T H E M O R P H I S T
by Silva Noir
Chapter 24: meteoric
The lab was "up the road a piece" as the locals would say. The town it edged on was not a scientific community. Literal tumbleweeds rolled down main street, and it looked as about abandoned. Population was, I would say, under one hundred. The paint was chipped off the welcome sign, so I couldn't be sure. It was good for one thing: a diner that I was told made the best coffee on God's green earth. I'd never believed in God. I drank tea, not coffee. None of the earth around this place was green, either.
The lab, thankfully, was more up to date. It was a complex for various departments of research, including astronomical. There is something to be said for the desert's clear sky. Occasionally, objects fall from the sky. They pick these objects up if they didn't burn up in the atmosphere. Will happened to pick up a particularly strange one.
I won;t pretend to know anything about outer space. I've generally ignored it. My focus is on the ground and under a microscope. When he showed me a meteor ... or meteorite... I never could remember what you called them once they'd landed... I wasn't impressed. By then I'd thought of carrying a tape recorder in my pocket, and clicking it on to catch bits of important conversation and to make notes to myself. If they sound a bit choppy here, I apologize, they are recordings of recordings.
[ A man's voice is heard, that of Will, more distantly than the woman narrating, assumably addressing her. He does not sound like he knows he is being taped. ]
"Why is it so hard to believe that there could be some element or compound unknown to man ... unknown to this solar system! The Universe does not stand still, it is constantly in motion, rearranging itself, drifting, spinning, hurling out fragments and causing explosions. The Moon, for instance, is missing many of the elements of the Earth. What if Earth was not formed with everything the Universe can provide?"
[ The woman replies to the old recording in her new one ]
It had a certain amount of logic to it. The greatest scientific discoveries are often those the rest of the world might balk at from inexperience or because they challenge set beliefs. They had already tested the substance to determine if it was some sort of lifeform... but it failed most of those. I began my own attempts to unravel the mystery shortly after.
As far as I could figure, this unknown substance was initiating a chemical reaction. Fire spreads to make more of itself by consuming many of the organic materials in its path ... this did much the same. As fire liked particularly dry fuel sources (i.e., wood and grass), this seemed to prefer the particularly wet and alive. It separated itself from water, like oil, but sinking to the bottom. In open air, it evaporated. With blood or other bodily fluids, it adhered, consumed, and multiplied. If it ran out of fuel, again is would eventually evaporate. With the help of the unfortunate lab mice, we found that contact with skin wasn't enough. It would enter through a wound or the mouth or nose, given direct contact. More than a millimeter away, and it had no ability to seek out the victim. Despite my best efforts, I couldn't break it down. Either it was a pure element (which I highly doubt) or was made out of two or more components that were equally foreign. There was no match to any earth element or compound.
As days, then weeks passed and no cases of disintegration was reported from civilians, I was sure we were analyzing the mystery for the same reason a mountain climber climbs a mountains. He climbs it "because it's there" and to see if he can. I still didn't yet see how it was the greatest chemical threat to humanity. As that point, I thought Will had fabricated that part just to sign me onto his pet project.
I'd tried to make myself friendly to him hoping he'd open up. Though he'd shared few personal thoughts and none of his history, he certainly acted in kind. I'd never been in a relationship. I had no time for 'boys'. I never considered myself an attractive woman, either. I was always overweight and had never done anything about it. My mind and work always mattered more than my appearance. My personal life was nearly nonexistent. Relating to people was not one of my skills. So, I took his compliments for a joke.
I poured myself into my job, as I always did. I wanted to get it done and get back to my other job. Will would come in and tell me I didn't have to work long hours, though he appreciated my commitment. He would sit and watch me, chin rested on one hand, sitting on a swivel stool. I told him if he was going to stick around, he should make himself useful, not gawk. He did as I asked. When I would hit another dead end in the research he;d massage my shoulders , then tell me to go to bed. I'd "have a fresh mind in the morning." Sometimes I took his word for it, sometimes I toiled on stubbornly.
He wanted the answers as badly as I did, but didn't want me so frustrated that I'd leave in defeat.
