Pursuing scientific exploration trumps all in this spec-fi story. Entry: Gauntlet finals.
When Opposites Attract
Robb lay, panting and sweating, on the cold parking lot pavement, staring through bulging eyes at the blackened, viscid mass that used to be his ex-girlfriend. She’d slumped over him before the fight had finally gone out of her, pinning him from the waist down. Another flash of lightning illuminated the night, and Robb could see the flesh of her arm had begun to fall away in places, globs of pitchy, molten skin slowly oozing down and dripping onto his crotch, like fetid lava expelled from a macabre volcano. Jesus it works fast, he thought before turning his face away and vomiting, his violent retches shattering the silent air.
55 minutes earlier...
Robb Pohl believed there were times in life when scientific exploration trumped everything else, even the law. So why the hell was he so nervous? He ran a hand through dark, tousled hair, imagining a school of piranha was feeding on his stomach lining. It was probably just the re-entry rigors. Seemed after he turned thirty last year, it was getting harder to bounce back after space travel. He really should be in bed, sleeping off the after effects of the trip, but this was too damn important to him. He scowled as he glided over the deserted streets. He blamed the Federation for the lousy way he felt. If it’d stayed out of the private sector and let researchers do their jobs, a person like him wouldn’t be out at this hour of night, prepared to break a law or two. His gut lurched again. He took several deep breaths, blowing each one out slower than the last. Maneuvering his hover vehicle with a gentle right push on the joy stick, he guided it noiselessly into the employee parking lot of Neodymium Technologies.
There were only a few vehicles parked in the lot at this time of night, belonging to the company’s die hard work-alcoholics and insomniacs. And Marla, Robb realized, spying her red cruiser under the street lamp closest to the entrance. “Shit,” Robb hissed under his breath. She was the last person he wanted to see tonight. How was that for irony? A couple months back, he’d been completely intoxicated by her. She’d said she loved him, and like an addict greedy for the next fix, he’d sought her out, made it a point to intercept her path throughout each day. The scent of her perfume still lingered on his pillow. But her romp with his recent ex-friend had sent him into a serious tailspin. It was an ugly break-up, one that still charged the air between them with negative vibes whenever they were in the same room, which happened frequently during the work week. Tonight, he needed to be very careful. She could undermine everything. With that thought, he steered his vehicle around to the opposite side of the lot. A green light on the dash clicked to red, accompanied by a soft chime. Touchdown.
He sat a moment in the dead silence, going over the plan. The rock he’d discovered on last week’s expedition to Titus 2K2 would be where he left it in the Isolation Unit. No one should be on that floor tonight. And unless administration had changed the lock sequence coding, he should be able to waltz in, take the sample he needed, and leave without anyone being the wiser. He eyed the business card on the dashboard console. Embossed metallic lettering reflected the lamppost light, so that ‘Technology Incorporated’ glowed out of the darkness. He nodded, jutting his jaw. Fuck the Federation, he thought with a sneer. Why should they get credit for all his work? Tech. Inc. had offered a handsome price for his formulas, along with the guarantee Robb would receive sole credit for the research. He twisted in his seat to scan the lot one more time. Finding it empty of life, he pressed the Open Door button.
He stepped out and filled his lungs. The cool air had a settling effect on his nervous stomach. His eyes were drawn to Marla’s car, but a sudden flash overhead caught his attention. The clouds were momentarily visible as a strobe light of cloud-to-cloud lightning illuminated the sky. He hunched his shoulders from a sudden chill and strode to the doors.
Through the plate of thick door glass, Robb could see the deserted lobby. He hesitated, dragging the back of his hand across his moist upper lip. This was it. Once he scanned in, his presence here tonight would be documented. If anyone discovered the sample missing, the path of suspicion would lead right to him. He set his jaw, realizing he’d already passed the point of no return the day before, when he’d recorded the rock’s incorrect weight measurements. His gaze dropped to the panel set in glossy marble surrounding the entryway. He pressed his left thumb to the groove and it immediately glowed green. At the same time, a scanner at the top of the panel emitted a beam of infrared light. Robb stepped closer and didn’t blink, allowing the beam to travel across his face. “Analyzing Data” appeared on the screen, which changed to “Enter” a moment later. The plate of glass slid accompanied by a swish of air, and Robb walked in.
The coarse whisper his loose-fitting jeans made with each step filled the cavernous entry of Neodymium Laboratories. It echoed off glass and chrome surfaces in the absence of regular daytime din. There was a sense of solitude in the sound that Robb found reassuring. He avoided the main elevators. He figured the risk of encountering an insomniac or a workaholic decreased by using the service elevators. When he reached them at the back of the building, he flipped open the code box and punched in the number sequence. Behind the doors, the elevator whirled to life. A moment later, the doors slid apart.
