no doubt that, wherever her furniture had ended up, it was getting the same treatment.

If the intruder was that dipshit real estate agent, then Caro knew she was wasting her time. All she’d get out of it was the rumour that the house was occupied by something more than dust mites. Still, the idea gave her pleasure, and if they failed to rent it, it would give her the time she needed. Time to perfect her manipulation of the crude senses that were left to her. Time to learn how to regain her lab notes, and use them to her best advantage.

*

Cole was practically jogging through the upstairs rooms, in his enthusiasm to show them off. "I could even take in boarders," he said, "as long as I was discreet about it. There’s lots of extra room."

Rick tried to picture Cole being discreet, and failed. He asked, "Did you show this place to Jace yet? Or Simon?"

"Are you out of your mind? I’m not going to let Simon know until the day I move in."

Rick looked at him curiously. "Why not? Mr. Hi-Tech would think this was great."

"That’s the point. He’ll want to be my first boarder. I just want to make sure he approaches me for lodging, and not Genetechnic. He’d probably want to interrogate them on everything from how cheap the rent is, to why they’d rent such a big place to one person." He grinned.

Rick smiled. Approaching Genetechnic would be Simon’s way of expediting matters—and of double-checking the landlord.

Cole always told Simon he was a cross between a control freak, and a suspicious son-of-a-bitch. Rick agreed with Cole’s assessment, but he understood Simon’s reasons better than Cole did. Knowing what Rick did about Simon, however, it sometimes amazed him that the man put up with as much as he did from Cole. It said something for the depth of their friendship that Cole could call him names, and Simon would stand there, imperturbable as always, and take it.

Still, Cole was right about this house. It would be just like Simon to want to ensure that everything was on the level—and Cole didn’t believe in delving too deeply into lucky opportunities that just happened to fall in your lap.

"What about Jace?"

Cole snorted in disgust. "Jace is as addicted to his work as you are." He added obnoxiously, "I can almost understand it in his case. At least his patients are flesh-and-blood."

Rick ignored the jibe. "What’s that got to do with living here?"

"Too far from his work. Besides, I don’t think he’s even noticed he lives in a rat-hole. He’s not there often enough to see the rats."

Rick looked intently around a small room on the second floor. For its size, the place had numerous counters and sinks. Superior lighting, and bench-high power points. He rubbed the marks on the bench, where it was obvious a moderately heavy piece of equipment had sat. He knew there’d be similar marks in his own lab, where a PCR machine had residence.

Excited now, he inspected the rest of what he was certain had once been someone’s personal laboratory. Knowing what he was looking for helped. He found a spot that was perfect for a small autoclave, and a refrigerator-size space where a large, refrigerated, high-speed centrifuge would have been used in his own lab to isolate RNA from viruses in plant cells.

It took Cole a minute to realise he was giving his tour to himself. Impatient, he ran back in search of Rick. "Wait’ll you see—"

Rick interrupted him enthusiastically. "This was a lab, Cole! A fairly state-of-the-art one, too, for a small premises."

Cole shrugged, glanced briefly around at the counters and sinks, then up at the numerous windows. "If I can find a way to block out some of that light, it’ll make one hell of a good darkroom." He grinned and dodged out of the room, as Rick threw a wadded-up rag in his direction. Cole poked his head round the corner. "Sucker!"

*

Sacchara walked into Vizar’s office without knocking. "The real estate agent called. Some guy’s made a deposit on the house."

"In that case, I want to get a crew in there, to give it one last going-over, before he moves in. Arrange it."

Sacchara nodded. "Maybe if we’re lucky, we’ll get someone on the crew who knows what kind of stuff we’re looking for."

After he’d gone, Vizar walked over to the window, and stood there, lost in thought. He was recalling an uncomfortable encounter he’d had several days before. He muttered, "Maybe, if you’re lucky, Justin, Caroline herself will come along to show you right where she left it."

*

Someone’s in the lab. Caroline saw the stranger come running out of the room, but not before he called something to someone still within. Caroline moved intently in that direction, hopeful that one of her co-workers might finally have worked up enough enthusiasm to look for answers on his own.

*

Cole, laughing, jogged back up the hall, oblivious to what lurked behind him. He walked into the master bedroom, and decided to make his mark, so to speak, by using the master bathroom. "I’m staking my claim!" he yelled loudly to Rick.

Rick, still in the lab, heard him, grinned, and shook his head. The only part of this place he really envied Cole was this lab. The rest was modern, beautiful, but too big for his tastes. He was really happy for his friend, though. Cole had a knack of filling whatever space he went into. He’d have this one full of either people, or junk, or both, in no time at all.

