--then scooted her chair over to the microscope. Amira only needed a glance at the holographic zoom floating over the scope. The viral cells were replicating rapidly, budding and splitting at a phenomenal rate.
"Hey, Mariana, look at this." Amira indicated the hologram, then was struck, at once, with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu: something beyond the familiarity of her lab and its clean white surfaces, or the flat icy plains of Europa beyond the carbonglass windows. And more than the déjà vu, there was a feeling of instantaneousness, that this moment had arisen out of nothing, that nothing was all that had been there before, that everything had just--appeared.
"Dios mío," said Mariana. I've never seen growth like it, she'll say. "I've never seen growth like it. What triggered it?"
Amira shook her head, trying to dislodge the sensation. "I don't know. Perhaps it's spontaneous after 36 hours in the oxygen atmosphere. We should go to the dorm, ask Cris and Helena's holograms about their death yesterday."
Mariana's lips twisted in distaste. "You go. Talking with the ghosts unsettles me." Her fingers drifted to the copper stud behind her ear, capturing the data that would allow her personality to be reconstructed in the event of death, like Cris & Helena's ghosts.
"This is too important to be squeamish about the holograms. We need to find out when they started feeling the effects and see if the timing fits these results. I'll contact Michael and ask if he'll grant us access."
"Oh, I'm sure he will if you ask."
"If he does," said Amira, "it will simply be because he is an excellent commander and cognizant of the necessity of my professional request." She pushed Mariana's chair in mock anger, enough to send them both sliding in the low gravity.
"I was there when you first arrived," said Mariana, laughing as she pulled herself back to the table. "You'll never convince me there's nothing going on between you."
Amira struggled to stop a smile. Her personal effects had been damaged in her transit to Europa--a micrometeorite hull breach in the cargo bay--and Michael, a foot taller and twice the mass of her petite frame, had jokingly offered some spare clothes. After two months with only one outfit, though, Amira wasn't in the mood to be his punchline, so she'd accepted his ridiculous offer. She'd managed to keep a straight face until the very end, when she'd stood before him draped in his oversized kit. "Look, we had some... history back on Earth, but we keep it purely professional here."
"Sure you do. When's he back from Ganymede?"
"Not for another--" but he was about to walk through the door. How did she know?
The quarantine airlock beeped and slid open, and Michael stepped in, his stocky frame graceful in the lower gravity. Amira didn't fight the smile this time, Mariana's accusations be damned.
"Amira," he said, his brown eyes sad and his voice thick with--something. How had they left it the last time they'd been together? They hadn't argued, had they? Now she thought about it, Amira couldn't remember the last time they'd been together. How long had it been?
"I thought you were surveying on Ganymede?" she asked.
"I... I wanted to say hi. See how you were."
Mariana stood up with an exaggerated wink at Amira. "I'll take my break," she said loudly, then left through the airlock.
Amira indicated the hologram over her microscope. "We think we've identified how the outbreaks are starting--"
"I didn't come to see how your work is, Amira. I came to see you."
"Shouldn't we wait until downtime for that?" The sense of déjà vu had faded, as if they were off-script now.
Michael's sad eyes looked sadder still. When had they begun to crinkle so much? "The work can wait. There's no urgency."
"No urgency? Three outbreaks in two weeks! The next one could contaminate the whole base and kill us all. I need access to the dorm recording from yesterday so I can interrogate the holographic ghosts--"
"Won't work," he said, his answer ready too quick. "The recordings degraded, damaged the brain patterns too much. The holograms lost sentience and couldn't converse meaningfully anymore. We had to wipe them." Amira knew that for a lie. Degradation took years of bit decay, even in Jovian radiation. The synaptic data was remarkably resilient to corruption. Even in virtual form, the brain found new pathways to work around any damage. She'd be dead before that recording decayed so badly.
"Work can wait an hour," Michael said. "It's been so long since I've seen you."
"It can't have been that long." When had it been?
"Any time apart from you feels like too long."
His easiness with romance still surprised her at times. "You missed me then, brown bear?"
He should have smiled at the pet name, but if anything he looked morose. Had he really come all this way to mope? He knew this sort of brooding annoyed her.
But she didn't feel annoyed right now. She poked at her emotions, like jabbing her tongue into the gap where a tooth should be, and found nothing. An entirely flat response, even though she knew, intellectually, that nothing aggravated her like Michael feeling sorry for himself. He was too damn gorgeous and clever to waste his time on self-pity.
She still felt impatience, though, and the miserable silence was dragging. "So, what have you been up to?" she asked, slightly too forced in her cheeriness.
"Keeping busy with data collection. Ganymede's geology is more complex than early scans suggested..." He kept talking, but Amira's mind was chewing everything over. Why couldn't she feel annoyed? Why the déjà vu, the amnesia, the instantaneousness? All she could recall was this lab, now, with Mariana.
On a hunch, Amira tapped her wristscreen to ping Mariana. Nothing. There should have been an immediate echo but she wasn't even showing in the base. As if she'd stepped out the door and disappeared. Amira went to the computer and tried to run a search there, but it had frozen, and wasn't responding to her input.
"Are you okay, Amira?"
She realised he'd still been talking when she'd stepped away, caught up in her own thoughts. "Sorry. Work on my mind, I guess."
He smiled ruefully. "This is that first sea sample all over again, isn't it? You got so wrapped up in analysing it you forgot dinner. I'd spent months hoarding spices from the arboretum, and it all went cold. I had to..."