Our situation changed abruptly when a trespasser was caught at the crash site. Said trespasser was a grizzled old man who frequented the diner and acted like he owned any land he set foot on. He'd been hunting coyotes for sport with his German Shepherd. The poor animal looked abused. Moreover, he;d allowed her to drink from the pool full of the unknown substance. You would think a canines heightened senses would let it know to stay away from poison ... even if there was no smell I could detect from the chemical. Will asked the man for his dog. He agreed to hand her over for three times the amount he paid for her, and still complained after he was paid.
Will neglected to tell me something. He of course wouldn't let that man walk away knowing what was going on there. Maybe I should have raised questions when the man was never seen in town again. Bones were easily hidden in the desert brush or carried off by the coyotes he'd hunted for the marrow. I was unaware at just how cruel my "boss" could be.
We wondered why the German Shepherd hadn't died instantly like the mice. I suggested perhaps a larger animal could better tolerate the same dose of poison that killed a smaller animal. We ran tests on her. Turned out was pregnant. Will, along with everyone else in the know, was very interested in what those puppies would be like. She was a fearful creature, but I think she put up with the stress because like any good mother, she wanted to protect her children.
I worked as hard as ever on finding what would neutralize Xilvrin;s damage. Oh, yes, Xilvrin. One of the other female lab workers I was on good terms with coined the term. The lump of space rock continually oozed it out of was designated by the coordinates of latitude and longitude on the map and date of discovery. The "filling" was labeled "X" as the unknown factor in an equation. During a lunch break I nearly skipped out of forgetfulness she popped her head in, reminding me. She'd mused it was silvery, so should be given a silvery name. She played off the X, calling it Xilver, then changed it to Xilvrin, to make it different from Silver. It was silly ... our private joke. We didn't spread the idea around. So that's how I refer to it in my notes now, hoping no one else will know what I'm talking about.
I didn't finish my work in time to save the mother. She died when her puppies were born. They'd... chewed their way out. She slowly decayed in Xilvrin. The source of the Xilvrin were the puppies themselves. The one that gave them life became their first meal. They didn't eat her whole body at once. I couldn't bear to watch, catching the scene out of the corner of my eye, then running back to the solitude of my office. Dr. Chung, who had been monitoring the dog the closest, let them keep the carcass until it was picked clean.
There were only three puppies. There should have been more, but the others, like the mother, didn;t sruvive the experience. The remaining three were dubbed X-1, X-2, and X-3. Dr. Chung assured me what they'd done was not out of the realm of behavior in the animal kingdom. Some insects were canibalilistic. Other insects injected venom into a large prey to dissolve the innards for digestion. I told him these weren't insects, they were puppies! There was nothing natural about this!
I didn't look at them until long after their matricidal feast was done with. Their eyes had opened by then ... each set a glimmering silver, the same as Xilvrin. They'd been born hybrids, immune to the alien poison. The Xilvrin was integrated through their bodies, given new organs and veins to carry it. Their digestive systems sorted out anything they ate as nutrition for their growing bodies or as Xilvrin, there was no waste, nothing to clean up after, no house training in that respect needed. Their sexes were unknown, as none of them had been born with any reproductive organs. At least no more demons could be bred (or so I hoped).
The dogs were kept under careful observation. One of them, X-1, would be treated and trained as any normal dog. It would serve as the control group. The other two, X-2 and X-3, would go through vigorous testing for the rest of their lives. I kept away. I may have been too late to save their mother, but I cared not about saving them. I'd be damned if I let this outfit go without a counter agent in case of disaster...
And I was sure there would be disaster...
Trial and error gave me what I needed. I threw all I could at Xilvrin. Blood saturated Xilvrin was indestructible, (until it hungered, starved, and evaporated). Extreme cold or heat, force, blades, and even mild doses of radiation did nothing to it. I didn't suggest trying high doses of radiation ... the last thing this world needs is more radioactive waste and bombs craters. I was able to concoct a powder, a mixture of whose exact formula exists only in my private notes. I kept the formula secret. It was my only proof of worth to the project. Once they had it, they wouldn't need me, and I could be denied access. Another's name would be credited with the formula. I needed their fear of being infected themselves. I needed their fear of continuing without a cure. I wanted this project to fail. I wanted the funding to run out. I wanted to, after the facility was shut down, sprinkle that neutralizing powder over everything and forget any of the abominations ever existed.
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