I could have been the cloud's first victim aboard H.M.S. Conqueror.
There's a lot that our science staff still don't know about the matrix of energy that had slipped in from interstellar space, passing through electron-stressed titanium steel as if nothing was there---but its intelligence, and its lust for life, cannot be denied.
The first life it took had belonged to Technician Thomas Gilford, a tall, spindly man with an uncanny knack of solving problems in his chosen field, and one of the steadiest darts hands on the ship. There had been a late-night darts match between Starboard Security Watch One and the Computer Room; Gilford's eye for a double top had not deserted him, and after the celebrations he had set out alone for his room. He never reached it.
Gilford must have been puzzled to see the mist ahead of him in the corridor, with its dancing flecks of gold and scarlet. Probably, he put it down to tiredness, or the beer he'd been drinking, and walked right into it.
I heard the scream.
It was one o'clock in the morning, by the Greenwich Mean Time that all ships of the Commonwealth Space Fleet use when they're not on-planet, and I was walking along one of H.M.S. Conqueror's long, grey-carpeted corridors. Or, despite the artificial gravity, I could say that I was floating, having spent an evening with the love of my life, Lieutenant Fl'ff. I'd got Chief Chef Alcock, who'd owed me a favour, to make us one of the lieutenant's favourite fish dishes and, picking the hour carefully, we'd had one of the smaller dining rooms to ourselves --- we had taken our time, talking, and sometimes not talking ... and later we had moved on to the ship's theatre, and watched a double bill of quite ancient two-dimensional films, about which I can remember absolutely nothing.
Just before midnight, we'd headed for Fl'ff's room for a goodnight drink, and talked some more ... so I was at peace with each world for several light-years in every direction, and wouldn't have noticed anyone else out walking the corridors, even if it had been Commodore Jenkins himself playing a one-man band, complete with harmonica, cymbals, and big bass drum.
In short, I'd have walked into that cloud; but Gilford must have been forty metres ahead of me, so I survived ... he did not.
The scream brought me back to reality. It was high, and harsh, like no noise a human throat should ever have to make. My view was partially obscured by a fire safety door, but I ran forward until I could see that it was a crewman on the floor, and then hit the nearest intercom station on its emergency button.
"Corporal Frank, at location 211," I said. "I heard a scream, and can see someone on the ground just ahead. He's not moving."
"We'll send a medic," the bridge replied. It sounded like Lieutenant Wayman, who is normally in charge of the night watch. "Is anyone else there?"
"I'll send someone from security. In the meantime, Frank, you'd better check if he's alive. Bridge out."
I hurried forward, and crouched by Gilford. One look told me he was dead. Even asleep, nobody's body is ever that relaxed, and his face was chalk-white. I didn't touch him; I looked round, in case a black- cloaked murderer was still lurking nearby, knife in hand ...
If spaceship corridors were furnished with chandeliers, I'd have been on top of the nearest one. But I recognised the peculiarly gruff, flat voice of Fenris, and, willing my heart to return to a more economical rate, turned towards the speaker.
Fenris is unlike any other person on the Conqueror. We have quite a number of people of non-Terran stock on board, and Lieutenant Fl'ff herself is a Fircha'an, with their curious eyebrows that grow right into their hair, and the delicate, beautifully pointed ears. Fenris is a product of Old Earth, though, with grey fur, four legs, an elegantly expressive tail, and a lolling pink tongue; he's a sort of cross between a wolf and an alsatian (or german shepherd, if you wish), genetically engineered to an IQ of about 120, with an almost-human voice-box and, thanks to Fleet Command, one or two built-in electronic surprises. He began life as a pet or bodyguard, a rich man's toy, but now he was assigned to H.M.S. Conqueror.
"Easy there, Corporal," he said to me. "I heard what you told the bridge. But didn't you see anything?"
"I didn't even know Torn Gilford was there, Fenris, until I heard the scream ---and then all I saw was what we can see now. Did you hear it?" I shuddered.
"Yes, I did, although I was 400 metres away." He lowered his muzzle and sniffed Gilford's hand. "Maybe the medic will have an explanation of what happened ... But my instincts are telling me to be very careful on the way back to my room, and that applies to you too, Frank!"