Robb punched “6” and the doors closed. Genghis, here I come. A slow grin crept across his face. Genghis-1, that’s what he’d named his rock. Admittedly, Genghis Khan wasn’t his favorite figure from history, although Robb suspected Khan hadn’t been the barbarian historians made him out to be. But Robb liked the way the name sounded: fierce, unyielding, and effective. It was the perfect name, he thought, for the element that would eradicate cancer. If his calculations were correct, and he believed they were, Genghis could be injected into a cancer patient’s body and its properties would act as a magnet, drawing all the cancerous cells to its location where they would be destroyed.
The technology wasn’t his. A hundred years ago the first woman was cured of her lung cancer when Professor Goesta Wollen treated her by hanging a super magnet around her neck. Unfortunately, even the strongest magnets made with the planet’s most powerful rare-earth metals couldn’t combat all strains of cancer. His research had been on the cutting edge of extraterrestrial metal studies for years as he searched for metagalactic locations enriched with undiscovered materials. His calculations led him finally to Titus 2K2, an asteroid that Robb believed collided once with a planet outside the solar system. And he, Robert Pohl, had found the element that would be the key to ending cancer forever. As if the prospect of vanquishing a disease that had plagued humankind for centuries wasn’t enough, Neodymium had asked him – for the first time in his career -- to name his find. Genghis-1 had been his only choice.
As the elevator rose, he calculated that if he moved quickly, he could re-verify the erroneous weight he’d entered into the computer, weigh Genghis again, shave off the difference, and pack it in—
The elevator gave a gentle lurch. Panic cut across Robb’s thoughts as the lift eased to a stop at the fourth floor. Who the hell was using the service elevators at this hour? The doors slid open and Robb knew he was in trouble.
Marla looked up from the short stack of folders in her arms. She was a vision, even in worn jeans and a white t-shirt, but Robb felt every particle in his body fill with dread. He saw she was caught off guard, and for a fraction of a second Robb thought he detected surprise and…excitement? The thought was as fleeting as her shock. Her sapphire eyes iced over, and she set her jaw. “What are you doing here, Pohl?” she sneered.
“Sorry,” Robb said with a tight, dismissive smile as he punched the button marked Close Doors, “this one’s going up.”
Marla balanced her stack on one arm as the other shot out, catching the sliding door. It shuttered and slid back open. “You should be home, sleeping off re-entry rigors. So what the hell are you doing here in the middle of the night?”
The silence as he hesitated was palpable. He kicked himself for not having an excuse prepared, but he’d be damned if he’d let her know that. Searching for a reason, his gaze drifted down Marla’s body. The ends of Marla’s blunt cut blonde hair followed the line of her delicate jaw, accentuating somehow her collar bones rising like milky moguls below the gentle slope of her neck. It was the kind of hair other women coveted; some even bought wigs to get the look, for when the Lolita in them wanted to come out and play. Why am I here? Robb remembered he should be coming up with an excuse, but his mind slipped farther from an answer as his eyes lingered on her perky breasts and tiny waistline under the snug t-shirt. Memories flooded back to him of Marla in his arms, the way her body writhed when he kissed that neck, the musky scent of her skin when he nuzzled those breasts. She was tapping her foot now; his eyes traveled down the long, washed-out denim-clad leg to the bobbing toe of her tennis shoe.
“Fine,” she said. “If you won’t tell me, I’ll just see for myself. You don’t mind the company, do you?”
It didn’t sound like a question. Robb’s chest fell as Marla sauntered onto the elevator and turned to face the closing doors. Great, he thought. He realized he’d better play it cool, or Marla could complicate things.
“So, how’s the Piedmont Project going?” he asked, his voice simmering with aggravation.
“Fine,” she replied, eyes on the counter above the doors. He hated the way her cold tone squeezed his heart. The elevator stopped on six. Marla clucked her tongue. “I knew it,” she said, accusation seeping through each word.
“You knew what?” Robb said, annoyed. He walked off the elevator, aware that she was right on his heels.
“I knew you were here to take Genghis.”
Over his shoulder, he said, “Marla, you know as well as I do that the Federation has no business taking over my project. It’s my theory. I developed the formulas. I calculated the material I’d need and I found the fucking rock.” He kept his voice quiet but it grew to a growl. He shouldn’t need to explain this to her, of all people.
Marla caught up to him and matched his long stride. “No shit, Robb. But that’s not the point. The Federation did take over and you no longer have clearance to be here. Disobeying the Federation is an act of treason. If you’re caught…”
He spun on her, grabbing her arm in a vice-like grip. “Now, why would I get caught?”
