Begun by Shadar, continued by Brantley

Chapter One

XueLee had been sleeping fitfully when her phone rang. It was dark outside. Nobody should be calling her now. Nobody. Except… 

Reluctantly, she picked it up, trying to concentrate through the pain and the haze of the drug.

“It’s Carey,” the voice on the other end said. “We’re bringing you in.”

“…the hell?”

“I can’t say any more. I’ll be right over.”

He broke the connection as XueLee tried to take it all in. Carey Smyth was only deputy staff engineer at BIO. This had to come from Kaleb Silverstein, the chief engineer. Or even from Tom Kendricks, director of the whole Wormhole Physics Annex. Only Tom had told her just a week ago that there wasn’t any wasn’t any hope… at least, not any hope on this Earth. 

But there might still be hope beyond this Earth. That was what Pavel had thought, but she hadn’t believed it then and she didn’t believe it now.  She’d been winding up her affairs since her last concert, saying her goodbyes to family and friends.

They were promising her a new life, that had to be it. Just like Armstrong the mouse. But she wasn’t a mouse. And the technology of this Brave New Universe wasn’t as simple as beaming people in Star Trek.  It couldn’t work. Couldn’t.

Only, What have I got to lose? At the very worst, it would be a quick and painless death… She’d been thinking of assisted suicide when the pain became too great. She had already pre-planned her funeral; only the date remained to be set. If things went wrong, the WPA could see to that…

* * *

What turned out to be her last concert had been nearly over when the pain began to return. A growing wave of searing agony spread outward from Bao XueLee’s abdomen and radiated up her back. She gritted her teeth and stiffened her resolve. Just five more minutes and I can slip back into the blessed numbness of the painkiller.

She’d been declared terminal four months ago – pancreatic cancer that had metastasized – but she wasn’t going to give up her love without a fight. She was second chair violin in the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Enduring the pain was a casualty of playing her music. She couldn’t feel the strings when the opiates were in her bloodstream, so she did without. It was a good tradeoff, allowing her a few hours of immersion in her music before the pain became too much. 

She’d never have made it as the soloist in Sibelius’ Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. The part called for a great deal of energy – an energy she no longer possessed. She had once dreamed of becoming a soloist, as what young violinist hasn’t; but it was a relief now that she hadn’t. Her pain would remain a private thing. 

It was concertmaster Barbara Fay who held center stage tonight; she was the one all eyes would be watching and all ears hearing, it was she who would receive the accolades. As for XueLee, she could quietly slip off the stage and ignore the applause, as much as those applauding would ignore her. Her cancer wasn’t a secret to her colleagues, but it had been kept out of the media. The musicians were part of a community; they protected their own. Nino Badalamenti, the music director, had offered to put her on paid leave, but she had declined. She wanted to live this life as long as she could. 

Like all concerts, it was over too soon. She stepped behind the curtain as the audience filed out, pulled up the hem of her long dress and jabbed the needle in the fleshy side of her hip. The Dilaudid, a powerful opiate that was prescribed only for terminal cancer patients, began to work its magic. She sat back down in her seat and took off her thick glasses to hold her head in her hands. All around her, her friends and fellow musicians put their instruments away. They talked softly as she waited for the soft wave of nothingness to dull the pain enough for her to join their conversation. She thought of Pavel, dead more than three years now, with an ironic relief that he wasn’t here to see her like this.


Lifting her head as the pain receded, she saw the cellist Jeremy Riddick smiling at her. They’d been best friends since High School, and he knew how little time she had left. He was the one who helped her pick up the pieces after Pavel was killed. 

And then the cancer had struck.

“I liked the way you handled that long stretch during the andante. The XueLee of old was back in second chair tonight.”

She smiled her gratitude. I wasn’t that good. 

A sudden realization came to her, born of his misplaced praise. I can’t really feel at one with the music any more. It was a bitter realization, but she had to live with it. Well, I won’t have live with it very long.

“This is probably my last concert, Jeremy. If I were still that good, I could go on, but…”

Jeremy was silent for a moment.

“We’ll miss you. Hell, I’ll miss you.” He wrapped his arm gently around her shoulder, too obviously suppressing the impulse to pull away. She must feel as delicate as a bird. She’d always been tiny, 5’1” and barely over 90 pounds, but he guessed only 75 now. 

“Now that you’ve made first chair, you’ll be too busy to worry about me. Nino is going to double up the pressure on you.”

“Let him try,” Jeremy grinned fiercely. “I live to play. A dozen other orchestras out there would be glad to have me.”

“A bright future,” she said, staring down at the floor. “I used to have one of those too.”

Pavel had been part of that bright future. Chief Researcher for the BIO team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s advanced Wormhole Physics Annex, he’d been brought in to the WPA after they’d discovered the Anomaly, that single word denoting the most significant event in all human history.  With double PhD’s in astrophysics and organic chemistry, he’d come with the right combination of talents. Especially after people began to accept that there really was a race of sentient life forms on the other end of the wormhole.

She and Pavel had been the right combination, too. If only…

“Hey, is that any way to talk?” Jeremy gently reproved her,

He was trying to be kind, she knew, but…

“Can’t think all that well now, Jeremy. The painkillers are killing me. Neuron by neuron.”

“Don’t give up. I saw just last week that they were making progress on those last cancers. They’ll have one of those magic bullet drugs real soon.”

As soon as I’m dead and gone. But she didn’t say that. She’d been following the research. First trial was two years away. She didn’t have two months.

Jeremy waved down a cab for her, and the ride home was a blur, the powerful opiates washing away both the pain and the fine edge of her consciousness. Her world turned fluffy and soft whenever she took the Dilaudid, her feet floating, the colors around her blurred and warm, friendly faces floating in and out of view. Far from being pleasant, she hated the way her brain grew dull, her keen intelligence disintegrating into little more than fleeting thoughts. But the pain went with her mental acuity, a tradeoff that was becoming more and more welcome.

She still managed to put her violin away when she got home, and then undressed, pausing to look at herself in the mirror. Her hard-earned fitness had completely deserted her, a thousand hours of exercise vanishing to leave behind a slightly emaciated look. Her breasts had shrunken to boy-like flatness, and her ribs stuck out like a third-world orphan’s. Her skin was pasty and sagging. The bags under her eyes grew darker with each week that passed, and the sparkle had long been replaced by an out-of-focus dullness. She hadn’t smiled for a long time, and the shape of her mouth now fitted the frowns she usually wore.  

This business of dying really sucks. Especially at thirty-eight. I’d complain about it, but God wasn’t listening that night Pavel was killed by a mugger. Why would he listen now? She’d been raised a Christian in Beijing before coming to the U.S. 15 years ago after making her mark as a prodigy in China, but now she believed in nothing.

She closed off her thoughts and collapsed on the bed, curling up in the soft covers as she sought oblivion for a few hours – she had trouble getting sleep now, and that had made her work even harder. 

The fact that she was dying at all was a mystery to her doctors. Ever since the genetic basis for cancer had been discovered in 2021, gene therapy had proven to be an effective treatment for 99.9% of cases. Hers was among the 0.1% that didn’t fit the model. 

Her bad luck with cancer was typical for her family. Every woman in the last four generations of her family had died from the disease by fifty, and at only thirty-eight, she knew she wasn’t going to beat those odds. Her father back in Beijing couldn’t understand why American medicine couldn’t solve her problem. Every conversation with him ended with his plea for her to come home to China. But she knew that the doctors there couldn’t do any more for her than the ones in Seattle.