I nodded. With his ancestry, Fen's instincts were generally right. He normally took his exercise at this time of night, when the corridor lights had been dimmed and nobody was around to interrupt ... but there'd be no more of that tonight.
A medic I didn't know came into sight, along with Sergeant Williams; Fenris and I both relaxed slightly. After telling the sergeant what little we knew, we both headed off for our quarters. Considering the amount of hard vacuum around the ship, I thought the sergeant's parting advice to the pair of us "not to leave town while the investigation proceeded" to be in rather poor taste.
I was a few minutes late getting to the canteen the following morning; by the time I'd filled my tray, Lieutenant Fl'ff had finished her usual poached eggs and tomatoes, and was spreading honey on a piece of brown toast. Lieutenant Luke, who's in charge of the day watch, and is also the ship's security expert, was maintaining surveillance on his customary glass of orange juice, and saying something mildly amusing to the youngster of our group, brunette Gunner Nette, who in her own ebullient way was making concerted inroads into sausage, bacon, tomatoes and mushrooms.
"Good morning, Francis," Luke said. `I knew I wouldn't have two lovely ladies to myself for long with you around."
"Very true, Lieutenant," I agreed, unloading my tray.
"I heard what you discovered in the corridor last night," Luke said; He'd have had a security briefing over his intercom while he dressed. "And I've told Fl'ff all about it."
"You should have told me," Fl'ff said softly, without looking up.
That stopped me for a moment. "Knock on your door at 1.30 in the morning?" I said finally. "What would the neighbours think?"
Luke downed half his orange juice--rather noisily, I thought. `Your trouble, Francis my man" -- a phrase he uses in deference to his West Indian ancestry, though his family have lived in & around London for at least three centuries--"is that you're too conventional."
"I'm sorry, but I'm not used to discovering corpses in the early hours, or at any other time, come to that," I told him. "I reported it right away, I stayed there until your people arrived, and then I went to bed."
"Quite right, too," Nette said between mouthfuls, running a hand carelessly through her shiny, dark-brown hair. "Is there any more tea in the pot?"
Luke pushed it across the table, and Fl'ff refilled Nette's cup, and her own; I handed her the small tray of milk sachets, and Fl'ff smiled, and met my eyes for the first time that morning. Suddenly, I felt terrific.
It was good to be among friends. I was glad I'd joined the Commonwealth Space Navy, despite the occasional dangers of the job, and I was triply glad I'd been assigned to H.M.S. Conqueror. On some vessels I'd known, mixing like this between senior bridge officers and "other ranks" just wouldn't have happened, but here these distinctions hardly mattered, except in actual command situations. Of course, Fl'ff and I were rather limited in our private relationship by Fleet regulations -but you can't have everything, and I would rather have her smile than a night of steamy passion in one of those disreputable establishments found close to every well-appointed spaceport.
"lf I could have your attention, Frank", Luke said. "We have had the preliminary medical report on Technician Gilford, and it's definitely not natural causes he died from."
He looked grim. "I'm not going to go into details over breakfast, but this could be big trouble. At ten o'clock, there will be a meeting in the bridge area's briefing room, with the Captain, Chief Engineer Palmer, Lieutenant Fl'ff, Lieutenant Wayman, little me, Sergeant Williams, Fenris, and little you all in attendance."
"So have some more tea, Corporal," Fl'ff said. "Because it looks as if you won't get a coffee break this morning."
And Fl'ff, as ever, was correct. I got there a few minutes early, and filled a couple of water decanters; there were plenty of plastic cups around, and somebody else had put out the usual pads and pencils, including one of each for young Fenris. Very thoughtful. I walked out onto the bridge itself -- not that I had any official reason to be there, but they're used to me hanging around.
Lieutenant Fl'ff was seated at the main scanning screen, with Chief Engineer Palmer, the man in charge of H.M.S. Conqueror's drive systems, at her side. His steel-grey crew-cut seemed to clash with Fl'ff's short. gently curling light brown hair, as they sorted out some schematics of the Conqueror for our meeting.
Fl'ff sensed my approach. turned, and smiled briefly, while her hands played over the keyboard and brought up another cross-section of our home away from home ---I smiled back. and walked across to Luke, who was talking to Ensign Kathlar, a well-proportioned blonde he was fond of ... and a friend of Fl'ff's.
