Laura knew the true meaning of pain. It was so intense that her awareness of the world around her began to fade. She know nothing but the pain. It was her reality, her universe.
She wasn’t sure how long she stayed in the pool of boiling water. It might have been seconds, it might have been years. Time no longer existed, only the pain. Nothing but the pain.
There was something hard and solid in her hand. It was a stick, or a long pole. Instinct took over and she clutched it with all her strength. Moments later she felt strong hands pulling her up out of the pool. Parts of her body were now free from the water. Then she was lying on the ground.
Members of the team were pouring cold water out of their canteens over her body. Janicka was confused but Laura knew it wasn’t good. With injuries like this, Janicka had little hope. She would be dead within a few days.
Every mental instinct in Laura wanted to separate herself from Janicka’s experience. This wasn’t her body, and she didn’t want to die in it.
Janicka was so scared. Laura found it hard to distinguish her own thoughts from the thoughts of the girl, but she believed that Janicka had a pretty good idea of the seriousness of her condition.
Above them, Kenneth was looking down, tears streaming down his face. He really did love Janicka. Strange, that love could grow so quickly between two people.
“You’re gonna be okay Sweety,” he said.
Janicka’s head shook. “I don’ think so Ken,” she rasped.
“No, it’s okay. It’s just a bit of hot water. You’ll recover. There are doctors back on the Phoenix.
“Not with the resources to treat me. Ken, there was meant to be a colony here, but there isn’t. We’re all on our own.”
Kenneth was crying. Laura felt for him.
“I want you to keep the necklace. If you have it then we’ll always be together. You’ll know me in a way nobody ever has before.”
Then Janika resigned herself. She was ready to let herself go. She was a very brave young woman. Laura admired her, but she could also feel her fear. Janika was terrified.
You’re not alone Janicka, Laura thought. I’m sure you’re not aware of my presence, but I’m here with you. Now Laura knew what she had to do. She would be Janicka’s companion. She would die with her. At least neither of them would be alone. I wish I’d had the chance to meet you, to speak to you and have you speak back.
Slowly the word began to go fuzzy. It was an honour to share your existence Janicka Brauer.
Then everything went black.
* * *
“She’s coming around.” A woman’s voice with a thick French accent was speaking. Was there a french woman in their party? Laura hadn’t remembered one.
“Laura, can you hear me?” Neal!
“Neal?” she said groggily.
“I’m here Laura. Come back to us.”
Slowly, very slowly, Laura opened her eyes. She began to focus. She was in a tent. Standing above her was a middle-aged woman. She recognised her as Doctor Marcelle Heroux. The doctor smiled. Laura turned her head, looking down on her was the face of Neal Spearwood. Laura felt her mouth twist into a smile. “Neal.”
Laura looked down at her clothes, to see if she really was herself. She was not wearing her own clothing, she was dressed in very old handmade trousers and shirt. Panic gripped her. She was now in a man’s body.
“A mirror! I need a mirror,” she said urgently.
“Relax, it’s okay. You just need to take a moment to rest and I need to remove this.” Heroux reached around the back of her neck and took hold of the necklace, pulling it away gently but quickly.
“No, I must see a mirror. I have to know.”
“Okay, relax Laura, I’ll get you one.” Neal stepped away and returned moments later with a small round surgical mirror. She grabbed it out of his hands and peered into it. With great relief she was greeted with her own face. She was Laura Banks again.
She let herself flop back onto a soft pillow.
“Welcome back to us Doctor Banks,” the voice of Captain Anderson Bell said. “You had us all quite worried.”
“I had myself quite worried too Sir.”
“The necklace, it was a memory serialiser,” Laura said – as she closed her eyes.
“Well, I think we should all leave her in the capable hands of Doctor Heroux. Henderson, Spearwood?”
Neal looked over his shoulder at the captain. “You go Sir, but I’m not leaving Laura’s side.” A flash of understanding seemed to be visible in Bell’s eyes. He was just starting to appreciate the depth of the relationship between her and Neal. “Very well. I’ll talk to you both later on.”