She’d always hoped to be the one member of her family to beat the cancer. Between her lifestyle, composed of equal parts vigorous exercise and a strict vegetarian diet, not to mention the various anti-cancer drugs she’d taken for years, she’d hoped to become the exception. But nothing could overcome her family history, it seemed. 

As Pavel’s boss, Kendricks, had been especially supportive, offering to pay for her long-term disability care and devoting his own time to searching for a cure – any cure. He had contacts with every medical research program and institution in the world, rather than just following media accounts like Jeremy and the rest at the symphony. There had been tears in his eyes the last time she had met him, when he had given her the final bad news. She could trust him not to sugar coat the truth, and she was grateful to him for that. There was nothing they could say to each other afterwards, and she had never expected to hear from him or anyone at the project after that. 

* * *

 When Carey arrived, he was all by himself, driving his own car. XueLee got in, and they headed downtown. It was 5 a.m. when they arrived at the Annex, way before working hours. 

XueLee still had the pass that Pavel had wangled for her three years ago; she doubted it would do her any good, but Carey managed to bull his way past security by invoking higher authority.

 “This comes from Kendricks,” he assured the night man.

“Kendricks isn’t here yet.”

“He will be, and he’ll be seriously upset if you cross him.”

The guard weighed his options, then waved them through, 

“Kaleb’s setting things up,” Carey told her, once they were past Security.

“What things?”

Carey put his finger to his lips, then said in a low voice: “Pavel would want it for you.”


Her mind flashed back to their life together.

Chapter Two

The weather had been perfect in Seattle that day seven years ago when XueLee had met Pavel Ivanovich Orlov. 

Kerry Park was her favorite place, with stunning views of the downtown skyline, Mt. Rainier, the sound, the islands, the Olympic Mountains... and of course, the Space Needle. 



She had been out for a stroll, taking in the sunshine, nothing on her mind, just people watching. She liked to watch people simply being themselves, being happy – natives and tourists alike. And Kerry Park was the place for that.

Besides tourists, usually brought by natives, there were parents pushing their strollers, singles and couples walking their dogs, and children playing catch or Frisbee. And often there were native musicians doing their thing. Sometimes they were really good; it might turn out that they were local bands who played at clubs nobody outside Seattle would have ever heard of. She’d made some discoveries here – not for the orchestra, of course; just for her own enjoyment.

You could hear all kinds of music, from ballads hundreds of years old to classic American jazz, country, R&B, rock and rap, more recent inventions like buzz, ethnic imports like rai and bangra, and countless combinations of two or more of these. It was like a musical melting pot, or perhaps more accurately a buffet, because none of what you’d hear at Kerry Park sounded like a mash-up – the music and the musicians had an integrity all their own.

XueLee had the same feeling here that she had playing for the symphony: This is what civilization is all about.

It was just about 1 p.m. that her life changed.

On that day, at that hour, at that moment, a crowd had gathered around a man playing rock classics – on a balalaika. He was really good. In fact, he was great.

She worked her way forward. The player looked to be about 30, the same age as her. He had black hair and a black beard. He was a real looker – but not like some model for a romance novel cover. He looked intelligent – and intense. He wore jeans and a T-shirt that read:

Мы Граждане Вселенной!

That was Russian, she could tell; she’d seen Russian before. Anyway, it went with the balalaika. She didn’t have any idea what it meant, or even what the letters meant. But the man could play, and he could sing, and it wasn’t some Russian song but a David Bowie classic:

Ground control to Major Tom 

Ground control to Major Tom 

Take your protein pills and put your helmet on 

(Ten) Ground control (Nine) to major Tom (Eight) 

(Seven, six) Commencing countdown (Five), engines on (Four)

(Three, two) Check ignition (One) and may God’s (Blastoff) love be with you 

XueLee hadn’t been born until long after the year of Apollo 11, and yet the song somehow took her back to what had seemed an age of promise – before the pointless wars, before the epidemic of terrorism, before the global ethnic cleansing billed as “population transfers,” before the plagues, before a war had trumped climate change…

The pig flu had killed half a billion people but, ironically, half of those had been in Muslim countries after the virus had jumped to humans in Southeast Asia and from there to Southeast Asian guest workers in the Middle East – by then the former Israelis and Egyptian Copts were in Europe, which turned out to be lucky for them – and not so lucky for the Muslims “repatriated” to their old homelands. The plague had put a final damper on terrorism after all else had failed but, understandably, nobody had wanted to dwell on that.

As for global warming, that had been halted only by the dust clouds from the India-Pakistan exchange, the first use of nuclear weapons since World War II, and seen at the time as the epitaph for civilization. Yet, somehow, the world had pulled back from the brink of a wider holocaust. People wanted a second chance, and they had gotten it.

And then came the Anomaly. It was exciting. It was scary. There were other people out there. Wiser heads, perhaps, who could help humanity find its way. Or perhaps not wiser, more a hindrance than a help. Even hostile. Nobody knew for sure; how could they? If the U.N. Contact Authority knew, it wasn’t telling. 

The guy with the balalaika was breaking into another Bowie classic, from decades later:

Hello Spaceboy, you're sleepy now. Hello

Your silhouette is so stationary

You're released but your custody calls

And I want to be free

Don't you want to be free

Do you like girls or boys

It's confusing these days

But Moondust will cover you

Cover you

This chaos is killing me

The chaos… that was what she’d grown up with. It was being held in check now, half by hope and half by fear. 

* * *

XueLee noticed that while the man was still singing to the crowd, his eyes had come to focus on her. He came over afterwards to introduce himself, saying that she looked familiar somehow.

She toid him where he might have seen her, and his eyes lit up. 

“A fellow musician! You’ve just made my day.”

But he wasn’t just a fellow musician, she quickly learned. He started telling her about his work at the WPA, and she could tell that he thought it was the most important work in the world – and even beyond the world.

“We’re citizens of the universe!” he exclaimed, pointing to his T-shirt.

So that’s what the Russian words are about.

From that moment, there was no turning back. First dinner at the Wild Ginger, then to his place, where they made love for the first time. From that first day and first night, they knew they were made for each other.

Chapter Three

 And so it came to pass four years later that Pavel had gotten her a special pass to the BIO section, where history was about to be made.

“As you know, we’ve made some great progress in transporting inorganic items back and forth to the Talantrans,” he said, pausing to wink at her. “But on Saturday night, we managed to encode marker amino acids in the lattice, and then we synthesized.” He paused to grin dramatically at her. “Error was less than one part in twenty billion. Thanks to Smyth’s low-noise filter.”

XueLee gasped. “Jesus!”

“It was just a bunch of amino acids.”

“Pavel, those are very complex and delicate chains.  If you can encode and decode them, then the ones in our bodies will be even easier.”

Pavel grinned. “Yeah, I know. That’s why I ordered a couple of cases of champagne for tonight. Our OSSFM-OGLFM party.” He pronounced it Oss-Fim, Ohm-Glim. Like the people on the project, she knew that meant, One Small Step for a Man. One Giant Leap for Mankind. 

After decades, the culmination of a thousand people’s work was finally at hand. Wormhole research had become the darling of the physics community after the detection in 2012 of a tiny black hole less than a million miles from Earth. The SETI people had found it by virtue of an encoded stream of digital information that was beaming out of what turned out to be some kind of wormhole. It took them a mere two weeks to decode the information. The key was simplicity itself -- merely the first thirty elements in the Periodic Table. For the next year, nearly every scientist on Earth was reading what they decoded. 