Rick became aware that the light in the lab had dimmed. He glanced up at the windows, to see if some clouds had rolled in. No, the sun was still shining brightly. Rick felt a shiver of uneasiness travel down his back.

He was suddenly certain he was no longer alone in the lab. And this other presence had none of the charged momentum that he associated with Cole. Dimly, he registered the distant flush of the toilet. No, whoever was here, it wasn’t Cole.

Rick turned slowly, hesitantly. Every hair on the back of his neck stood erect, and there was gooseflesh dancing down his arms. He’d felt like this before—late at night, on a dark street in a bad area of town. He knew he was being watched.

What he saw was almost enough to make him choke. It was a woman—but not all of a woman. He’d almost made the mistake—at first—of thinking she was flesh and blood. It wasn’t until the light faded from her—in the most inconvenient places—leaving lurid visions of bone and flesh in her centre, that he realised how little she owed to the tangible. "Not much time—" she rasped. He found himself watching her lips with a kind of lurid fascination. They were so totally out of sync with her voice.

He backed up against the lab bench. He wanted to say, "Get back," but the words wouldn’t come. His throat was suddenly so terribly dry.

She drifted toward him, and Rick wanted to run. He found he couldn’t, but it wasn’t only the hard bench at his back that held him. It was the agony in the woman’s eyes—the need.

"Help me!" she begged. The effort was obviously draining her—in more ways than one. She was really beginning to lose it—her would-be flesh dissolving, in an array of exposed reddish gashes. "The meristematic genes," she rasped, loudly, and it seemed to echo in his brain. "Indeterminate. No time. My notes—here—"


One of her hands reached out toward him. Rick, his eyes wide and wild, arched away as far as he could.

*

"Rick!" Cole’s voice broke through the trance that was holding him. Rick saw Cole standing in the doorway. His face was as white as Rick knew his own must be. "Rick!" Cole screamed. "Get the hell out of there!"


*

Caroline knew she had only a moment more of tangibility. She’d watched Rick moving around the lab, with a sureness and pleasure that had mirrored her own in this place. He hadn’t shown any shock at her words—only at her delivery of them. Or, she conceded, maybe he was just so shocked by the sight of her that he didn’t even realise what she’d said. Still, he was the best hope she had. "Not dead," she tried to tell him, uncertain whether he could still hear her. "The genes—"

Frustrated at her fading being, she gathered herself together in one last frenzied burst. Focusing on her hand, she brought all her strength to that one spot—determined to let him know just how real she was.

*

Cole moved. He saw Rick arch away as far as he could, but dammit, there was nowhere for him to go. Cole made a dive at the fading phantom.

*

At the same moment, Caro lurched forward, to touch Rick’s chest. But her hand no longer had the structure of flesh and blood. In her panicky haste, she passed through Rick’s chest wall, directly into his lungs.

With a hiss, she withdrew, horrified at herself for the intrusion into another’s body; seeing herself for the first time as these strangers must see her—as a ghastly spectre to be feared and hated. With a sob she dissipated, into her invisible, intangible, out-of-body nothingness—to flee through Rick’s stiffened form, and back to where she could mourn her lost mortality alone.

*

Cole pushed himself off the floor. "Is it gone?"

Rick was silent. Cole looked over at him in concern. Rick was on his knees—one hand hanging on to the lab bench for support, the other pressed against his chest. "You okay?" Cole grabbed his arm. "Rick—talk to me. Are you okay?"


Rick nodded, and started to get up. Cole helped him. "Let’s get out of here." Rick didn’t say anything, only nodded again.

Rick’s legs were wobbly, but Cole didn’t say anything more. Rick noticed, though, that Cole walked ahead of him down the stairs, as though he thought maybe Rick might take the most direct way down—headfirst.

Once they were outside, Rick tried to act normal. The only problem was, he felt like he was looking at normal from the outside—trying to figure out exactly what the real Rick would say and do. Apparently, it was enough to satisfy Cole. The tension lines began to ease out of his face. Cole didn’t want to talk about what had just happened. Cole wanted to believe everything was okay.

Only it wasn’t. Rick’s brain was already puzzling over what the woman had said. "The meristematic genes." Only plants had meristematic cells: cells that were indeterminate, with no other function than to produce more cells. The cells they produced could express their genetic heritage in a number of ways, according to the chemical environment in which they developed. In the case of the cambial meristem, for example, xylem, phloem—even other meristematic cells—were all somehow derived out of the same genetic pattern.

It meant that, whatever genetic cocktail the woman had been whipping up, it had at least partially contained plant DNA. Plants had been genetically altered to produce mass quantities of animal products. Could she have been working on a project to make animals express some qualities of plant DNA? Rick shook his head. Was it possible? Or even likely? The results of such a project could be disastrous.