I was expecting some gentle jibe from Luke, who's as easy-going and sunny-tempered as he is efficient, but he hardly even smiled, just gestured that I should sit down, and continued to talk to Kathlar.
"My point is, just be careful, lady... he was saying quietly. "And whatever happens, don't be out in the corridors late at night."
Lieutenant Wayman came in, a rare sight at this time of day since he's on permanent night shift, followed closely by Sergeant Williams, looking uneasy in the rarified atmosphere of the bridge. It seemed to be time to start the meeting, so in we went. I helped Fenris by getting his chair back from the table to a suitable distance, and then steadied it as he sprang up onto it. I was glad to sit next to him; as the junior crewman there, at least I out-ranked him, as in theory he's a civilian.
Captain Russell hurried in, looking as usual every inch the Elizabethan freebooter, with his neatly trimmed black beard, and sat down quickly, glancing at the blank note-pad before him.
"Gentlemen, what we say here must go no further", he began, looking at us all one by one. "And that included ladies and wolves", he added with a very faint smile. "It is by now common knowledge, I believe, that Technician Gilford was killed last night. But it mustn't become known that Gunner Peters was also killed in a corridor on the next level up a few minutes later -- nor that Marksman Carr was found dead in his room, apparently from the same causes."
He paused, and fingered his beard thoughtfully. "Lieutenant Luke, you have seen the medical reports, I believe?"
"Yes, Captain. It's the same in all three cases. They don't know what caused it, but every cell in those three bodies was stone cold dead."
Fl'ff cleared her throat, and took up the story. "Normally, when a man dies, the various parts of his body continue to work for a while. In an emergency, you could take blood from a fresh corpse and use it for a transfusion - the cells would die from lack of oxygen after a time, but a bullet in the brain has no immediate effect on the blood in the victim's arteries. This is not the case here. Whatever killed these three men killed every bit of them, and, as far as we can tell, it did it instantaneously."
If the atmosphere had been cool before ... now it was ice-cold. We had an enemy on board who killed easily and without warning. We didn't know its motives, or what it looked like, or how it lived. We didn't know if we could protect ourselves, or affect it in any way, even.
I kept out of the discussion, which was pretty high-powered. Chief Palmer talked of the possibility of channelling part of our defensive screening capability from the outer hull to the internal metal walls; Lieutenant Wayman suggested extra patrols for the next evening; Lieutenant Fl'ff pointed out that the three death sites were on different levels, in an almost straight line, giving the distinct impression that our foe could pass through any wall, door. floor or ceiling.
Soon after twelve, Russell stood up. "All right, Lieutenant Wayman," he said. "You will use starboard security watches one and two for corridor patrols tonight ---I leave the details to you, but I'd suggest that you keep to units of at least three people. and keep in constant radio contact."
"And I'll use the bridge computer", Fl'ff said, "to see if there are any unusual energy sources moving around."
"In that case, you'd better get some rest this afternoon," Wayman said. `The same goes for the two starboard security watches, of course."
"Me too", Fenris said. "I was in at the start of this, and I want to be in at the finish."
We started at nine that evening. I had taken a pill and slept all the afternoon, but I felt more tired than before; hopefully, the situation would improve as the night wore on.
We had split into groups of three, and began to patrol the corridors. There were twenty groups, for five kilometres of main corridor - that meant on average a gap of 250 metres between teams. I had the radio in my group, while Marksman Perry had a laser pistol, and Fenris had his instincts and his teeth. I was glad Fen had volunteered to be in the same group as me; nothing was going to sneak up on us with him around ... I hoped!
The first three hours went by without any problems for us, or any of the other groups. It was just gone midnight, when we were passing the spot where Gilford had died, that we all felt something -- strange.
Fenris gave a low growl, and I staggered, feeling suddenly unreal, with a "singing" in my ears. Everything seemed so far away, as if I was about to faint. I looked at Perry, and tried to say something, but he felt it too; he had his pistol raised towards the ceiling, where one spot seemed to mist over - or was it my eyes?