It was a primer on intergalactic transportation. 

Amazingly, they had learned that very few planets had spaceships any more advanced than those on Earth. Just short-range shuttles for orbital work. Nothing remotely like the warp drives or antigravity of science fiction. 

Yet it was clear from the primer that sentient beings were actually traveling even thousands of light years in the time it took radio waves to reach the wormhole on one side, and to find a receiver on the other. The object to be transported was sampled, turned into a highly compressed digital bit stream, which was then beamed through the hole and reassembled on the other side. The primer made it clear that the object in question could be a sentient being. 

There were basically five steps to the process. 

First you had to encode it. That meant performing a desynthesis step to extract information about every atom in the object to be transmitted. That was no small feat, but the primer told how to build a device to accomplish exactly that. Unfortunately, it was a destructive analysis, requiring the power of a military laser. The scanning beam tore the object apart, dissociating every molecule down to its constituent atoms as it recorded the information. A very disconcerting process, especially when you considered subjecting a living being to the scan. 

That resulting data was then encoded into a crystal lattice which served as a highly efficient compression scheme. The lattice was then scanned with a non-destructive laser which was coupled to a very high frequency transmitter. A narrow-band antenna beamed the compressed digital bit stream representing the lattice construction through the wormhole. The idea was then to reconstruct an identical lattice on the other side. Then the final and most critical step was performed. A synthesis chamber was coupled to a reader which could reconstruct the original object, one atom at a time. Presumably, if the encoding/decoding noise was low enough, a person’s consciousness, which was no more than connections between neurons, would be faithfully maintained. The person transported would never know they’d left home.

Or so the primer claimed. It felt too much like Star Trek technology for most scientists to take seriously. At least in the beginning.

Three teams were formed funded with US Government and Japanese money. Later on, the Chinese and the Russians and the European Union joined in. The high-energy physics portion of the project was horrendously expensive. 

The Wormhole Physics team had the job of creating the holes they would use. Pinhole in size, they could be generated for short periods of time in a lab environment. The gravitational and electromagnetic effects were significant, however, so the ideal location for such high-energy physics was at a LaGrange point. L5 was where the initial black hole had appeared. However, until such time as they could get a launch vehicle prepared, WP team was using Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific. Same place they’d tested hydrogen bombs nearly a hundred years earlier.

The second team, Encode/Decode, or ED’s they called themselves, constructed and read the crystal lattice. They also built the transmitters, receivers and antenna complexes. High gigahertz stuff, a thousand channels operating in parallel. They learned a few things from the Talantrans, but this was technology that Earth was already pretty good at.

Pavel had led the third so-called BIO team. They designed the synthesis and desynthesis chambers. Their science was a combination of high power lasers, organic chemistry and medicine. Theirs was by far the most complex task, as most of the technology was foreign to Earth. 

In early 2026, the first two teams hooked up a decoder to the wormhole generator. A half dozen attempts later, they were shocked to see a crystal lattice cube form inside the machine. 

Six months of additional research was required to perfect the scanning system, but when it finally worked, they found themselves staring at a repository of data the size of the Library of Congress. The people who’d sent it called themselves Talantrans, and their written language was fairly easy to learn, using the codes that the SETI people had determined. Whether a quirk of nature or deliberate attempt, the Talantrans claimed they were a relay point for many worlds. 

Six months after that, the WP and ED teams beamed back a cube that contained nearly every piece of data from the Library of Congress. The Talantrans confirmed they’d decoded it by sending a cube back with a hundred questions about Earth history.

Now that two-way communications was established, the Talantrans had tried to help Pavel’s team solve the teething problems of creating the synthesis chambers. As senior staff engineer, Kaleb had worked under him.

Synthesis was by far the hardest part of the project, as any noise in the system would cause critical errors during the reconstruction. They got the basic machine working in 2028, and had been working on improving the accuracy for the two years since. They were down to one part in a billion, but that was still an unacceptable error rate. They needed ten times that accuracy before a HDO could be transmitted. In the acronym-laden world of research, HDO stood for Highly-Developed Organism. Which in turn was a euphemism for a sentient being. A human. Or Talantran.

Pavel’s dream had been to get that extra 10x accuracy, and XueLee knew he had driven his team to exhaustion. But that day he’d invited her into the lab had been his day of triumph, a day he’d wanted to share with her as he’d shared her, body and soul.

“With the improvements in my filter, we’re ready to try with a mouse,” he’d told her when they met at the front entrance. “And I’ll let you do the honors.” Twenty minutes later, they were standing in the BIO lab. XueLee reached into a cage and took out the white mouse. 

“I’ve been keeping this little guy for just this day. Armstrong’s his name. A tribute to Neil Armstrong. And now the first creature from Earth to leave our solar system and return.”

XueLee had felt her heart racing, the pain in her stomach from the cancer – not as bad then, but an inescapable fact – fading away. Endomorphins she knew. It was so incredible. Without a doubt, this was the most exciting moment in the history of Earth.  

Pavel stood beside her, uncharacteristically quiet. “The Talantrans have been asking about you, XueLee. How you’re doing.”

She put the mouse in a small transparent box. “What do you mean?’

“I’ve had Kaleb talking about your condition.”

You’ve what?” 

“I thought they might help.”

“And so you told Kaleb, and he told the Talantrans, and nobody bothered telling me?”

“They think you’re part of the Project.” 

“You had no right. What’s going on with me is my business.”

Our business. I love you. I thought they might have something. I know Tom’s been looking high and low here on Earth. But Earth isn’t the only place to look. So I took a chance. I had to.”

“Had to what?

 “We kind of borrowed your med data and sent it. They wanted male and female comparative data. I had access to my own, and yours.” 

XueLee hung her head tiredly. 

“And what do they want to know about human physiology, The very air they breathe would kill us in seconds. Sulfur dioxide and methane. And they’d spontaneously combust in our oxygen atmosphere.”

“I wasn’t sure at first. At least not until they asked us to send your medical data from five years ago. They wanted to compare it with current data.”

“Oh, yeah, that must have been fun. Let me guess, they found that I’m older and I’m sick as hell. I could have told them that.”


Pavel shook his head.

“Nothing. Nothing yet. But there’s still time. Surely someone somewhere out there…”

XueLee had felt violated, and now it turned out the violation was all for nothing. Nothing. But she decided to hold her tongue. She didn’t want to make any more of a scene than she had already. This was a historic occasion, after all, and she had to respect it.

She suddenly wondered, quite irrelevantly, what the Talantrans must think of her. Did she look as ugly to them as they did to her? Three-legged and covered in a moist skin that looked like it oozed with slime, they had three eyes and stood only four feet tall. 

Never mind, she told herself. Focus on the present.

“It’s a whole different biochemistry,” she pointed out. “Could we cure their diseases? Not likely. Let’s just finish this.” 

She put the glass box on the floor of the heavily armored chamber and walked back out to spin the locking wheel. The armored door was made of foot thick ceramic steel, with a powerful magnetic field inside that to keep the worst of the EM spectrum inside. A thick porthole of leaded glass and quartz let her see inside. No electronics could survive inside the chamber.

She had done the honors. Now it was Pavel’s show.

“You ready on the data buffer?”

Kaleb punched some buttons. “A hundred terabytes on-line and ready to stream.”

