"Hey. I see nothing has changed around here." There was no mistaking that voice and yet it had to be a mistake, some colossal and cruel trick of mind that refused to let up even as she lifted her eyes from the computer screen in search of its source. Her face wasn't even able to convey any disbelief, just a hint of anger at the yet another method of torture this galaxy had found.

"What, not glad to see me?" he was now approaching her, with his usual slightly bouncy gait, as if all this was completely natural.

"But you're dead?" the question had to be asked, no matter how ridiculous it sounded.

He smiled and with another heart-constricting bang she recognized the familiar laughter lines as the slightly mocking smile reached his blue eyes. "Are you sure?" he asked, shrugging. "Maybe it's you that is dead? How would you know? Have you ever been dead before?"

She now tilted her head, eyes narrowed. She guessed that was always a possibility, except, "Wouldn't I notice if I die?"

"I don't know. Would you?" He was playing hard to get, but the way he theatrically raised his eyebrows already pointed her towards the answer. Chances were she was still alive and well. But just to humor the ghost, or whoever he was, she asked again,

"So am I?"

"Maybe. Or maybe you're just hallucinating because you have been working 70 hours straight," he didn't miss a beat.

Her head snapped up in protest, "I have n…" He only laughed shamelessly, not even a pretense of his former deference left.

"Come on. You really think you can get away with lying to a ghost?" The flicker in his eyes was so intense that she had to look away, hearing him continue, "Or a figment of your own imagination, whichever I happen to be? Or a doctor, for that matter?"

"Fine," she grudgingly admitted. "Maybe I have been working a lot lately. But that's just because there's a lot to do around here. You don't think that I am inventing work for myself, do you?"

Suddenly there was that old familiar softness in his eyes again. He sighed and sat in the chair opposite her desk. "No, lass, but you can't really be thinking that you'll ever get to a point when there is no more work left to be done. You know as well as I do that you will end much sooner than the work will. Especially if you keep this up," he waved his finger at the computer. "As a matter of fact, who's to say you are not actually asleep right now, drooling into your laptop keyboard in an undignified manner?"

"I'm not asleep on my desk," she reasoned, "I am sitting here, at my desk, right now, am I not?"

"Yes," his nod was to the side and amused, "talking to someone you couldn't possibly be talking to, are you not?" To that she threw her head back and laughed out loud.

"Point taken, Carson. Now, how can I help you?" Everything, she had found out long ago, has a reason. You have to learn to hear and listen and see even the things that you really don't want to, because otherwise, later, when you start to put the whole picture together, you might actually discover some vital pieces missing. Knowing, being in possession of all the information you can possibly be in possession of is what gives you the advantage, what gives you the deciding edge when push comes to shove. There was a part of her brain that said that she should be freaked out by this. She didn't believe in ghosts, but she did believe in seeing them – she believed that it was the point where one needed to turn to a doctor. Ironically enough, the ghost she was seeing actually was her doctor. So, she thought, she might as well hear its diagnosis.

"I believe that might not be the right question to ask right now." Carson laced his fingers together and looked at her pointedly.

"Meaning?" her question was accompanied by her eyebrows rising, creating parallel creases on her forehead.

"Well, as you kindly pointed out, it seems that I am dead," he said impossibly matter-of-factly. "So that ship has, apparently, sailed…" He completely failed to heed her sharp intake of breath. "You know, I really would have given you more credit." He now seemed almost sad. A familiar bolt of pain shot through her heart and made its way somewhere in her gut.

"Carson, are you blaming me for what happened?" she asked carefully.

"Oh, no, love, not that," he was quick to dispel her fears. "It's just that… I somehow thought that I meant more… Never mind," he shook his head.

Confused, Elizabeth leaned closer to him over the desk. "Meant m…?" His implications both hurt and scared her. "Carson, what on Earth are you talking about?"

"Care to rephrase that?" he asked, but she was in no mood for word games.

"Not, particularly, no," her headshake was aggressive and agitated. "In fact, I feel mildly insulted by what you seem to be suggesting. You were one of my best friends. There's a gaping hole in my life at the spot where you used to be." Hearing her own words out loud, her demeanor changed. He was here, talking to her, she realized. In whatever form, even if she had conjured him up herself, it was still just one more chance, and she suddenly didn't know whether knowing that made it hurt less or more. So she just silently, almost in whisper, asked, "How could you have meant more?"

"It hurt?" he asked, gaze locked on her.

She winced, "Of course. It still does." Did he need to be convinced? Did she?

His next question completely threw her again. "Then how come everything is still the same?"

"How come I am still doing my job? Is that what you mean?"

He shook his head, supporting his elbows on the arms of the chair and his chin on his clasped palms.

"Then what?" she frowned. Why are you here, Carson, was what he wanted to ask, to shout, but she knew that it would have been too easy.

Carson sighed, shooting her an almost worried look. "You know, for a smart woman, you are sometimes unbelievably thick."

"Gee, thanks." Her eyebrows were again a centimeter higher than they were intended to be. "You were nicer when you were alive."