His tone was dangerous, threatening. How far before a stretched rubber band breaks? He’d already come close to the edge of reason with Marla recently, when he’d walked in on her and Steve. That day, he’d understood how people snap, grab a weapon and take a few well-deserving people out. In the dark days afterward, he’d fantasized about tying Marla up, torturing her until she hurt as much as he did. He’d been pathetic, twisted by tormented emotions, but he’d gotten a grip on himself. He ended up content on hurting her in small ways every chance he got, with spiteful words and defamatory rumors, little pressure valve acts to release his emotional tension and avoid a massive explosion. But the pain was still fresh. God help her if she pushed him now.
Marla was the one to break their gaze. She looked away, hugging her files to her chest. He turned and marched on, though he was aware of her soft foot falls behind him.
At the ward labeled Isolation Unit, they stopped. Robb muttered under his breath, “Come on, baby. Open for papa.” The code sequence was long, and he punched the numbers and letters slowly, careful not to err and freeze the system, necessitating an extra code from upper management. When the last digit was entered, the lock clicked. It echoed down the hallway like a gun shot.
Robb turned to Marla. “You never saw me tonight, Marla. Just walk away.” He paused, staring her deep in the eyes. “You owe me.”
Her eyes narrowed as disgust darkened her face. “I owe you?” she said.
Robb turned his back on her and walked into the room. There were no windows on the ward. The specimens kept in this controlled environment were rare and in various stages of study. Right off the shuttle from Titus 2K2, Robb had worked here for forty-eight hours straight with Genghis-1. Until, of course, he’d received notification to turn over all his data to the Federation and that Neodymium was no longer on the project. It was the last stage of research, for chrissake. All that was left to do was test Genghis in lab animals afflicted with cancer and verify that the results matched his hypotheses, before looking for human candidates. He was so close, yet he was expected to turn everything over? Not in his lifetime. No way.
The room was divided into large cubicle workspaces. Robb weaved his way through the labyrinth with Marla on his heels, to the middle where a screen said “Genghis-1.” A glass case on the table held the prize, a reddish rock with iridescent flecks of silver that glistened when they caught the light. He worked fast. He pulled thin latex gloves from his pocket and wiggled his hands into them. He booted the computer and punched the keys to navigate through several screens until he arrived at the physical characteristics spreadsheet. He placed Genghis in the coffer of a Specimen Separator and programmed it to 50 grams.
As he worked, he was aware of how close Marla was. He could feel her body heat, and he felt himself stir. Damn her.
“So, you’re only taking a specimen?” she asked. The chill had left her voice.
He held up a small, clear cylinder with the Genghis-1 sample inside. The contents sparkled with ethereal light. “That’s all I’ll need to complete the study,” he said. He powered down the computer and glanced around the cubicle, reassured that everything was back in its place.
Marla’s eyes widened. “What do you mean, ‘complete the study’?” She leaned forward, lips pursed. “May I remind you, you’re…off…the…case.”
Robb glared at her, though his eyes lingered on those full lips. “Don’t patronize me, Marla. I know I’m off their case. But I’m the rightful author of this study, and I ought to be the one to record its success.” He shook Genghis in front of her face. “You remember I have a small lab at my place, don’t you?” he said, shoving the tube inside his front jeans pocket.
“Now who’s being patronizing?” Marla shot at Robb’s back as he walked away from her.
Riding down to the lobby floor, Marla badgered Robb with warnings and threats. He bit back retorts; he didn’t have time to argue with her. As he crossed the darkened lobby, Marla stopped and put a hand on her jutted hip. Her raised voice reverberated.
“Did it ever occur to you that the Federation confiscated Genghis because all its properties haven’t been properly tested? I realize you think it will attract cancer cells, but what else will it do? It could be very dangerous--”
Robb cut her off. “I tested it for radioactive properties, and all the tests were negative. Why don’t you stop worrying your pretty little head about my study and go home to…whoever you go home to these days.”
He didn’t stop to indulge in the priceless look of hurt on her face. He pushed the exit button and the plate glass door swished open. He stalked out victorious, giddy with excitement. A damp aroma of misty rain hung in the air, and the night smelled fresh and hopeful. He was practically home free.
Half way to his vehicle, Robb’s hair stood on end. He slowed his pace, noticing even the hair on his arms bristled. Suddenly, a blinding light turned the night to day. In the same instant a crack of thunder boomed and shook his world. Excruciating pain wracked his body as he flew upwards then slammed down to the pavement.
He was aware of Marla’s screams. She rushed to him, panic etched on her face. “Oh my God!” she screamed, bending over him. “Robb, I saw the lightning hit you! Are you all right?”