Genes can be inserted into tissues easily enough. Rick had done that kind of research himself, and successfully combined plant protoplasts with fungal cells. Was it likely that someone had gone a step further? With a single gene, or with an entire damned strand? Some life form caught between two worlds. The thought was nothing short of appalling.

I’m extrapolating. Taking one line, and what I’ve heard about Genetechnic, and making far more of it than I should.

But, the woman must have been a Genetechnic worker—she lived in a Genetechnic-owned building, and was obviously familiar with science. Particularly plant science, he thought, remembering her words.

And, he recalled, she sought me out in the lab.


Rick glanced over at Cole, just in time to catch Cole looking at him.

Cole asked casually, "What do you say we go by Jason’s?" Cole might joke about his dedication, but he knew Jace was a damn good doctor.

Do I look that bad? Rick, embarrassed, forced a smile, and tried to act casual about the whole thing. It wasn’t easy. "Can’t today, Cole. I have work to do," he mumbled. He saw Cole glance at him again, then frown. Rick could guess the reason why. Cole had his colour back, but Rick had the feeling he was still looking pasty—right down to his lips.

Rick had a strong feeling about something else. Cole was sure they’d seen a ghost, and any silence on his part was probably disappointment that his lovenest had come with a few rotten eggs. A ghost wasn’t exactly a welcome bedfellow—female or not.

But, the lady hadn’t touched him. Cole hadn’t had the little pleasure of feeling his flesh probed by those icy hands. She also hadn’t asked Cole for help. Cole might be able to sleep tonight.

But Rick knew he wouldn’t. Not a chance. Not when he was sure she’d worked for Genetechnic. Not when she’d asked him for help. Not when he was certain, as impossible as it seemed, that the lady was still alive. And that her time was running out.

*

Cole picked up the phone. "Calloway domicile. Head domiciliac speaking."

Jason laughed. "I was wondering if you wanted to stop by tonight. We can watch the game at my place."

"Does this mean you’re actually taking a night off?"

"Sure thing. Simon’s coming, too."

"What about Rick?"

"I was going to ask you the same thing. Where is Rick, anyway?" Jason sounded puzzled. "I’ve been leaving messages for him all week. Simon said he hasn’t talked to him, either."

Cole was surprised. "Usually I see Rick on the weekends, but I’ve been kind of busy."

"Yeah," Jace said. "Simon told me about Gena. Is this one serious?"

"Not likely," Cole replied, but his mind was still on Rick’s absence. If Cole didn’t go over to Rick’s, Rick usually made a point of stopping by. "It has been a while, hasn’t it?"

It took Jason a second to realise they were talking about Rick again. "Maybe he’s found himself a ‘Gena’. Hey—you never know—Daphne might’ve turned up on his doorstep."

"Daphne only exists inside his computer," Cole said, a little derisively. "His e-mail girlfriend’s probably fat and fifty. He should go for one he can get his hands on."

"Is that what you use?"

Cole chuckled. "It’s not the part they like best, but it’s a start." He was silent for a moment, then said abruptly, "I wonder what maggot he’s got in his brain this time."

"You know how he gets when he’s working on something—"

"Maybe," Cole said, suddenly worried. "But remember how pissed off I was when Rick didn’t help me move? He didn’t bother to call, so I thought he’d just forgotten."

Cole could hear the smile in Jason’s voice. "Typical. Lost in his research, was he?"

"Probably. But he’s still not picking up his messages. Are you sure that you and Simon haven’t heard from him?"

"It’s only been a couple of weeks."

"Yeah, but it’s not like Rick. I tried his work—oh—over a week ago. He was off on sick leave that day. I never got around to ringing back." Cole added regretfully, "I thought he was home with the flu. Maybe I should have checked."

"Maybe I should pay him a visit."

Cole didn’t like the professional tone to Jason’s voice. "No way, Jace. If you show up there, acting all doctor-like, you’ll make him feel like a fool."

"Thanks," Jason replied sarcastically.

"Think about it, Jace. Rick must have realised by now that I’ve already moved, and that he screwed up." A new thought occurred to him. "Hell, I bet he doesn’t even know where to find me now. The last thing he knew I was moving into that mausoleum." The architectural dream had lost its charm after Cole had discovered it was haunted. "Either that, or he’s too embarrassed to show his face. I think it’s about time I go bother him."

"Cole?" For the first time, Jason sounded worried. Richard Lockmann was his friend, too, and he had the feeling something was wrong.

Cole put the phone back to his ear. "Speaking."

Jason felt a little foolish. "Let me know if he’s okay."

"Sure thing." Cole slammed down the phone and loped out of the house.

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