Pavel put on his darkened glasses, and lent XueLee a pair. He looked through the portal. “You won’t feel a thing, Armstrong. I promise.” 

He pushed a button and the inside of the chamber turned nuclear white. The ultra-frequency stimulus laser sliced through the glass box at a rate of a million scans a second. Each slice vaporized a portion of Armstrong’s body, and a thousand scanning laser beams recorded the spectrum of the atoms that were torn from the molecules of its body. It took less than two seconds for Armstrong to disappear completely.

XueLee and Pavel took off her glasses and walked over to stand behind Kaleb.

“Data is streaming. Two terabytes, 5, 8, 10,11. Looks like that’s it. We got it all.”

They walked over to the large encoding machine on the other side of the lab. A dozen metal hoses were connected to it, with four of them smoking from the vaporized crystalline material that was being pumped into the atmosphere of the chamber. Lights started blinking as the data download began from the buffer, and a dozen lasers began to construct the crystal lattice. At each location where the lasers converged, a uniquely configured crystal atom was formed.

Three hours later, the entire 11 terabytes of data was encoded. Where there had been nothing but vapor, there was now an incredibly complex lattice cube. It sparkled with facets like a thousand diamonds. Pavel held the hot cube in an asbestos mitt as he transferred it to the decoding unit. He closed the door and looked back at Kaleb.

“Main buffer’s cleared,” he announced. “All that’s left of Armstrong are the bits in that cube.”

“I’m starting the decode.” Pavel pushed the Start button and a sequence of lower frequency lasers began to read the three-dimensional lattice of the cube.

XueLee was up to speed on the basics of the process, but except for the lattice, there hadn’t been much to look at. 

It took only an hour to scan it out and reload the buffer. A dozen other project members had wandered in by now, including Kendricks himself. 

The atmosphere of the chamber was flooded with complex organic compounds, along with traces of nearly everything in the periodic table. A dense, poisonous and corrosive atmosphere, much like the primeval soup that evolution had begun in. 

Everyone looked excited as Pavel enabled the synthesis lasers. Kaleb slaved the pattern buffer to the laser controllers. 

“We’re ready to rock and roll,” he said, ribbing Pavel about his playing rock on his balaiaika.

XueLee crossed her fingers as Pavel pushed the Activate button.

The inside of the chamber was lit with a softer light this time, a rainbow pattern of light radiating from a tiny point in the middle of a ceramic platform. The rebuilding of Armstrong had begun, a molecule at a time.

While it had taken only seconds to scan the little mouse during the desynthesis mode, it was going to take at least four hours to run through the reconstruction sequence. The portal of the synthesis chamber clouded over almost immediately, and Pavel activated the inside wipers, but they couldn’t cut through the poisonous residue that clouded the glass. All they could do is wait and hope.

The laser controller finally stopped at 4:23:07 elapsed time as it ran out of data. The laser power supplies whined softly as they discharged. 

“Reconstruction complete,” Kaleb said, echoing a line from a favorite old Luc Besson movie called Fifth Element. He felt a bit like he was on that movie set.

“Extracting the sample,” Pavel said as he hit the control to retrieve the sample box. “If Armstrong is alive, we have to get him out of there while he still has air to breath in his box.”

That was for XueLee’s benefit, but she’d already figured it out.

A robotic arm extended to grip the box and swing it over to the airlock. The inner door closed and the pump-down scrubbers went to work. A green light came on and chime sounded. Pavel said a little prayer and opened the outer door. 

Inside was a pitted and partially corroded glass box. 

Inside that glass box, a tiny white mouse was desperately clawing at the glass, trying to get out!

While Kaleb was freeing Armstrong, XueLee managed to beat everyone else with the obvious response: “One small step for a mouse, one giant leap for mousekind.”

The champagne flowed freely at the celebration, but XueLee begged off early to return home. The pain was bothering her again, but she was also upset with Pavel.

“I knew you’d be stubborn about this,” he told her when they managed to get a moment alone together at the party. “That’s why I never told you.”

“I’m not a part of the project. I’m not an experiment. Can’t you see that?”

“I couldn’t bear to lose you.”

“Maybe you just have. I’ll have to think about it.”

As a peace offering, Pavel let her take Armstrong II home. 

She had knelt on the floor and picked him up, letting him run across her hands, marveling at the miracle of life. She knew now that if they could encode Armstrong in the lattice and read him out, reconstructing every cell of his body perfectly, then they could send him a thousand light years across the galaxy. The cube that contained such a perfect record of what it meant to be Armstrong the mouse was even now on its way to Kwajalein Atoll. 

The next day, they would scan the lattice again, synthesizing Armstrong’s twin. More than a twin, a perfect clone, with every reflex and experience the original Armstrong had developed during his brief life. And so it had gone – like clockwork. 

Not so her relationship with Pavel. She was still trying to come to terms with that a week later, when his body was found at Kerry Park. He had been stabbed to death and his wallet and watch were missing. The WPA had taken care of the funeral arrangements, and Kendricks had given the eulogy

The pain of her illness was nothing compared to the agony she felt the night she had heard the news. Why did it have to be Kerry Park? 

She was torn between anger and guilt, but the anger had won out when she went to the police, and had a run-in with a detective who was either heartless or clumsy or both. 

“It was a basic kill,” he told her. “Those are the hardest to solve. Obvious motive, but no physical evidence that could point to the perp. No witnesses that we could find. It was late at night. He shouldn’t have been there.”

She had wanted to shout at him, to curse him. But she had restrained herself and just glared at him, turning to leave without another word.

Chapter Four

And now here she was again, three years later and very much the worse for wear. They had reached the BIO outer office, which gave her a chance to get off her feet. Carey seemed relieved.

“Well, since you’re sitting down, XueLee, I guess I can tell you.”

She looked up at him expectantly as he started pacing the room as he always did when he was excited. “Tell me what?”

“They want us to send you through. You know, transport you to the other side so they can heal you, XueLee. Fix whatever’s wrong and send you back.”

“I’d guessed as much.”

 XueLee shivered, as much from dread as excitement. Because Carey was offering hope – and because she couldn’t believe in that hope.

She remembered the blazing light and heat of the desynthesis chamber. The high-frequency laser that vaporized anything inside, dissociating each cell and molecule, ripping them apart down to the atomic level. Annihilation. She thought of her essence traveling across the galaxy and reappearing on another world. But she remembered the poison gases on both ends. The chamber atmosphere and the Talantran atmosphere were about the same. The primordial stuff of creation.

“We might have waited longer, except… you don’t have much time.”

“Or much to lose,” she finished, saying what he could not. “But I’m not a mouse. It’s much more complicated. And even if you can send me through intact, how would they know enough about human physiology to fix anything?” She shook her head. “It’s crazy.”

“Maybe not as crazy as it seems.” He started pacing even faster, waving his hands as she talked. “It turns out that one of the cool things the Talantrans use this technology for is to edit the buffer as they call it. They overlay the data from different desynthesis scans; that means dozens of different scans at one time, and wherever the cellular data is different, their programs make a decision on what pattern to transfer to the output buffer.”

“Different scans? We don’t have different scans.”

“They do. Their library holds millions of scans.”

XueLee stared at him for a long moment as that sunk in.  “But not from humans.” When Carey didn’t respond she looked up at him. “Right?”

“I don’t think that’s exactly correct. Based on some of the images that came back from one cube, there are other beings out there that sure look human.”

“That look human? And you want to overlay my cellular structure with theirs?”

“Our communication is still primitive, but that’s what Kaleb thinks they have in mind. Their science, really more of a creative art, is to meld things together in interesting ways to create what the client wants. Creative synthesis or something. I think that’s why they seek out new races. They’re trying to expand their library of biological data.”

XueLee’s eyes opened wide. To scan, transport and reassemble one’s body on a distant world was amazing enough. Stupendous even. But now the ability to change the characteristics during synthesis? Her head began to spin. This was moving too fast even for her. 

“That could be pretty horrifying if it goes wrong, Carey.”

“Or a real medical breakthrough if they get it right,” he replied. “Near as we can tell, the Talantrans have been doing this for thousands of years.”

“So how exactly do I fit into this?

“Isn’t it obvious? They can change things around somewhat. Edit bad things out or add some good things in. Synthesize something new.” 

 “You mean, they could turn Armstrong into a cat? Or vice versa.”

Carey looked at her as if she was deranged. “That was definitely not the first thing Kaleb and I had in mind. He had a thing for you, back in the day, in case you hadn’t figured that out.”

“No, I hadn’t. I mean, I’m not exactly…”

“Don’t go there, XueLee. We both remember how you were back in the day. Back when Pavel was taking you out dancing all the time. Kaleb was positively green with envy. But he’s sorry about that; maybe he wants to make it up to you.”

XueLee closed her eyes. She and Pavel had talked of getting married. She looked back up at Carey and tried to smile.

“So now you tell me,” XueLee smiled crookedly. “Your timing really sucks.”

“Yeah. Well, Kaleb has been driving this forward. I just thought you should know why. He’s been obsessed with it ever since he found out about your… condition. Even before… what happened to Pavel.”

“Should I feel touched?”

Carey’s face reddened for a moment, then became distant.

“Is there something more you’re not telling me?”

“Not what

“No. it’s just that… well, I care about you too. Or I wouldn’t be involved in this.”

“Kaleb couldn’t manage it by himself, could he?”


“What does Kendricks have to say about this?”

Carey put his finger to his lips again.

“He can’t say anything about it. Not officially. It goes against all protocols. If  everything goes well, he can present it as a fait accompli. If not…  it will never have happened. Kaleb says that’s the best deal he could get. And that’s why we’re doing it now, when nobody else is looking.”

“Nobody else is involved?”

“Just the three of us. Each cube we sent back and forth involving you had sections coded for only Kaleb’s eyes. And, of course, for the Talantran who is our counterpart in BIO. Officially, we’ve done chipmunks and squirrels and even rabbits. We were going to try a cat, but Tom wouldn’t go for that – figured if something went wrong, we’d never hear the end of it from cat lovers.

“Kendricks will fire you if this gets out, even if it does work. You’ll be lucky if you don’t end up in jail. And they might do worse than that.”

They was whatever paranoid group would surely take offense at what Kaleb had in mind. Animal rights groups had even protested about Armstrong and, after that, the WP had become extremely cautious. Press releases were few and far between,  vague, and nearly all about what the project had learned about other planets and their inhabitants, coupled with assurances that none of them would ever be coming here. 

“We’re willing to take that risk. For you.”

“I’m flattered. But I’m still not convinced you can bring it off.”

“Mouse, woman, the only difference is kilos.”

“Now I’m insulted. There’s more to this than replicating bodies.”

“Armstrong II could run the same mazes as Armstrong I. Same with the rabbits, though we had to use different tests for them.”

“But will it still be me? Or just somebody who thinks she’s me, like those duplicates on Star Trek and all the sf stories about copying people?”

“I don’t think this new you will be complaining.”

Carey saw the look on her face.

“Hey, you’re smiling. Looks good on you. That’s a good sign. Anyway, we want to send you through this morning.”

“Without testing the system any further?”

“It’s the only way.”

No way. Given what you’ve just told me, if they had a scan of me from a decade ago and now a current one, then maybe. But they’ll have only a single scan from me. They can’t overlay that with anything…” her voice trailed off.

“With anything human? Yeah, we thought of that. But that didn’t seem to bother the Talantrans. They claim to have scans from more than ten thousand sentient races. Apparently they’ve solved a lot of problems with different genetic and cellular structures and…”

XueLee swallowed wrong and started coughing, interrupting him. “Ten thousand races? Jesus. I had no idea.”

“Yeah. Blew my mind too.”

“And who’s helping them decide what to combine to make… hell, I don’t know, the new me?”

“Kaleb. I don’t know the details, but he’s been trading ideas back and forth for a long time. I’ll let him show you what he has in mind.”

“And why haven’t you brought any of this up before?”

“We didn’t want to give you any false hopes. Not until we were sure it would work.” 

“I can’t really believe this gives me a chance,” she said. “But the alternative is no chance at all.”

* * *

Kaleb Silverton’s office was a disaster area. Stacks of dusty journals and papers were piled to the ceiling, comic books intermingled with advanced papers on AstroPhysics, books on metaphysics mingled with physics texts. Some so old they were turning yellow. Mythology and hard science. 

Despite his strange interests, he was a certifiable genius, having earned his first PhD at the age of 22, and his fourth by age 35. His entire life, it seemed, was reflected in the mountain of paper in his office, and the terabytes of data in his computer.

Kaleb looked a lot like his office, Late forties, graying beard that had rarely been trimmed, hair that went this way and that. His body was soft and slightly overweight despite his religious use of the treadmill in the corner, and his clothes were always rumpled. But he was clean. He was infamous for commandeering the lab shower room twice a day. His trademark was wearing sunglasses inside the dark basement. On the rare occasion when he took them off, his brown eyes sparkled with intelligence.

He sat in front of a large screen now, punching up some programs XueLee had never seen before. “I’ve recalibrated the BIO for your height and weight, XueLee, and brought in a larger supply of raw ingredients. Nasty stuff, but as you know, the Talantrans prefer to work from basic organics, more or less akin to what you’d find on the bottom of your average swamp. I guess they can find that kind of stuff on even the most primitive worlds. I want to make sure I’ve got about ten times your bodyweight in material. Not sure how efficient the synthesis process is.”

“What about the containment box? For the reconstruction. I can’t breathe that stuff. On either end.”

“No way I could order a human sized container without raising eyebrows. Not yet anyway. Maybe in a year or so. We’ll use an ordinary shipping container, tell Kwajalein it’s for non-living hazardous material.

XueLee felt the pain growing in her stomach. “Too long. We’re wasting our time. Even if the Talantrans can ‘edit me’ or whatever they do, the gases will kill me during synthesis. First breath and I’ll be down for good.”

Kaleb turned to look at her, taking his sunglasses off. “I don’t think so, XueLee. You see, I asked the Talantrans to tweak a few things.”

“What, to let me breathe chlorine?” Xuelee laughed. She started coughing just from the thought of that. Damn, her lungs were starting to fill up. Forget those two weeks. Maybe only days.

“Surviving chlorine is only an expedient. We won’t be turning you into some sort of alien. Hope you aren’t too mad at me.”

“No, I’m not mad.”

“Which is why we’re here. We’ll never get another chance if word were to get out about what we’re trying.” 

XueLee covered her mouth as she coughed again. The back of her hand was suddenly covered in speckles of blood. So fast? Her remaining days had just shrunk hours. She suddenly felt afraid.  “I… I don’t have anything to lose.” She coughed again, and felt a deep tearing sensation inside her lungs. “I think… something’s letting… go,” she gasped. “Inside.”