She reached out her hand and grabbed his arm. Robb screamed, sat up and tried to push her away from him. Marla cried out too, trying to pull away from Robb. A searing heat crept along Robb’s arm, and he winced, trying to yank free of Marla’s hand.
“Let go of me!” he shouted at her.
“You let go of me!” she screamed back.
“What the…?” Robb’s heart raced as he stared down at the place where Marla’s hand made contact with him. It was difficult to see in the dim light from the street lamp, but it looked like her skin was melting into his. She jerked her hand, and his arm jerked with it. He tried to pull his arm away from her, and she was pulled off balance.
“Hold still, damn it!” Robb shouted at her. He pulled his arm with all his might and Marla cried out in agony.
“Stop it! Stop!” she screeched. Tiny tears appeared in their mutual skin. Robb stopped struggling and stared at the beads of blood appearing along the slits.
“What the hell is going on?” Marla sobbed, gripping her wrist with her free hand.
Robb raked his fingers through his hair. His eyes darted back and forth, as if the answers where hidden in the dark air. Then his face went still. He slowly moved his hand over the pocket holding Genghis. His fingers tingled as they hovered over a sort of force field preventing him from lowering them closer to the fabric. It was like trying to touch two magnets’ north poles together. He looked at Marla’s hand, then up at her face.
“It had to be the lightning," he said slowly. "Yes, the lightning charged Genghis, creating a magnetic field.” His round eyes locked with Marla’s. “This is what would happen in the body, how Genghis would attract cancer cells. But the charge in the lightning made me….the magnet.”
Marla stared with terror-filled eyes. “What…?” she gasped. Then she cried out, grabbing her wrist. Her body contorted in pain.
“What’s the matter?” Robb asked, pulling himself awkwardly to his knees. When he got a better look at his arm, his stomach lurched. Marla’s skin, where it had fused with Robb’s arm, was changing color, blackening, like an overripe banana peel. She clutched her arm, screaming. And Robb realized what was happening. Genghis was attracting her living cells and destroying them. He tried to stand, to get them up on their feet, but Marla pawed at him. Immediately, her other hand fused to Robb. Her screams intensified.
“We have to get you back into the lab,” he shouted. “We’ll get help!” But she wouldn’t listen; she collapsed to her knees, crying uncontrollably.
“Come on,” Robb urged, bending down. But he saw her arm was changing, turned a brackish, moldy color. And there was a smell -- oh God, the smell was terrible. It was the sickeningly sweet odor of rot, decay, death. He fought the panic that threatened to immobilize him and tried to pull Marla to her feet. But she stumbled, lost in a private world of terror and pain. She fell forward onto him, and at every point of contact, even through their clothes, her body stuck to him.
She struggled fiercely. Her screams of agony became devoid of words, reduced to the guttural sounds of a wounded animal. Robb fought the urge to get his arm around her, hoist her somehow up. He didn’t want his only free hand stuck to her, though in reality he couldn’t possibly have carried her in their position.
Helpless, Robb watched in horror as the bane devoured Marla. Even the fabric of her t-shirt deteriorated when the pestilence reached her sleeves, the fibers coming apart and falling away. He begged the God he stopped believing in years ago to spare her the pain, render her unconscious. His anger, his hurt, her deception, all was purged from his mind as her suffering consumed his awareness. By the time the carnage reached her torso, she finally succumbed. Her cries became whimpers, the last leaving her mouth as a soft hiss.
The skin along her once milky neck was a ruined mess, but Robb wouldn’t have needed to feel for a pulse to verify that she’d died. Genghis must have known, too. Perhaps it was because there was no life left in the live cells, but the liquidation of her body accelerated. Like a fair weather cumulus cloud passing momentarily across the sun, the revolting plaque marched across Marla’s limp body. It was agony to watch, and Robb wanted more than anything to flee. He rocked left and right, struggling to come out from beneath the abominable corpse, until he realized the violent movement of his body threatened to pull Marla apart. He froze, staring at her blackened skin as it oozed decaying pulp from within.
It was all too much for him. Robb turned and vomited. When the spasms calmed, he moved slowly, careful not to disturb the fragile state of what was left of Marla’s body. He reached into his back jeans pocket and pulled out a cellular communicator. He punched three buttons.
It was times like this that scientific exploration must trump all else, even knowledge that you’ve broken the law, even fear of being tried for treason, or accused of murder. Robb’s discovery, Genghis-1, was more powerful than he’d calculated. It must be studied. He knew it was more important than anything else.
“Crisis dispatch, what level is your emergency?”
“There’s been a level ten accident at Neodymium Laboratories.” Robb’s voice broke. “Don’t send local authorities. Notify the Federation immediately.”
(WC - 3821)