The full-body scanner signaled the end of its contact sequence, breaking the comfortable rhythm of noises on a cruiser at rest.
“Why do they make these so obnoxious?” she muttered, flipping the switch to initiate Sam’s emergence from the scanner.
While she waited for the readout to load on her screen, she studied Sam. Underneath the scanner’s transparent dome, he was inexplicably smiling. When the dome lifted, he opened his eyes and pantomimed exaggerated drinking motions.
“All right, jokester,” she said. “Just wait for the readout, then you can have the filtered stuff.”
Except for the whirring scanner, the noise in the infirmary subsided. She could feel the faint rumble of the engines through her feet, hear the crackle as someone opened an intercom accidentally.
She glanced at the scanner screen, which was still loading data, and then turned to fill a cup for Sam. “Six ounces of dihydrogen monoxide, filtered,” she announced.
He pushed himself into a sitting position and accepted the cup. “Water, you mean,” he said, his voice cracking. “What is it about the scanner that makes me so disoriented?”
“Maybe your overactive imagination affects your nervous system,” she suggested, refilling the cup. “The department doesn’t have to sedate many people for a scan, after all.”
He shook the last drops into his mouth. “Every time a take a trip in that thing, I come out feeling like my head’s been drained of everything useful.”
“Blame the sedation for that,” she suggested. “At least the fellows in your head will give you a moment’s peace.”
He grinned crookedly. “The Vulcan’s logic and the doctor’s emotion are equally squashed. There’s no peace for the captain to keep this time.” As he dropped back against the scanner’s flatbed, he added, “Can I have some more dihydrogen monoxide?”
The scanner signaled report completion, and she scrolled through for abnormal data. “Shouldn’t have too much, Sam, or your system will overload. You already have—”
“Really,” he interrupted, “I feel like I’m overloading from the inside. If I had water, maybe we could douse the fire.”
She adjusted the scanner’s monitor and skipped back two screens. “I think we’re going to need a lot more than water, Sam.”
She tried to keep her voice steady, and Sam tried to smile. “Hey, it can’t be that bad. A fever’s not going to kill—”
“Oh, shut up,” she said, reaching deep into her uniform pocket for her pen. “Just shut up.”
Sam slid off the table. “All right, Loretta lump-head,” he whispered. “I won’t make jokes.”
His fingers just brushed the elbow of her borrowed lab coat. For a moment, she felt as if the fabric had been instant-dried, but the heat faded. Then Sam leaned against the edge of the flatbed, almost falling over when it started to roll away from him.
She dropped her pen back into her pocket and reached out to stop the flight of the flatbed. “The scanner’s confirmed that your cells are altering. That light-producing element isn’t a problem for Lucians, but it’s literally turning up the heat in your cells.”
“So I’m going to burn up?” Sam glanced away as if he didn’t expect an answer.
She started to reply when the intercom crackled. After a moment, she rerouted the intercom through the scanner and pushed a button. The Commander’s face, still slightly pixelated, flashed onto the screen.
“Cadet Robinson, I don’t suppose this will stop you from embarking on expeditions with the native population,” he said.
Sam shook his head. “Sorry, sir. In my defense, we didn’t realize that this element existed, or that exposure would have potentially lethal consequences.”
“Suggested treatment, Officer Anderson?” A flash of light momentarily distorted his face.
“That would be up to the medical department, sir. Panzoölogists aren’t qualified—”
“I asked for suggestions, Anderson.” The light faded, and the Commander’s face reappeared.
She took a deep breath. “In order to counteract the element pervading the cadet’s system, we could expose him to an element on the extreme opposite end of the spectrum.”
Sam laughed. “What, put me on ice like they did to Cap in those old movies?”
She couldn’t help smiling. “That might keep your temperature down, but exposure to a corresponding Lucian element, some kind of anti-light principle, could potentially return your cells to their original state.”
The Commander nodded. “Thank you, Loretta.”
She executed her most precise salute. “You’re welcome, Uncle Rob.”
“See, Dad?” Sam added. “I told you she’d have an answer somewhere.”
The Commander returned her salute. “I knew she would, Sam. Commander out.” His image faded. The intercom static lasted a second longer, but the scanner shifted to standby.
Sam heaved himself onto the flatbed, sandwiching his hands between his head and the pillow. “You’re sure the Lucians have a ‘corresponding element,’ aren’t you?”
She wheeled the flatbed into the smallest infirmary compartment and turned down the room controls. “No,” she admitted, “but it’s logical.”
“Oh, the Vulcan’s disagreeing with you,” he said. “You don’t have enough data to draw a conclusion.”
She shivered as the temperature hit a low point. “Okay, let’s get some data. K’tor took you to the home of the light, probably one of the Lucian sacred places.”
“Yeah, it was underground somewhere, around their equator.” His fever-induced flush faded slightly. “He took me plenty of places, except the ice caps.”
She felt his forehead. “The ice caps? P’mëa told me that the Lucians who bring their water from the ice caps don’t shine as brightly.”
“There’s the data!” Sam announced, swatting away her hand. “If there’s a light-dampening element somewhere, it’ll be at the ice caps.”
“Maybe that isn’t enough data,” she said. “Your fever’s gone down, but it’s still a risk.”
“Forget the Vulcan,” Sam said. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my existence in a temperature-controlled cell, and the doctor’s ready to take a risk. If it’s a choice between burn up or freeze—”
“You’d rather freeze.” She matched her breathing to the rumble of the engines. “What’s the captain say?”
Sam smiled. “Whatever it takes to keep this ship running, he’s willing to try.”
She reached for her pen again, inspecting the pocket for accidental ink stains. “And what does Sam say?”
Sam frowned for a moment, and then his expression cleared. “He agrees with the captain on this one. What’s your opinion, Officer Anderson?”
She almost laughed. “Now you sound like Uncle Rob.” The intercom in their compartment crackled, and she spoke into it. “This is Officer Anderson, from the infirmary. There’s an open intercom circuit—”
“Loretta, it’s Uncle Rob. I’m on an individual relay circuit. Is Sam with you?”
She nodded, forgetting that he couldn’t see her. “Yes, sir. Is there a problem?”
For a moment, she thought the relay was broken, but the Commander answered. “I’ve just spoken to that Lucian friend of Sam’s about your theory. From what I understood, he didn’t like the idea of cellular change.”
She glanced at Sam, who was frowning again. “He didn’t think it would work?”
“No, but he said something about ‘hardened water’ that put his light out. Could you come down surface and talk to him?”
“As long as I can come,” Sam said, his frown disappearing. “I could convince K’tor—”
“You need to stay here and keep your fever down,” she said, bringing out her ‘nagging older sister voice’ in spite of Sam’s silent pleas.
“Bring the cadet with you, Anderson,” the Commander interrupted. “Double time, please.”
She sighed, remembering too late that the intercom was still open. “Yes, sir. Anderson out.”
When she closed the intercom, Sam returned to his frown. “He was worried. He never uses our names like that unless we’re in unusual situations.”
“I’d call this an unusual situation, wouldn’t you?” She adjusted the compartment temperature to normal levels and added softly, “We’re all worried, Sam.”
“K’tor too,” he agreed, glancing quickly at her. “I wonder what’s so terrible about your theory?”
She tried to smile, but from Sam’s reaction, she guessed the smile ended in a grimace. “I don’t know, but K’tor does. Whatever hint of danger turned out his light, we’ll find it.”