“Prep the chamber, Carey,” Kaleb shouted urgently as he reached out to wrap his arm around her waist to steady her. He leaned close to whisper in her ear. “Hang on, baby. Just a little longer. Takes only five minutes to spin everything up.”

XueLee was struggling to breathe a few minutes later. She was standing naked in the desynthesis chamber; her clothing on the floor of Kaleb’s office where he’d helped her undress. It took every ounce of her strength and concentration just to keep standing. A requirement to allow the lasers to make a proper scan. She was very self-conscious about the way she looked.  So skinny, so pale, skin hanging off her. She looked through the porthole at the warm smile on Kaleb’s face and realized that he didn’t care. A tiny smile curled her lips. 

What a strange thought to have during my last minute of life. No profound statements, no comments on the future of man. Only the Dilaudid, dulling my mind, and the cancer, tearing my guts out, robbing me of life itself. And my final thought was feeling embarrassed to be standing naked in front of the one man on Earth who might be in love with me? 

Not that it matters. I’ll be dead in seconds. 

A final brief surge of excitement sent tingles down her back. Or will I? My genetic code, the details of my cellular structure, both are going to be transmitted a billion light years away. To a race of inhuman…

She did not finish that thought. Instead, she was blinded by the brilliance of the stimulus laser as it started scanning. Then… nothing.

Chapter Five

It was just like awakening from a night’s sleep. She knew who she was. It was one of the miracles of life we take for granted, the return each morning not only to consciousness but consciousness of self, of self recognition, of a knowledge that one has lifetime of memories even if they are not being called to mind at that moment.

Beyond her identity, she was immediately aware of three things: she was in some sort of chamber, was lying in a fetal position, that there was a stench of ammonia and sulfur dioxide, and that she was being showered with warm water.

I made it! she thought. And then, They did it! 

She could sense that she was free of her cancer; there was no pain – rather, a sense of well-being. And yet something, her sense of her body, was… off. It must be because she was cured, she thought, and yet she couldn’t remember having felt exactly like this… before.

Blinking her eyes open, she found she could see clearly without her glasses. The powerful jet of water blasting into her face didn’t even hurt her eyes. She read the label in the upper corner of the shower. 

Sanitary Industries, Waukegan, Illinois

Mark 7 Decontamination Shower Assembly

Her heart leaped as she realized she was back in the lab in Seattle. Yet she clearly remembered standing in the desynthesis chamber. That brilliant light. A wave of excitement coursed through her veins as she lowered her hand and pressed on her lower abdomen, right on the spot where the pain had always been the worst. Her abs felt as tight as a drum. She pressed harder, probing into the worst of the pain.


She followed her hand with her eyes, and suddenly realized that it wasn’t her hand. Those weren’t her abs. The breasts above them weren’t her breasts, and the legs below them weren’t hers. And between her legs – that too wasn’t hers. She was perfectly hairless. She brought her hand back up, and reached for her hair. It wasn’t her hair… reddish-blonde instead of black.

They found me another body, those Talantrans, she thought. Carey had told her that would be the case, but somehow it hadn’t quite registered. Beggars can’t be choosers, she realized. But there would be a period of adjustment.

It will take a while to get back to work. I’ll have to retrain my body.  

Then it dawned on her. 

How am I going to explain this to Nino and Jeremy and all the rest? To my family?

And then:

How are Kaleb and Carey going to explain it? 

She was distracted by a burst of wonderful tingles through her pelvis and all the way up her back as she stretched and one of the shower jets hit her between the legs. She arched herself backward, luxuriating as a sensual feeling of warmth and comfort cascaded over her. It was the way she used to feel after a really good orgasm. Back before she got sick and couldn’t even have orgasms.

It was a promising way to wake up. But then she thought of Pavel. If only he could have lived. She wanted him so badly it ached, and there was nobody else she felt that way about. Memories of their good times together and the pleasures they’d shared poured into her consciousness. Pavel had had an unerring sense, not only of when she was in the mood, but just what she was in the mood for… it was as if he could read her mind – the dirty parts of her mind…

XueLee quickly tried to suppress all that, and it took a few moments for her to focus again on the present – and the future. She got to her feet and, as she did so, her reddish hair, cascaded around her – it was so long. She noticed that there was a bottle of shampoo on the decon chamber, so she grabbed it and began working it into her hair. It took her mind off the future for a few moments. After rinsng off, she hit the shutoff valve and stepped out onto the metal grid outside the chamber. It had hurt her feet the first time she walked on it. She wiggled her toes, feeling every sharp ridge of the grid. No discomfort. 

The changing room was so full of steam that she had to feel around for a towel. She instead found the button for the room dryer. She pressed it, and the lights dimmed as a hurricane of hot air blasted at her from all directions. The only light now was a huge heat lamp overhead.

Squinting into the hurricane as it made short work of the steam, she searched for clothing, a towel, anything. The hurricane stopped to leave her standing in a stark and empty room. She felt very naked as she reaching down to crack the door open. A peek outside showed that the corridor to the lab was empty. She stepped out, brushing her long hair with her fingers to cover her breasts.

Where were Carey and Kaleb? 

It was awkward to walk. Her legs felt a mile long, and her body felt nearly weightless, forcing her to hold onto the walls. Her arms were long enough to reach across the corridor. She studied her right hand. Long fingers, tendons clearly visible. So tan. Not my hand. She made a fist. So it was. She thought of how it would take to bowing, how long it would take to get back into practice, if... Pushing a disorienting shiver of fear away, she refocused on the end of the corridor. Time enough to worry about that later.

She reached the door to the lab; pausing to listen, she heard two men talking. Kaleb and Carey. They seemed to be in the middle of an argument. Carey was blaming Kaleb for doing something bad to her. 

“She’s not just your plaything,” Carey said.

“She’ll love it,” Kaleb answered. “Just you wait and see.”

“I can hardly wait for you to tell her about the Great Big Plan,” Carey said, a touch of anger and perhaps even pain in his voice.

Taking a deep breath, XueLee boldly stepped in. Carey was looking just to her left, but his eyes snapped to hers, growing large. He stopped talking in mid-sentence, then slipped and nearly fell off the lab bench, a shocked look on his face. Kaleb saw his expression, and began to slowly turn around, a knowing smile on his face. 

“Welcome back to the land of the living,” he said.

“You hadn’t noticed before?” she asked, seeing that the monitors showed the empty decon chamber.

She was startled be the sound of her own voice. It was low and smoky, full of sibilant overtones. But still with the tiniest trace of her Beijing accent.

Kaleb looked embarrassed. 

“We hadn’t expected your recovery to be so rapid,” he said. “And Carey and I had gotten caught up in a discussion of your… future.”

“That’s his way of putting it, since he seems to have your future all mapped out. I didn’t learn until—”

“Shut up!” Kaleb shouted. “This is none of your concern.”

“It’s sure as hell XueLee’s concern!”

“There isn’t any more XueLee. That’s been settled.”

“By you and some bunch of spooks? You think Kendricks will stand for this?”

“What’s going on here?” Xue Lee interrupted. “What the hell are you two talking about?

“He’s gone behind Kendricks’ back. Gone behind everybody’s backs. Made a deal with the Talantrans to—”

“You’re skating on thin ice!” 