Amira couldn't remember that at all. She tried to dredge up other memories of her and Michael, from Europa and from Earth, but all she could bring to mind was her first day here, wearing his clothes. The same memory she'd thought of earlier, but no others.
She reached out to touch his hand. He drew it back smoothly and subtly, not breaking the flow of his sentence, and if Amira hadn't been looking for the movement she wouldn't have questioned it.
But she knew. Holograms could only interact with other projections, where the computer could simulate the reaction. So he'd withdrawn because she couldn't touch him.
Because she wasn't really there.
Amira choked back tears. She--the real she--must be dead. It was most likely the virus replicating under her scope that had killed her, if the base had saved this recording. She touched the implant behind her ear, capturing all her neural activity and streaming it into a buffer--or rather, she corrected, it had streamed her last hour into that buffer, and she was the reconstruction based on that data. It not only captured memories and sensations but the fundamental structure of neurons and synapses illuminated by regular brain activity. Her thought patterns arose from that complexity, drifting across synaptic pathways, now virtual rather than physical. The ghost in the machine. Literally.
She'd had no idea that it would feel so convincing. The ghosts had always seemed hollow, but she felt alive.
Ha. As if she would know. If she was based on incomplete data, she couldn't conceive of anything outside her limits. Should she be able to feel her heart beating, her eyes blinking, the brush of air down her throat? Maybe she was as hollow as the other ghosts had seemed to her.
It explained the instantaneousness. It explained why she couldn't feel annoyed--if she'd never been annoyed in the original recording then that brain pattern wouldn't have been captured, and the reconstruction (her, right now, a computer pretending) couldn't emulate it. It explained the memory loss and the déjà vu: the only memories she had were her thoughts and experiences from her final hour. While she'd been re-enacting original events, she'd been recalling the memory too.
With a sick sense of curiosity, and an irresistible morbidity, she tried to remember her death, to remember forward. It filled her mind in horrifying detail--the shivering, the stinging eyes, slipping in red vomit and falling to the floor, every breath dragged in painfully like it was on hooks, losing sensation in her extremities and trying to catalogue the order, knowing she'd be able to recount it as a ghost--
"Amira?" Michael was frowning, worried, his dark skin wrinkling more than she remembered it doing.
She scrambled for an excuse, tatters of memory sticking to her mind and clogging up her thoughts. "Sorry. I'm exhausted. It's been a rough couple of weeks."
Emotions fought on Michael's face, then he deliberately relaxed it and spoke in a breezy tone of voice. God, he was so transparent. "Hey, you remember that mark on Ganymede's south pole? The one in the photos? You said it reminded you of the birthmark on my, you know..."
Amira didn't know. Michael continued, telling her about the geological process behind the mark, but something else was troubling her. Why wasn't Michael asking about the virus? That was the point of the sentient holograms: to act as a first-hand witness. To be able to discuss that final hour, to analyse what threatened the expedition and stop it before it killed anyone else. So why was he wasting time chattering, instead of on more important topics?
Because they weren't important anymore. They couldn't be. That was why he looked so much older. It must all be years ago.
He'd never moved on. He wasn't using the holograms for an investigation, he was using them as a memory. He was as trapped in this simulation as she was.
Guilt and loss choked her. The loss of Michael more than the loss of her life, and the guilt that she'd trapped him. Because for some reason she could still remember him in this half-gone existence, enough to interact with him in the way he craved. Perhaps her love for him was strong enough to transcend death?
God, how ridiculous. She really wasn't her true self if she could entertain that thought. Oh, of course! Mariana had mentioned Michael, so Amira had thought about him, and so those thoughts and memories had been captured. A chance comment by Mariana, and it had allowed Michael to keep on replaying the hologram, pretending she was alive.
He had to let go. And she had to help him.
She couldn't tell him to go, because he'd ignore her. He'd boot up the hologram afresh tomorrow, and she'd remember none of this, and she might never come to the truth again. And Mariana! Were there replays when she worked it out, realised that she'd become what she hated? Or did she always leave when Michael entered, and vanish, only ever living in five minute flashes?
Amira had to break the cycle. She had to make him think there was no point in booting up the hologram at all. That it was degraded, and had to be wiped.
"We think we've identified how the outbreaks are starting," she said, trying to match her earlier intonation.
"The work doesn't matter, Amira. Only you matter to me."
"We think we've identified how the outbreaks are starting."
He bit his lip but the tears still welled up. Amira barely held herself together. She wanted to say goodbye, and thank you, and above all I love you, but if she did he'd know this was a ruse. She had to stay strong. She had to convince him.
"We think we've identified how the outbreaks are starting," she said.
Michael stood, openly crying now. "I love you, Amira," he whispered.
He walked out of the airlock, shoulders slumped and shaking.
Amira wondered if she'd know the moment when Michael powered her down for the last time, or whether she'd just go.
This one started out as a Codex contest entry, for the summer flash contest Flash Saviour of the Universe. I owe power high fives to everyone there who helped with this story, and frankly to everyone there in general.
I consider the audio version of this the best version, because it has Tina Connolly narrating, and omg it's so good. Go listen!
All content (text and images) is © Matt Dovey 2021 unless otherwise noted.
2-column layout based on design by Matthew James Taylor.
Background photo by NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran.