(This is a companion story to Good Girl, which I wrote last April. Basically, the scariest thing about that first Stargate movie? The dog masks on the guards. Freaked me right out because they looked like the Doberman that bit me when I was a kid. Strange parallels our minds create. Anyway. Still riffing on the ‘aliens are Dobermans’ thing, I guess. Living in this Fine City where people take their pets “walkies” and let them go on the sidewalk probably also feeds into my nightmares… Just… go along with the crazy person’s story, okay?)
The beaker exploded over the Bunsen flame, and Anega jumped back, lifting her blue rubber glove-clad hands clear of the shards of glass.
“Damn. Almost had it,” she sighed.
The stainless steel counter, the white walls and the shelves were spattered with bright red goo. It was time for another clean-up. The little whisk broom and pan was already gummy from the last failure, and it was eleven forty-five. Gena would be coming in to take over in a matter of minutes, and she had nothing but failure to report.
The least she could do was be sure their workspace was clean.
Picking pieces of glass out of the titanium dioxide solution on the counter, Anega found herself thinking, longingly, of simpler days, when the only pressure put on a laboratory scientist was by the pharmaceutical companies, if one were unlucky enough to be employed by them, or by the FDA, who specialized in a kind of scientist terrorism and subjected lab personnel to rigorous interrogation about their methodologies, in defense of the health of the American public. Most of it was bunkum, of course; the FDA were a passel of bureaucrats driven by the Almighty Dollar as much as anyone else, and could be, at higher levels, bribed. But in the lab they were demigods, regarded with terror. Who could have known that people would look back nostalgically at the FDA?
Gena didn’t even realize what a different world she was inhabiting. She was a brilliant child, but she was a high school student, for goodness sakes. Things were so desperate that they were recruiting children. She would never have been allowed to focus her studies so narrowly, not before… not before she was so needed…
The air pressure in the lab dropped, and Anega winced as her ears popped. Gena was early. She hurried to collect the last of the beaker, a little less careful of the slivers breeching the protection of her gloves. Gene was standing in the gowning room, suiting up in her lab whites, her silver-tipped purple hair carefully covered with the regulation paper cap. Even fully mummified in her uniform, Gena’s personality shone through. She was dancing in the isolation chamber, lifting her arms above her head as her body was bombarded with positive air pressure, whisking all trace of dust and germs away. Anega looked at her bleakly. Dancing in the face of death. Dancing while a war was on. Dancing like she never could. Youth, she thought from her hoary vantage of two years postgraduate.
“’allo A-ne-ga,” Gena sang out, cha-cha-ing in the narrow space by the door. “Anything new, then?”
Anega sighed. “The body count on beakers is up by two,” she offered, trying to smile.
“Ugh.” Gena actually stopped dancing. “Well, can’t be helped, can it? Did it punk out on the amphoteric or the nonionic?”
“Nonionic. Titanium dioxide.”
“Interesting.” Gena went to scratch her neck as she did when she was stumped, but stopped herself, remembering she was gowned and gloved. She lifted her shoulder and rubbed twisted to rub her ear instead. “Well, today I was going to try the methylchloroisothiazolinone – but just as an anionic surfactant,” she said slowly. “It seems like the titanium should have worked, though. Damn. Damn!”
Anega was surprised to see the tension in Gena’s face. The girl was usually sunny and blithe at all times.
“Gee? Something will work,” Anega heard herself saying soothingly. “Something will. Soon. It has to. We have the best minds on the planet pushing for this, ‘round the clock. Something will work.”
“I know. I know.” Gena closed her eyes and rested her chin on her chest. “Today…” she sniffled a little, blinked wet lashes behind safety glasses. “It’s just today, you know?”
Anega flicked a glance toward the gowning room and the air chamber. There was no one on their end of the lab, and it couldn’t hurt to ask what had precipitated the outburst. “Today?”
“A month ago today my Dad was called to the Saxa,” Gena said softly. “He hasn’t come back.”