Laura closed her eyes and let herself relax. Try as she might though, she couldn’t help letting her thoughts wander to Janicka Brauer and Kenneth Bailey.
* * *
Doctor Heroux had a long list of tests that she wanted to conduct on Laura. Neal stayed by her side for most of them. Eventually she insisted that he go and grab a bite to eat, which he did.
“What a relief,” Heroux said. “I thought he would never leave.”
Laura smiled. He is very loyal. “If you really wanted him to leave I’m surprised you didn’t order him out yourself.”
“Ah, well if if had been called for I would have, but I don’t like to separate loved ones unless I have to. The two of you appear to be rather close.”
Laura sighed. “Yes, we are, sort of.”
The doctor raised an eyebrow in a grandmotherly kind of way. “Sort of?”
“Yes. You see it’s complicated.”
“Ah Oui. I’ve heard that before. Love should never be complicated.”
“You make it sound so easy.”
“It is. Love is simple. Now relationships, they can be tricky. I never did figure those out myself.”
“Well Neal and I have a lot to figure out.”
After another test and a little rest, Neal strode back into the medical tent, followed by Captain Bell and Chief Henderson.
“How are you feeling Doctor Banks?” Bell asked.
“Much better Captain.”
“Chief Henderson and I have been doing a little research. Doctor Heroux, you may be interested in this as well. It’s about that necklace device.” Bell motioned toward Henderson. “Chief?”
“Yes, I did some checking, especially after you mentioned memory serialisation. It was a fairly new field of technological study when we left Earth. The idea was to be able to store memories and thoughts from the human mind, in much the same way as we do with electronic data.”
“It makes sense in a way. We back up out computers, why not back up out brains as well.”
“It sounds like foolishness to me,” Heroux said.
“In any case,” Henderson said, ignoring the doctor’s opinion, “that necklace appears to be an early prototype. It was designed to act as a recorder. It took a memory stream from a person’s mind and recorded it for later playback.”
“That’s what happened to you Laura,” Neal said. “You got the playback.”
“Yeah, I figured most of that while I was under. The thing I don’t understand is that near the end, I took control. I changed the memory, and the people around me reacted to what I was saying. Where did that come from if it were just a memory?”
“At that point the program was degrading and your brain was suffering damage,” Hereoux said. “I suspect your subconscious simply filled in the blanks, like it would in a dream.”
“What memories did you experience?” Bell asked.
The device was originally worn by a young woman named Janicka Brauer. She was a passenger on the Phoenix Captain.”
Bell’s eyes grew larger at the mention of that ship.
“Her idea was to document their voyage and new life on Xinju. I can confirm that they made it here. They landed on the surface with the intention of starting a colony.”
“I can’t tell you that. I know that there was a geyser field near their landing site.”
“I understand there are a few of them scattered around the planet surface.”
“I suspect that the boat that Neal and I found was built by one of the Phoenix settlers. In fact, I think his name might have been Kenneth Bailey.”
“It’s a shame we can’t know more,” Bell said. “But given the danger that it represents, I don’t think that we can risk using the device any further.”
“But Captain,” Laura said. “The answers to all our questions are stored in that necklace.”
“You can’t know that Doctor. You may have seen all there was to see.”
“That can be easily checked.”
“The device will be studied, but I will not allow anybody to put it on. I’m sorry Doctor, but the risks are just too great. Perhaps one day when we know more about how to control it safely.”
Laura’s heart sank. She desperately wanted to know what became of the Phoenix colony. She also wanted to know what happened to Janicka and Kenneth.
“I’ll be sending a team to examine the boat and the skeletal remains in detail. You are welcome to lead that team if the Doctor believes you’re up to it.”
“She’ll be all right,” Heroux confirmed.
“Then I’ll leave you all to it. Good day.”
Bell and Henderson left.
“I think I’ll let you have some time,” Heroux said. “I’ll be in the back room doing some cell cultures if you need me.”
“That wasn’t exactly subtle,” Neal said after she’d left. Laura looked into his eyes.
“We need to talk.”