Friday, April 27, 2012

I Sing the Snot Atomic: A Short Story

"We've got the situation 75% under control..."

The Hubert J. Cromsby Institute for the Advancement of Quantum Botany
Las Calaveras, New Mexico 
April 21, 1975 - 8:04 a.m. 

And hello to you, Dr. Ackerman! Good to finally meetcha! Can I call you Jerry? Super. And please, do call me Dr. Mandelbrot. Haw, haw! Just pullin' your leg there, Jer. But all kidding aside, "Tom" will do just fine. We're all friends here at HJC. Let me show you around the place and introduce you to some of the boys you'll be working with. Right this way. How's Las Calaveras been treating you, by the by? Settling in to your new home all right? Oh? Well, I sure as heck am sorry to hear that, Jer. My wife was the same way when we first moved out here. But she got used to it, and I'm sure your wife will, too. What's her name, if I may ask? What a coincidence. My grandfather's name was Miriam. Haw, haw! But really, Jer, this place isn't too bad once you get used to the heat. Satan's Crawlspace, my wife Dolores calls it. There's not a whole heck of a lot to do in town... a few restaurants, coupla stores. Delores thought she'd go stir crazy. But I tell ya, Jer, at night Las Calaveras has a beauty all her own. It's the sky, Jer, that great big beautiful open sky fulla stars. Makes a person feel, I dunno, free I guess is the word. And here's the best part, Jer: no lawn to mow! Am I right? Haw, haw! The kids took to this place right away. Said it reminded 'em of those old Road Runner cartoons, which I guess it does at that. How you fixed in the offspring department there, Jer? Got two m'self. Randy's nine and Courtney's eleven. How 'bout you? No? Some particular reason? Well, I guess you're right, Jer. It's not my place to pry. But if it's a medical thing, Jer, I know a coupla doctors who would be glad to... Okay, Jer, I'll lay off. Guess I'm always tryin' to stick my nose in where it doesn't belong. But, heck, that's why we became scientists, huh? Delores says a scientist is just a busybody wrapped in a lab coat! A regular Nosy Joe, that's me. Haw, haw! 

"Tom" will do just fine.
And speaking of Nosy Joes, you seem to be one yourself, Dr. Ackerman. I see you've already noticed our little ventilation problem. Well, since you've signed a legally binding non-disclosure agreement, I guess I can tell you... Oh, you haven't? Hold onna sec. Lemme get one. Got plenty lying around here. Ah, here we go. Just sign here. And here. And here. And initial here. And if we could just get a thumbprint here. There we go. Anyway, as I was saying, you will occasionally notice a sort of green, viscous liquid dripping from the vents. Luckily, we have the situation largely contained to Sub-Basement B, which is where you'll be working. Oh, sure, it's pretty caustic stuff, make no mistake, but don't you worry about a thing. We'll get you fitted with a protective suit, goggles, hat, and gloves this afternoon once we get your measurements. What's your inseam, anyway? Thirty-two? Thirty-three? You're right, Jer, I'm poking my nose where it doesn't belong again. Old habits die hard, I suppose. Seriously, though, stay away from those vents in the meantime. That stuff can sure do a number on the epidermis, and no foolin'. And, uh, I'd stay away from the drinking fountains if I were you. Word to the wise.

Well, it's a funny story, Jer, now that you ask. You remember the Chartreuse Project, I assume? Yeah, that's right, Jer. The algae one. Your predecessor, Dr. Gene Milner, was spearheading that project. We were exposing ordinary green algae, just plain old garden-variety Trebouxia, to high levels of radiation in order to test the effects of epsilon rays on unicellular flagellates. The exact point of the project escapes me for the moment, but I think it had something to do with creating an industrial strength pool-cleaning compound. I mean, the algae's in the pool already, Jer. It might as well be cleaning the thing while it's there, huh? Haw, haw! But anyway, back to the story. Milner had been zapping the heck out of that algae for months and not making much progress. We all told him to throw in the proverbial towel, but, well... let's just say Gene was the stubborn type. Anyhow, he was in Isolation Pod 12  (that's right down the hall from here, just past the vending machine on your left there, see it?) one night about two months back, and apparently he decided to crank up the epsilon accelerator to full blast. Give 'er all she's got! 'Course this was nine, ten o'clock at night. I was at home with Dolores and the kids by that time. The only other person at Cromsby that night was Benny, the night watchman. Well, to hear Benny tell it, there was a huge explosion, and green smoke started pouring out of Isolation Pod 12. Benny put on a gas mask and went in there to investigate, but Milner was nowhere to be found. There was just this... this goopus everywhere, this green stuff all over the floor and the walls. Atomic snot, my kids call it. Anyhow, we managed to get most of it cleaned up, but some of it must've seeped into the vents and the plumbing and still drips out occasionally. Nasty stuff it is, too. Eats through human tissue like termites through plywood. Heck, we've lost so many plumbers that eventually they refused to come out here anymore. Hence those Port-a-Johns outside. We've got the situation 75% under control now, though... 60% at the very least. Certainly not less than half.

Not exactly Niels Bohr.
Now as for Dr. Milner, it's a bit of mystery. Like I say, Jer, we never did find his remains. We assume he died in the explosion. According to Benny, in addition to the goopus we found on the floor and the walls, there was a great big heap of goopus that moved of its own accord and crawled right through Benny's legs, out the door, and down the hall. He says he shot at it, but the bullet just got absorbed into its body. I don't believe it m'self, though. Benny isn't exactly Niels Bohr, if you catch my meaning. And he's so fond of those margaritas of his that you have to take everything he says with a rim of salt! Haw, haw! But, honestly, Jer, the story is preposterous. I mean, are we supposed to believe that Dr. Milner's cellular structure broke down during the explosion and that his genetic material comingled with that of the irradiated algae, creating a kind of hybrid semisolid, shapeshifting mutant plant-man with malevolent human intelligence? And are we further to believe that this creature is, in fact, to blame for the recent series of mysterious disappearances and deaths at the Cromsby Institute? The whole thing's absurd. It sounds like the plot of a terrible, terrible science fiction movie. Facts, Jer. That's what the science game is all about. Huh? Oh, sure, Jer. We kept all of Dr. Milner's notes about the project. I'll show 'em to you later if you're interested.

Oh, by the way, Jer, would you mind signing this? It's a sympathy card we're sending to Dr. Eisenmann's widow. Poor devil. Whatta way to go. I'll tell you all about it later, maybe after you've had lunch. Let's just say it'll be a closed casket ceremony. Which reminds me, we're also collecting for a floral arrangement, if you want to chip in. Well, sure, Jer. I understand. I mean, you just got here and you didn't know the guy. Maybe next time. Sure was a shame, though. Stan Eisenmann didn't have an enemy in the world. Not one! Well, I mean, he and Gene used to quarrel a bit -- quite a bit actually. But Stan was an okay guy in my book. Incidentally, Jer, if you and Miriam aren't busy this Friday night, Dolores and I are throwing a key party for some of the boys at Cromsby and their wives. Kind of an annual tradition. We'd love it if you would... Well, okay, Jer. I won't pressure you. Boy, you remind me a lot of your predecessor. Gene didn't go for that kinda thing either. But you be sure to let me know if you change your mind, huh?


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