Anega’s mouth moistened, and she swallowed hastily, feeling a tremor start in her knees. “Sometimes they do come back,” she said, and her throat filled with acid as she thought of how most of them came back, how Mark had come home. Changed. Doppelgangers of their original selves. Inhabited. A headache stabbed behind her eyes.
“I’m not afraid he won’t come back,” Gena whispered. “I’m afraid he will.”
The Saxa was where they were from, the dogmen. In their own tongue, they were the Egelloc-Sgod, and Earth had believed that nothing malicious could inhabit those cylindrical blue ships called the Saxa after their resemblance to big blue salt shakers. The Egelloc-Hsorf were humanoid in appearance, with warm, intelligent eyes, slightly lugubrious expressions, bellies which were sleek and bodies which ran to fat. Their blunt clawed hands were clumsy and eager, and only their elongated necks and double rings of sharp teeth destroyed the illusion of cute helplessness. As they aged, their skin produced more hair, then took on a mottled appearance, tingeing a slight brown with cream and black as their years progressed.
The first of the Egelloc visitors consumed prey on an international vid program. The host of Good Morning America was the first to learn that the alien race was only in the first of their developmental stages as an Ellegoc-Hsorf metamorphosed into an Egelloc-Hpos, a carrion-eater, on camera. After his poison sacs had receded, he had appeared bewildered, the host was completely mind-wiped, and the broadcast was unceremoniously cut. Later, when the show host abruptly died, there was a world-wide panic. It was too late by then.
Egelloc-Roinuj were flesh eaters. Egelloc-Sroines played deadly games and consumed their prey on the run. Only the Egelloc-Hsorf were safe, but ‘safe’ was relative. Infant cobras are cobras still.
“Dad organized a cell in our neighborhood,” Gena said softly. “I don’t think they knew that – they couldn’t have known that. But he was the first one to …kill one of them. He killed… a Hsorf.”
Anega glanced involuntarily at the door again, feeling another swell of nausea. There was a CCTV in there for security purposes, in case of contamination in the wake of a mishap, and in case a room needed to be sealed. There was no microphone, and their masks hid their lips, and they were among friends… but her fingertips were cold. Gena could be executed for simply knowing someone who had killed one of the dogmen.
“If he comes back… will you — ”
“Yes.” Gena’s eyes were dark holes in her pale face. “Yes. If he comes back …different, I will kill him.”
Anega nodded once, sharply, and silently went on cleaning up the last beaker disaster while Gena collected herself. Beneath her lab whites, her arms were goosepimpled by the focus on Gena’s face. She would kill her father, might have to kill him over and over and over again. Her NSA contact, Marith, had told her that millions of people like Gena’s father were depending on them to find a vaccine which would disable their genes from successful cloning.
Which was ironic, Anega thought with disgust. After Dolly the Sheep and Eureka, the gorilla, the world had been holding their breath, awaiting the first successfully cloned human. And then the dogmen had come along and produced them, in the millions.
And they were farming them. And feeding on them.
Technology sharing had convinced the dogmen that Earth was no match for them. They still appeared, from time to time, on national vid programs, urbane and witty as always, their claws always a little sharper, their eyes always a little brighter, always smiling, laughing at their own wit with a silent panting, holding the nation polarized with terror before them, and laughing at them. It was not to be borne.
It had taken only days before the disbanded FDA had come together and recruited the biochemists who weren’t afraid, had put them to work in abandoned pharmaceutical labs, under the fiction that they were producing a drug to make humanity more fertile, one which the dogmen fully approved. Finding biochemists who were unafraid and had not fled to the country was the FDA’s concern, but working quickly and effectively with those who were sent was Anega’s task… which was why these failures were unacceptable.
Anega rinsed the rubber squeegee and went over the counter again. The shelves were next; the walls would have to wait until her next shift. Gena didn’t look as if she would notice if there was something dripping from the ceiling. She was frowning over the petri dishes on the shelves.
“Is something wrong?”
Gena hummed doubtfully. “Dunno. I think something new is growing in here. My inoculants must have been contaminated.”
“Oh, no,” Anega groaned, her eyes following the path of dioxide splatters from the beaker breakage. “Do you think it was me? I’m so sorry, Gee. Is it anything useful? Do you have to start all over again?”