"211", I said into the radio-linker ... then I pressed the button to transmit and said it again, my voice sounding strangely hollow in my ears. "Something is happening here, and we don't--"
Perry fired, hitting the ceiling. I moved back, half expecting the ceiling to fall in, and saw the cloud coming down into sight. It was like an early morning mist over a river, only bunched into a single unit; and inside, bright sparks flickered and shifted. Perry lurched to one side, and fired straight through it, but it still drifted down, towards him...
Fenris made a snuffling sound, and shook himself, then looked up, like a dog about to snap at an irritating fly. Perry was leaning against the wall, the cloud a hand's breadth from his head, as I threw the radio at it just as Fenris launched himself into Perry, shoving him roughly away and down. Time seemed to stop, the radio just hung in mid-air ...
And the next thing I saw was Lieutenant Fl'ff, kneeling in front of me, one deliciously cool hand on my forehead.
"I always knew angels looked like this", I muttered ... and then I noticed L ieutenant Wayman and Captain Russell behind Fl'ff, and Fenris to one side.
"This one will be okay", she reported. "He's not as badly stunned as Perry."
"Perry's okay?" I started to sit up, very carefully.
"Yes, Frank", Fl'ff said. "The medics have taken him away for observation, and he's got what looks like bad sunburn across part of his face, but he was able to walk."
Captain Russell squatted down to our level. "All right, Corporal; Fenris has told us what he saw, and now it's your turn."
I told him, from the first feeling of strangeness right to the end. "It was uncanny, the way my radio just seemed to hang there," I finished.
" I didn't see that", Fenris said. "Once I'd pushed Perry down, I blacked out too ... Where is that radio, anyway?"
Lieutenant Wayman, who'd been standing back from us, brought it over. "It's not working", he commented.
Fl'ff took it from him, pressing its buttons and then shaking it cautiously. "It should take more than being thrown against the wall to break one of those", she said. "I'd like to get this analysed by our science people, Captain."
Russell nodded, stood up. He turned slightly to include Wayman. "Well, you'd better continue with one less three-man team, Lieutenant. Wake me if anything else happens."
He walked off towards his quarters. Wayman and Fl'ff started back towards the bridge; Fenris and I followed. I felt fine again, and I wanted to know more about our murderous visitor; my guess was that Fl'ff would manage to find a few answers. Besides, I like to be with her, right?
We reached the bridge. Wayman began a series of routine checks with the security teams, while Fl'ff found a small screwdriver and began to take my radio to pieces.
"Frank, would you find a spare power core for this?"
I rummaged through a drawer at Luke's station; that man is always prepared, and, sure enough, there was half a pack of cores visible. I took one over to Fl'ff, and she fitted it in the radio, pushed the button.
"Nothing", she reported. "It didn't just drain the power, Frank, it killed the whole thing." She smiled, and put the radio down. "We'd better get a full technical analysis in the morning."
"Did our energy scanners pick up the cloud at all?"
"Not a glimmer", she told me. "Thanks to your quick thinking in alerting us, I was able to do a saturation-scan on zone 211, but it didn't catch it. But let's run it through."
Fl'ff called up the schematic of the area, and began the playback. Fenris and I watched the "bird's eye view" of our brush with peril in silence; the computer had traced in our outlines, and Perry's, around the glowing auras. Fl'ff must have helped it, I decided, as Fenris was wolf-shaped rather than human.
The playback ended, and Fl'ff rewound the sequence. "When Perry fired, Frank, did he hit the cloud?"
"Yes - or, at any rate, the beam went through it. It didn't seem to affect it at all. Can you play it through at a slower speed?"
We watched again, at one-tenth speed. Perry fired once, I moved back, Perry fired again, then we all moved, and I threw the radio, then Fenris leapt at Perry, and forced him away from the danger. Then we all three lay still; we had been helpless, if the cloud had come in lower it could have killed us all.
"You can even see the radio in flight ---though it vanishes when its power gets drained," I said. "You'd think the power would continue to register, even transferred into the cloud."
"It's got its own screening, Frank. It just swallows energy to live."
"Just energy?" Fenris was still watching the screen, which showed the three unmoving bodies. "If it normally exists in interstellar space, then being inside this ship makes it like a kid in a candy store."
"What we need, then," Fl'ff said, "Is a very attractive bar of chocolate, with a couple of sleeping pills in the middle --Fen, I think we've got the beginnings of an idea on our hands here."
The following night, at ten to twelve, I watched on the bridge's main viewing screen as Fenris came out of Technical Lab 3; he was wearing his collar and leash, and the form at the other end of the metal chain was unmistakably that of Lieutenant Fl'ff.
Which was strange, as the real Fl'ff was, I'm relieved to say, sitting beside me. What Fenris led out was a projection -- a completely convincing, physically solid image of Fl'ff, built up by a remarkably complex machine and maintained by some micro-electronics implanted between our tame wolf's shoulders. Fenris could "work" the projection like a type of super-sophisticated ventriloquist's dummy, as long as it held onto the leash ---and it could even operate independently, within previously defined parameters for a few minutes. Unfortunately, it was unstable, and you'd suddenly find yourself shaking hands with a heap of metal oxides, in a room half-saturated with the stench of sulphur and hydrogen sulphide, known to junior chemists as the smell of rotten eggs. Given the wolf's sense of humour, I found the addition of Fl'ff to his repertoire disconcerting.
Anyway, the idea was, if the cloud was on the prowl again, to give it this projection to aim at, and to have the event recorded on video, audio, and every wavelength our computers could analyse. That was the plan; how were we to know what it would lead to?
Fenris walked forward slowly, and the scanners followed. The "Fl'ff" he led looked straight at us, smiled, & waved.
"A friend of yours, Frank?" the real Fl'ff asked, with a much more realistic smile.
"Could be", I said. "She certainly seems vaguely familiar from somewhere ... nice pair of legs, I must - ouch!"
I decided that silence was my best bet ---and watched Fenris and his projection walk slowly down the corridor. Besides, Lieutenant Wayman was now standing just behind us.
For fifteen minutes, Fenris padded quietly along, leading his Fl'ff and followed at a safe distance by our mobile scanning equipment, which was working on remote control, just in case the cloud was attracted to it rather than to our bait. And then Fl'ff noticed the mist ahead, in the corridor, and grabbed my arm, pointing. As soon as Fenris saw it, he'd break contact with his projection, and let it walk forward alone ... why didn't he see it? He kept walking!
I grabbed Fl'ff's hand -- we gripped each other's hands as if our lives depended on it, as we watched Fenris and the decoy walk forward. The energy-cloud just hung in mid-air, not moving, just sparkling; Fenris was staggering, and weaving from side to side as if he was drunk, but at last he stopped, and the decoy figure of Fl'ff dropped the leash and moved on forward. It touched the mist---and the mist seemed to be sucked into the figure. It walked on, unchanged except that it seemed to have taken on the mist's eerie sparkling -- then it turned, walked straight at the wall of the corridor, and disintegrated.
Fl'ff gently disengaged her hand, and activated the console relays. We watched as a series of power readings came up on the screen.
"It escaped into the wall", she reported. "Whatever it is, it's more than electromagnetic in nature. We'll have to run the tapes through the computer, and see what it comes up with."
"I wonder if we hurt it", Lieutenant Wayman said. "We can hardly see it, it doesn't register on our normal scanners, ---it's just too alien..."
"In interstellar space, energy would be precious", Fl'ff said. "You'd hardly want to radiate it. And if energy isn't radiating, how do you detect it?"
It was mid-day when the intercom in my room buzzed, rousing me out of a light, uneasy sleep. I sat up, and pushed the button.
"Frank? Were you asleep?" It was Fl'ff calling.
"Only slightly", I told her. "Is there any news?"
"Not a thing, darling. We got no energy traces on that mist, other than some reflected light -- but nobody else has been attacked."
"Maybe we gave it indigestion."
"Speaking of which, I'm going to the canteen for a late breakfast. Shall I order something for you as well, Frank?"
"I'll be there in five minutes."
The intercom clicked off. I pushed the quilt to one side, and got up---and, five minutes later, shaved, washed, and fully dressed, I was entering the canteen.
The place was almost deserted -- but Fl'ff was at a table by the wall, just unloading a tray. while Fenris stood back as if supervising.
"Just in time, Corporal," Fenris said. "The first lunch sitting starts in a few minutes, but your friend has influence."
"It must be those long eye-lashes", I told him gravely. "Good morning."
"And the same to you", Fl'ff replied. "I don't know if it's a late breakfast or an early lunch, but it's hot, and smells rather good. D'you want a glass of orange juice, Frank?"
I did; we ate, and the conversation remained on an occasional, and inconsequential, level, until Luke came in just as we were finishing.
..I might have known I'd find you three here", he commented. "Are you all fit for another night's stalking?''
"Certainly", Fl'ff said. "What's the plan, security man?"
"Another electronic decoy, if Fenris doesn't mind. It may not have got us much information last time, but our technical aces are recalibrating all the scanners--"
"And nobody got killed", Fenris added gruffly. "It's a very strange feeling, getting close to that thing, but if it saves lives, I'll do it every night."
"Not using my image, I hope", Fl'ff said, pushing her plate away and getting gracefully to her feet. "How about using Commodore Jenkins instead?"
"Fen's supposed to attract the thing, not scare it away", I commented. "This mist's a sort of energy vampire, so tradition dictates a fetching female. What do you say, Fen?"
Fenris snorted. "A vampire? You have been watching too many old movies."
"Well, it is, in a way", Luke said. "But don't use that term to anyone else, please, or you'll start a panic."
I nodded. "You're right, it makes me feel spooky just to say the word. Well, what do we do until sundown?"
It's strange, now, to think how we all blithely assumed that the cloud would only come out at "night", when it was such an arbitrary division of time; perhaps the quietness, the reduced lighting and the lack of much pedestrian traffic appealed to it somehow.
I took a sleeping pill, and went back to bed; the odd hours and the tension must have been getting to me, there was nothing else I wanted to do. I didn't even set my alarm clock.
It was just after 2300 hours that I woke, and groaned slightly. My room was lit only by the clock's illuminated dial and the small blue bulb glowing securely above the intercom, but once I'd got my head clear of the pillow and my eyes focussed, I could just about make out the room's furniture, the wash-basin, the door...
What had wakened me? The inside of my mouth tasted like a snail's armpit; I summoned some saliva, and swallowed, and sat up slowly. The door rattled, as if somebody was trying its handle, and I shivered, and pulled the jacket of my pyjamas closer around me.
Back with the bed-clothes, down with the feet, on with the slippers, and I was standing up ... but without putting the light on. I half crossed to the wash-basin, thinking vaguely about a mouth-wash and perhaps a tablet to fend off the headache I could feel hovering over me ... and the door rattled again.
The doors of officer quarters have got little security viewers in them, to give a wide-angle view of any visitors before you unlock the door -- invaluable in times of mutiny, doubtless. As a corporal, my door didn't rate such a refinement, and the room itself was only a third as big ... but better than the open dormitories, I suppose. Anyway, short of shouting "Who's there?" in a croaky voice that, I suspected, would also manage to be high-pitched, the only way to find out what -was going on was to open the door.
I think I ran my fingers through my hair; I know I hitched up my pyjama trousers an inch. And then I flipped the catch on the door, and slid it back manually enough to peer out.
Even the corridor's light was more than my eyes were ready for, but it took only a fraction of a second before I smiled, flung the door wider, and took a step to the side. After all, even in my sleep-sodden state, it didn't take me long to recognise Lieutenant Fl'ff's face and form!
She smiled, put a finger to her lips, and stepped quickly in; I closed the door behind her, and quickly clicked on the strip-light over the basin, to give a decently low level of illumination.
"I'm sorry", I said in a low voice. "I took a pill, and didn't set my alarm. These are odd hours we're keeping."
She looked round the room, almost as if she'd never seen it before, and then looked at me with such a strange, sad smile.
"I know I've missed dinner, but I can easily get a sandwich or two. Am I going to patrol with Fenris again, Fl'ff?"
And still she said nothing. She moved forward like a ballet dancer, reached out her arms so that for a moment her hands almost cupped my face, and then rapidly retreated, to sit on the foot of the bed, so delicately that it hardly sank under her weight at all.
I shook my head gently. Why the playacting, the silence?
"Has anything happened, Fluffy?"
I walked towards the so familiar, so beautiful form. Had I taken the right sleeping pill? Had I taken a dozen? Did I wake, or dream? I just felt unreal, as if I was observing my body from outside, and the control was slipping away from me. Was I ill?