"Indeed, and a lot more patient as well," his chuckle was sad. Tilting his head slightly, he launched the next question at her, "Elizabeth, don't you have any regrets?"

"What kind of a question is that? Of course I do." He didn't blame her for what had happened, but it sure felt like he was accusing her of something. Or maybe not even that, maybe he was just disappointed, in that mild forgiving manner that only Carson could be and at that moment Elizabeth knew that she would give just about anything not to be the source of that disappointment. If she could only figure out what she had done wrong…

"Like what?" His questions were not growing less cryptic.

"Jesus, you want me to list all the regrets I have had in my life?" she asked in order to buy time. Regrets, regrets, regrets… The fact that she was unable to protect her friends, to protect these people that she was supposed to lead was not even a regret. It was a burden, a nightmare she had to learn to live with… More time, more time, more time… "Well, for starters I shouldn't have had that chocolate cake at dinner…"

"Funny," Carson really was not buying it. Can't get away with lying to a ghost… "I meant me. Any regrets surfacing after my death?" That question cut through her like a knife. If this person sitting across from her really was just something she had made up in her own overworked, exhausted brain then how could it be so cruel to her?

"You're gone, Carson," she had to pull up emergency resources in order to speak louder than a choked whisper. "There are times when I walk into the infirmary and still expect you to greet me, offer me a cup of tea. I'll never get to laugh with you again. What do you think?" The look in her eyes had to have been enough to break anyone's heart, but Carson didn't allow himself to be deterred.

"So why has nothing changed?" he asked instead, clearly starting to grow impatient.

Well, she was impatient too. "What? What did you think would change? I don't understand."

"Oh, for God's sake, Elizabeth," he hissed, and, somewhere in the margins of her mind, she registered that this was the most irritated she had ever seen him. "You should know better now, even if, for some reason, you didn't before." She must have seemed like a child being punished for a crime she did not comprehend, because, exasperatedly, he sighed, "Don't look at me like that. Somewhere deep inside you 

must know what I am talking about. Because if you don't understand, if you really don't understand then I don't know what I am doing here."

"People die, Carson, out here more than in most places," she blurted out, trying to figure out why it was that Carson was so adamant at his demand for change. Then, realizing the actual words she had used to get away from his scrutiny, she muttered a shocked apology, "I'm sorry, that must have sounded harsh, considering…"

"Yes, yes, my poor dead feelings… ," Carson dismissed the insinuation, concentrating on something else instead. "At least you acknowledge the fact that people die. That's a start, I suppose."

It felt like she was getting closer to the truth. "A start to what?" she asked, almost hopefully. For a moment he stayed silent, looking at her over his interlaced fingers as if trying to figure out the best way to formulate his thoughts.

"There are so many things in life that you can't change, dear, so why would you not do anything about the things that you can?" he finally asked, his inherent kindness making its way back into the look in his eyes. "You know, it didn't have to be me. It could have been anyone. It still could be." He gave her a moment to consider this before elaborating, "During the time you waste here debating with a ghost, any number of people might get wiped straight out of your life. Are you ready for that? Really prepared? Because, as you said, people die…"

"Wh…?" a flicker of a fear that maybe his appearance now was some sort of an awful foreboding streaked across her mind, but she refused to pay it any further thought, instead considering his words. Change? What could she do? "I mean, I can't change death…," she shrugged helplessly.

Carson sat up straighter, as if in anticipation of some sort of a breaking point. "No, Elizabeth," he said with an emphasis, "you can't, but you can change life."

"I can change life…," she tried to fit that concept into her mind, tried to understand what that really meant.

There was an indescribable peace in Carson's smile. "Yes, remember, that spectacular crazy flash of light that you're still holding on to and I'm not?"

"But how?" she asked, fully aware that all of the sudden her voice sounded small, almost panicky. Was there really a way to make all of this not hurt so much? To stop carefully balancing everything she had to lose against all the things she had to gain?

"You do realize how daft a question that is?" Carson gently teased, as if to shake her out of her momentary brain freeze.

She took a deep breath, hoping that her thoughts would find a way to step off this merry-go-round and find their proper place and order again. Daft? Indeed. "Yes, I guess, it's just that… I wouldn't know where to begin…," she looked at Carson again, searching for some guidance.

"Let's put it this way…," he started and she almost felt as if a soothing hand had been laid on top of hers resting on the table, but when she looked there was nothing there. Carson, meanwhile, went on, "If it would all end tomorrow, what would be the thing that you'd regret most? That you didn't finish reading all these reports on your desk? Or is there something else that you should have done, but never quite got there?" His eyes were soft and encouraging. She felt like a child, taking her first hesitant steps.

"You mean people, don't you? You mean… love?" That word, how could that word suddenly seem so strange in her mouth?

"It's not important what I mean," he stated. "What do you mean? What would be your biggest regret? And why would you let it be a regret at all?" The pause he made was laden with expectation. And then he asked, "You know what I miss the most about living? All those wonderful tangible options."

xxxxx