Zebe is introduced to the power of the alien's dust by way of a cat that had mangy fur ...
“That kiss was a payment?” A fury against the new boyfriend gripped Zebe by the heart.
Xanthe laughed. “No, Neil and I are mates! He’s in it as deep as I am.”
“More like lovers, it looks to me.”
“All right, yes, we’re lovers. We’ve even applied for a hearing to make it legal.”
“You let him?”
“Zebe! I said, ‘We have applied for a hearing.’ And once we’ve tied the knot we’ll be applying to have a child though it’ll be years before it’s our turn.”
“It’s that serious?” Zebe said to stall any further unsettling news.
Xanthe laughed again. “Oh, Zebe! You’ll get on fine with Neil. I’ve told him all about you. How we are. You’ll still be my funny Celtic twin. He’s helping me to help you without thought of the danger to his career.”
Zebe wasn’t mollified by the praises. “Celtic twin! Huh.”
“Neil said that as soon as I showed him my holo of us. Your dark hair, your eyes and your olive skin. He said that in his experience Celtic types were better at poker than anyone. Probably because in ancient history they were always having to play survival games against all the invaders.”
“Quite the history buff, your Neil.” Underneath, Zebe was amazed and secretly pleased at the man’s reading of her. Though of course he would’ve had plenty of help the way Xanthe talked up Zebe when Zebe wasn’t around.
“We don’t eat here anymore, you know,” Xanthe said. “The kitchen’s become quite the little lab.”
Zebe attended her sister with something like horror. “You’ve gone and done what?”
Xanthe had thrown herself down onto her vintage twentieth century couch, plumped up a couple of antique-style cushions and footled her shoes off. She lay back. “Get us our drinks in hand and I’ll tell you.”
Zebe didn’t move.
Xanthe said, “I’m not showing you anything while you’ve got that the-end-of-the-world-is-nigh mood on you.”
“Okay!” Zebe approached the transformed old roll-top-desk-made-into-a-drinks-cabinet. Up with the cover. Out with the preparation shelf on its slide-out supports. She stared unseeing at the array of bottles.
“I’ll have the slitzicky on strawberry rocks,” Xanthe said.
The hot-and-cold food dispenser was next to the desk. Instead of being in the kitchen.
Skim down the catalogue on the front and key in the code for the frozen strawberries. Press ENTER and wait for the strawberry container to get to the dispenser slot. A tall glass for Xanthe from the top shelf in the cabinet. Fill the glass with berries and slurp over the liquor. A chunky wide glass for herself. Three berries and mash them. Lots of soda water. A little …
“Here, let me help you. At this rate you’ll need ten drinks before we can get on with the excitement.” Xanthe slurped up half of Zebe’s soda and filled the glass with a good amount of slitzicky – which was still the only successful product to come out of the research done at the SoHAB. She handed Zebe her drink.
Zebe sipped cautiously. “You’re going to save the world with something you’re concocting in your kitchen?”
“With your help, you bet!” Xanthe laughed.
“And it’s illegal?” It didn’t take too much thought to come to the riddle’s solution. “You’re stealing something from the labs?”
“Taking. The alien’s leavings. Dust. I extract it from the vacuum cleaner, bag it and bring it home. Merely following up on that thing that you suggested so elegantly but not as wishy washily as my news to you. Therefore much harder to wipe from the records.”
“Oh. That’s what made you mad at me?”
“How much training do you need? We’re twins. Have the same brain power.”
“Not look-alike twins.”
Xanthe bridled. “You had yourself changed. You’d rather be an islolate.”
“I didn’t want to be seen to be a clone of you, a glorified cleaner. How would I get work in my field?”
Xanthe laughed kindly. “My dear secret clone. Always half a step behind. The day I got your email, Neil nailed the last strips to the benches.”
Zebe glanced at the carrier bags.
“Never mind them for now,” Xanthe said. “Normally the dust gets incinerated.
Zebe knew about cleaning because she began in her work as a lab technician cleaning out lab jars. Things like dead fruit fly experiments. Now the matter of cleanliness everywhere in the Reefarium, and indeed contamination, were her responsibility.
Up to the moment she discovered the new living water in Callum’s swimming lesson tank, she’d been terrified that the wholesale reef death happening outdoors, in unmoderated sea water, would infect her coral nursery aquariums.
Xanthe said, “But after I had a little experience with some of it, I wouldn’t ever waste it again.”
Zebe said what she was meant to. “What little experience?”
“I’d run short on vacuum bags. So, thinking to re-use the bag I had, I shook the dust from it into the incinerator instead of throwing the whole bag in. A glittering silvery swag of it was blown off course …”
Zebe held her hand up. “Wait! Tell me you were wearing your isolation gear!”
“I was, but the mangy cat we feed on the sly wasn’t. The cat was downwind and got snowed over. Couple of days later, when it re-appeared, its fur was suddenly healthier than my hair. A process that would’ve taken weeks with the right drugs.”
“Why did you think it was the dust?”
“Because her fur is silvery now. Black and white in patches, with a silvery overlay. Very now.”