“I dunno, I dunno…” Gena was muttering distractedly, peering at the surface of the agar. “Shouldn’t have been able to get in, the swabs were sterile, the dishes were sealed. Maybe…”
She trailed off, and there was silence for several minutes. Anega realized Gena had probably forgotten she was there. She looked at the clock. She had two minutes to punch out. She was finished, Gena was here, why didn’t she go home?
Because there was nothing at home but Mark, and Mum following him, heart in her eyes. Anega winced.
“Gena,” she said forcefully. “Tell me how I can help you.”
“Need a probe,” Gena muttered, still focused.
“Microspatula,” Anega said, opening the autoclave and bumping the handle against Gena’s shoulder until she reached out her hand to take it. “I’m prepping a slide?”
“Please,” Gena said, her voice trembling.
“Distilled water or Gram strain?”
Something in Gena’s voice was making Anega’s hands shake. She dropped the slide covers twice, and had trouble picking up the water dispenser.
When Gena simply inverted the petri dish atop the slide instead of scraping the surface, Anega shrugged and allowed the younger woman to do what she would. The slides weren’t pre-labeled as she normally would have used, but that could be sorted out later. For herself, Anega took a scraping of the medium on an uncontaminated edge of the dish, added a tiny drop of water, and sealed it with the slide cover. There were two microscopes in the lab, after all.
“Oh – my.” The words burst from her. “Gena, what… what the hell is this?”
“It’s …beautiful,” Gena breathed, transfixed by the dancing, spinning microscopic bodies. Against the blackness of the slide, its luminescent lobes and pods quivered, bristling like so many spines from a central sphere. Miniscule iridescent cilia rippled along each coruscating arm.
“It’s huge… and fast,” Anega murmured. “Oh, Gena… chica, I think you’ve got something.
“What if we can’t duplicate it?” Gena wailed. “Anega, it’s splitting already!”
“What?” Anega moved quickly from her microscope to Gena’s, frowning down into the eyepiece. “Holy smokes,” she muttered, well aware that she was dating herself with the archaic phrase. “It’s really moving.” She looked up from the slide, pushing up her safety glasses. “We don’t need to duplicate it if it’s willing to grow that fast.”
“No.” Gena was busy extracting another sample, this time doing it properly, pre-labeling the slide, putting down a polypropylene spacer and a thicker white filter card. “I don’t know what did it.”
“Maybe the titanium oxide got in somehow. It should be easy enough to duplicate, I know exactly what I did, and where it went wrong.”
Gena looked up, grinned briefly. “Are you staying my shift? I’ll spell you if you need a little nap. I’ve got some stim packs, if you need them.”
Anega shook her head. “Maybe later. If we get something, we can bump it up to R&D and have everybody working on it. I’ll sleep later.”
“Right. Immunocytochemical or histochemical staining, do you think?” Gena asked, working quickly to prep more slides.
“Both. I think an immunofluorescent scan will give us the best information on which direction to go next.”
“Right.” Gena was distracted again. “So… will you be good to me, little beauty? Will you?” she crooned to the swimming creatures under the slide. Working quickly, she hummed to herself bobbing to an inner rhythm only she could hear. Occasionally she sang snatches of song, cha-cha-ing in place as she scraped and stained and prepped.
Anyone watching the CCTV footage would have seen not one, but two women dancing. One dipped and glided slowly from counter to sink, turning in a complicated burlesque move to bump her hip against a drawer while lighting the Bunsen burner, then glided off to the back counter. The other woman twisted and gyrated, reaching onto shelves for pipettes and trays, occasionally throwing her hands in the air and flicking her fingers as if propitiating some kind of rain god.
On their trays, the specimens, too, dipped and glided, twisted and gyrated… and grew…
Further inspiration for this continuing story comes from this interestingly textured picture, produced and provided by Flickr user TC Carlisle. Further madness might be found with some of the usual suspects, though I suspect that muttering into the dark emptiness of fiction is taking place all over the globe, and many writers are finding their creativity wells gone dry in the face of the horror that is NaNoWriMo. A pity.