“What are you going to do – kill me? Have the spooks kill me? How’s she going to take that?”

“She’s going to take what she’s got. What I’ve given her. What only I could have given her! How could she resist?”

Carey looked at her desperately.

“He’s had them turn you into some sort of superwoman, out of those comic books he reads. He’s—”

“It’s true. But it’s all for you. You’ll have a life other women could only dream of, fighting our enemies and—”

“I’m Bao XueLee!” she shouted. “I’m a violinist. That’s my life, and I’m going to take it back.

“Bao XueLee is dead,” Kaleb said solemnly. “That’s what we’ll give out to your friends and family. The experiment didn’t work. It never could have. We went around Kendricks out of pity for you. He’ll accept that.”

“The hell you say!”

“How do you suppose you’re going to prove otherwise? Just look in the mirror over there.”

With some reluctance, XueLee made herself cross the lab to the mirror.

A completely unfamiliar woman looked back at her. Not Chinese, that was for sure. Likely a mix of Slavic and Mediterranean. Besides the long reddish blonde hair, she had blue eyes that glowed like precious gems. Her mouth was wide and sensuous, her teeth like china. It was a singularly beautiful face. It just wasn’t her face. She stepped back to get a better look at her body. She found flawless skin, burnished gold and taut, her body slender and lean, abs as tight as a drum. And her chest. Breasts round and full, high and firm. Yet her body was very slender and wickedly fit. And tall.



Kaleb walked up behind her. She realized with a shock that she was taller than he was. He was what, 5’8? He paused to stand next to her, staring into the mirror, a look of purest lust on his face. Standing without a stitch of clothing on, she felt violated the way he was staring at her. She could tell what he had in for her besides being some sort of secret agent.

“My father is going to murder you,” she said levelly. “He’s very Chinese at heart, and he’d always hoped I’d marry some nice Chinese man. He’s not going to like this at all.”

“You don’t have to accept any of it,” Carey broke in. “You still have your memories – things only you could know. Besides that, people already know the Talantrans can do practically anything.”

“You don’t seem to like the way you’re living. We can remedy that.”

“You kill Carey, and you’ll have to kill me.”

“That would be rather difficult,” Kaleb said. “And counterproductive. But it would be easy enough to take care of others. Friends and family. Nino. The loving father of whom you just spoke.”

“You bastard!” 

“You’ll thank me, in the fullness of time. Your name is “Xsara Sylvan, and you have a duty to your country…” 

“Who came up with that stupid name?”

“I did. I think it will fit. I have to admit this wasn’t quite what I had expected. The Talantrans said they’d try to keep your racial identity, but whatever humans they borrowed the overlay from were pretty European in appearance.”

He paused for a moment.

“But it’s just as well. Best to start with a clean slate.”

XueLee said nothing, trying to hide her seething emotions even as she was trying to take it all in. She forced herself to stay analytical. Just because she looked different didn’t mean she had to act differently. Carey said she’d been turned into some sort of superwoman, and her analytical mind made a connection.

“I must have been breathing any number of poison gases in the chamber, Kaleb. I should have been dead after the second breath. Yet my lungs feel normal. Why is that, Kaleb?”

“Part of the… improvements. It seems that there are, or at least were, some particularly healthy – and hardy – races out there. The Talanatrans had the data in their genetic library. An ancient race that looked like humans but... Whatever they were, a lot of their structure and DNA was edited into your pattern. But it was my idea. You owe me for that. I created you, in a sense.”

“All by yourself?”

“Well, I had some help from Xiqwat.”

 “Xiqwat?” Carey asked..

“My Talantran friend.”

“This is sounding more and more like a bad joke.” XueLee frowned as she glared at Kaleb.

“No, no, not like that at all,” he protested. “Xiqwat had read the stuff I sent though. My non-technical reading, if you will. He wanted to surprise me.”

“You said hardy as well as healthy,” Carey broke in. “Knowing your… tastes… exactly how hardy were these so-called ancients?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” said Kaleb, his face lighting up. 

He crossed the lab to his desk, unlocked the top drawer, and brought out a pistol, aiming it at Carey. 

XueLee was stunned; she could hardly believe her eyes. “Are you crazy?”

Carey hit the floor, trying desperately to roll out of any possible line of fire. Kaleb looked at him contemptuously. 

“It’s not for you,” he said. “Even if you deserve it,”

He swung his aim to XueLee and fired. She felt a sharp pain in her abdomen. She looked down, expecting to see a terrible wound, her life’s blood pouring out. But there was only a red welt and – on the floor – a spent bullet.

“You can see what an advantage this will be in your new line of work,” Kaleb said nonchalantly, as if he were making a routine report at a staff meeting. He returned the gun to the drawer and locked it,

Carey was getting to his feet, and looking at her in wonder. But not just in wonder. Men!

“As you can see, looks were the least of what Xiqwat was trying to provide,” Kaleb said. 

“The rest must be for the spooks,” Carey filled in, clearly relieved that he was still alive to say anything at all. “The looks just go with his fantasy.”

“Can you imagine how many women dream of being as beautiful as you are?” Kaleb said now, oblivious to Carey, oblivious to all else. “As powerful as you are? You have everything any woman could possibly want. Including me.”

His eyes glued to her. She felt a warmth between her legs. She hated this man, and yet she wanted… it wasn’t that she wanted him; she wanted it. Sex. It must be part of the scheme he’d cooked up with Xiqwat, Or maybe it just came with the species the Talantran had selected. Was there no end to it? It was as if her very body had been designed to betray her.

She couldn’t let herself give in. She had to distract him.

“We might be able to discuss things more calmly if I got some clothes.” 

“I’ve got some stashed in my file cabinet. I… I didn’t know your size... I mean, what to expect when you came back.”

“The hell you didn’t.”

And indeed, the clothes fit. Very provocatively; they came from a place called Play it Again Fashions, which specialized in party outfits. But at least it was better than being naked.

Only Kaleb wasn’t in the mood for discussing anything, calmly or otherwise. He sat down at his computer, looking up only long enough to explain that he was entering the data for her ID. “Blue eyes, reddish-blonde hair, height…” he looked at her again, “5’10 I would guess. Weight 129”

Carey’s eyebrow lifted.

“Strain gauge in the floor of the chamber,” Kaleb explained.

“Right. Lets see… race is Caucasian, sex definitely female… I guess that does it.” 

Then he turned to take a head shot of her with his mobile, and messaged that to the computer. He must have had it all planned out, because he had to enter only a few commands before the 3D printer started spitting out what he wanted. A national identity card, the kind that served as a passport, driver’s license and voter ID, plus a credit card and a debit card – all with the same thumbnail shot of herself.

“”You are now officially X’Sara Sylvan,” he said. “Your life belongs to me. But I’m willing to give you some time to come to terms with it – and come to terms you will. I have to get the good word out to my friends. See you later, and then we’ll see. Don’t try to leave to complex. You won’t be allowed out.”

He got up and left, leaving her and Carey alone. 

“Who are these people he’s spreading the good word to?” she asked.

“I don’t know who they are. I don’t even want to know. It’s bad enough knowing what they are.”

“Why couldn’t he just have had the Talantrans fix what was wrong with me? Then I could claim some miraculous cure and carry on with my life. Instead, he’s poured his own fantasies of his into the mix. Turned me into some kind of super bimbo.”