A childhood illness came back to me; how I had suddenly felt so very strange, how a hissing, rushing noise had filled my ears and I had gone so very pale my mother had rushed to catch me, lest I fall in a dead faint. Just a touch of sun, really ...
Fl'ff looked at me expectantly, still smiling ... but it wasn't a smile I'd seen on her face before. Did people sleepwalk with their eyes open? I felt quite terrible, and the entire length of my spine went as cold as ice, as the hair at the back of my neck tried its best to stand on end.
"Frank? Time to get up, my sleeping beauty", the intercom said, a touch of reality in a situation I could no longer classify as real. "If you take more than ten minutes, your supper will get cold."
Blocks of ice seemed to form in a line down my back, because I knew that voice. Not Luke, not Nette or Kathlar ...
I moved forward, and jerkily let myself fall onto the edge of the bed, next to -- Fl'ff? But if this was Fl'ff, if this was Lieutenant Fl'ff, whose voice had I just heard on the intercom?
"You're here", I said stupidly. It was so hard to think at all. Had she tried to catch me as I fell? Her arms were around me now, and my breath shuddered and sighed. I felt no pressure, but where her arms held me I felt numb, and I looked at the little bulb above the intercom, watched it turn from blue to green to yellow, flick on and off mechanically.
I remembered how Fenris had walked as he approached the cloud, how he'd staggered and rolled almost comically. Then I remembered the "decoy" Fl'ff waving at us, into the camera ... and I remembered how the sparkling, misty cloud had later filled that decoy figure, and walked it into the wall. Through the wall?
Death is like this, perhaps I thought. Cold, and so very fair of face. How kind Death is, to look like this for me ... and she pulled herself towards me, the room flew away from us and only the face of Fl'ff filled my vision-
Wham! My door burst down, and something large and black covered me, and there was a scream...
Fenris described it all to me later, as I lay in sick-bay under an electric blanket, shivering. Fl'ff had heard my "You're here", and immediately jumped to the conclusion I was in danger, even made the leap of intuition to see the cloud in her form once more. Fenris and Nette had been with her, and within two minutes the three of them, plus Wayman and a couple of security patrols they'd collared as they blue-shifted along the corridors, were knocking on my door, using a concussion grenade.
According to Fen, it had looked like a scene from an ancient vampire movie as he'd burst in, with the form of the beautiful maiden hunched over the near-unconscious man on the bed -- and no doubt the sight of a great grey wolf leaping across the room at them didn't do very much to dispel the illusion. The idea was to jerk me loose, of course, and I could tell by my ability to feel the bruises that he'd succeeded.
"But what about the energy-creature, Fenris?"
He used the side of one massive paw to wipe one eye, and down the side of his muzzle, and then showed his teeth, in a manner I could never be sure about - was it a reflex, a defensive snarl, or had he adopted the human habit of smiling?
"To start with it didn't move, and when I touched its side it tried to move away, like a person I mean."
Just then, Fl'ff came into the room. It wasn't the first time I had seen her since I'd come round, but I still found myself very slightly uneasy until she spoke -- one thing the energy-creature had not been able to do!
"Its energy must have got caught up with the particles of Fen's original projection of me, Frank", she said. "How are you feeling now?"
I'd stopped shivering. "All the better for seeing the real you, Fluffy."
"That's all I need, alone in the emergency hospital suite with two wolves!"
"But what happened? There was I, with Fenris half on top of me, pitched onto the floor---and the creature just sitting on the bed?"
"That's it", Fenris said. "I scrambled back, onto the floor, and Wayman and Fl'ff both threw in projection packs, the mixtures of metal oxides and flowers of sulphur that are the physical basis for the projections I can maintain--"
"And the creature attracted all the powder like a magnet, and went solid, just about", Fl'ff contributed. "We got it all onto your quilt, and took a very careful stroll to the nearest airlock. I personally watched it fall behind us on the scanners, like so much non-recycling rubbish."
"I hope somebody's tidied up my room, and issued me a new quilt", I commented. "And I need a new door too, I expect."
Fl'ff bent, and kissed me gently on my forehead.
"I dare say we'll get around to that, Frank", she said.