“He’s created the perfect woman. His idea of the perfect woman, anyway, out of all those comic books he reads. That business with… the gun. It came out of the comics, too. He must have had the idea first and then sold these ‘friends’ on it. And then he went to Xiqwat and the Talantrans to turn his fantasies into hard science.”

 “This can’t have been what anyone in the Project had in mind as an application, Carey. If anyone else finds out, we’ll have rich people looking for makeovers at the expense of what we really need from contact with the Talantrans.”

“He wants to keep it all under wraps, though. He thinks he can bluff his way past Kendricks.” 

“And if Kendricks ever finds out, he might…”

“Have Kendricks killed? I’ve thought of that. He wouldn’t hesitate to have me killed if I went public with this, and I’m too much of a coward to risk that. But I couldn’t keep silent with you. Not and be able to live with myself.”

“Can you to open up communications with his contact, Carey? Find out about this race of people the Talantrans have turned me into? Maybe that way I’ll be better able to deal with it.”

“I could try.” Carey nodded. 

“It’s strange,” she said. I do owe him my life. I owe you too. I’m not about to forget that.”

Carey shook his head. “The project was all Kaleb’s right from the start. I only got involved a few weeks ago when he needed help. It was too complicated for a one-man show.

“But you did help. At the risk of your career.”

“It wasn’t about my career. Your life was more important than anything else. I just had to believe it was possible to make a difference. But… I still wanted it to be your life. I don’t know what to do now.”

XueLee felt herself blush for the first time since she’d stepped out of the shower. She suddenly felt like wrapping her arms around him and kissing him. That feeling between her legs had returned. Only this time, she welcomed it.  She’d never thought of Carey that way before; he was kind of cute in a nerdy way, but that hadn’t turned her on. It was the man behind the nerdy looks.

“I know what to do now,” she said, yielding to her temptation and taking him in her arms. She kissed him tenderly, then passionately. She ground herself against him; her juices were flowing, and she could tell through the skimpy outfit that he was hard,

“XueLee,” he moaned, when she let him come up for air for a moment – just for a moment. 

“Take your clothes off,” she said, as she broke their embrace long enough to start stripping herself.

“Here?” he asked.

“Where else? Didn’t Kaleb say not to leave the premises?”

“But he’ll—”

“Let him!”

Naked once more, she lay back on the floor of the lab. She noticed that her breasts stood proudly, twin hemispheres pointing proudly north. Part of Kaleb’s fantasy, but she’d be damned if she’d ever let him have his way with them. As for Carey, he looked as if he’d died and gone to heaven. At any rate, his cock was pointing skyward as he stood over her, having shucked off his clothes. 

For a moment, it seemed as if it weren’t going to work: she was too tight, he couldn’t get it into her – and she wanted him to, God how she wanted to. Only, her new body somehow knew more than she did. Her vagina relaxed of its own accord, made way for him. As she felt him enter her, as he filled her, she came gloriously, screaming with pleasure.

Carey was so excited that he came too, without even a second thrust. How long was it since he’d had a woman? He looked embarrassed as he withdrew, and she didn’t want to see him look like that. Not here, not now.

“Your turn to lie down,” she said, and he complied. But when she took him in her mouth and began sucking him his eyes lit up. She could taste the cum that still oozed out, and it didn’t taste like cum; rather, some exotic nectar – was this another Talantran enhancement? Whatever. It didn’t take long for her to get him ready again, only this time she wanted to be on top, to see the look on his face as she impaled herself on him, to let him see the look on hers.

As he moaned her name, he looked the way Pavel had looked. And while she didn’t think he’d had a lot of experience with women, he knew enough to reach for her breasts – to squeeze them, to pinch her nipples.

Oh God, she thought. Her nipples must be as hard as bullets, and yet the pressure of his fingers was enough to give her a nipple orgasm.  She rode his cock with her spasming vagina, and came again and again. This time, Carey managed to hold out for several minutes before shooting into her. 

Afterwards, there was a dreamy look in his eyes, for all that he was wide awake, as if he couldn’t quite believe his luck. But the dreamy look gave way to a questioning one, 

“It’s real,” she assured him. “I’ve loved every second of it.”

She let him pull her closer, then, and kissed her tenderly.

She lowered herself to Carey’s face, and he didn’t hesitate, teasing her with his tongue and lapping her juices. She couldn’t contain her scream of pleasure when he bit down – hard – on her clit. 

And at that very moment, Kaleb returned. 

XueLee and Carey jumped to their feet, and she could see how red he had turned with embarrassment. 

“Well, X’Sara,” Kaleb chortled. “I see that you’ve discovered what else your new body is good for. It was fun watching you two on the surveillance monitor. But it’s my turn now.”

I should have expected that, she thought. But that isn’t something he needs to know. Instead…

“My name is XueLee, and you’re not getting a turn.”

“I could kill this fool – and anyone else who matters to you.

Carey looked to her for support, and he deserved it.

“I could kill you, right here and now. And even if I didn’t, I could make my escape without having to worry about anything you or Security could do to stop me. You overplayed your hand with that gun demonstration.” 

“On the contrary, you played right into my hands with what came after. I can hold the video over Carey’s head – not that he has a head for serious matters, even if he can give good head.  You won’t trouble me any more, will you, Carey?”

Carey said nothing, but XueLee sensed that he was seething inside.

“I could still kill you,” she said. “Or I could talk to Kendricks. I could make you a very famous man. And don’t even think about killing him. You’d fuck it up for sure. Those friends of yours wouldn’t thank you for it. Maybe you think you could get them to come after my family and friends – they include Carey now – and maybe they would. But if that happens, I’ll hunt you down. Depend on it.” 

“Where do you think you’re going to go?”

“Back home. I still know my entry code.”

“You’ll won’t get out of here without your new ID,” Kaleb pointed our.  “And you’ll be back, you can depend on that.”

“I’m sorry,” said Carey, looking crestfallen.

* * *

It turned out that Kaleb had also gotten her some street clothes, nothing like a fantasy superheroine outfit. No doubt the spooks had insisted on it, but XueLee wasn’t about to inquire. Bowing to the inevitable – for now – she accepted the clothes, and the IDs. 

It was pitch dark, well past normal working ours, when she left the complex, attracting stares from Security but not running into any trouble. Kaleb must have seen to that. He’d told her that it had been a day and a half since she had been scanned and the lattice sent to Kwajalein. Time enough…

“You owe me,” he had pleaded when she was about to leave the lab.

“I owe it to myself to be myself,” she’d retorted. “I’m the only me you’re going to get!”

“Wait!” he’d shouted as she headed out the door. “There’s something…”

But she’d rushed out the door, and never heard the rest.

* * *

Nobody paid any attention when she entered her apartment block. It was past midnight. She keyed in to her familiar apartment. Nothing there had changed. She thought of calling her father; it was daytime in Shanghai. But what could she say? He wouldn’t even recognize her voice. Moreover, she suspected that any calls she made would be monitored – Kaleb would have seen to that.

Her mobile rang. Who the hell? The caller ID said it was Carey.

“It’s Carey,” he said. “I didn’t want to call you, I told him I didn’t want to call you. But when he—”

“Did he threaten you? After I warned him—”

“Nothing like that. Worse in a way. If what he says is true. I just… you’d never have answered if he made the call, and he knows that.”

“Out with it,” XueLee said, anger and impatience in her voice.

“He says it wasn’t just some mugger that killed Pavel. An assassination… and Kendricks knew about it. That’s what he says.”