by Oonah V. Joslin
part 1 of 2
Bettany was at the zenith of her career and she didn’t need adverse publicity. “I want that photographer’s head,” she spat, thrusting the ITP into the bin. “Air-brushed my arse!”
“He’d have to wait in line, darling,” said her P.A. Charles, retrieving the ITP.
“Highly amusing,” she retorted.
She smoothed her throat with cream that would have cost most people their income and then rubbed the rest into her hands and admired her long slender fingers and immaculate nails. “They’d better have paid that moron well because he isn’t taking any more publicity shots for me! What was his name anyhow? Have you contacted my solicitors yet? Have you seen my...”
“Hank Saint-Paul, I believe. Dutch. They’re on it. It’s on the dresser.”
“Have you seen this?” asked Bettany, switching her attention to another tabloider. Its screen glowed green, scrawled a slow advertisement and flashed up a photo of Vixen, Bettany’s nemesis, wearing the skimpiest of tight costumes, her unblemished skin framed by those perfect faux blonde curls. “Forget air-brush. Two can play at that game. Find out about this.”
“You can’t be serious... no...” Charles didn’t approve of even conventional kinds of cosmetic intervention. Botox Babes were one thing but this... this was a whole new bag of Schodinger’s.
“Why not? If Vixen can do it, so can I.”
Vixen had the advantage of being ten years younger than Bettany but Charles knew what his job was worth so he didn’t point this out. Anyway, he didn’t want to upset Bettany. She’d been under a lot of strain recently. She looked tired. “Listen, we have the junket tomorrow and then the premier on Friday. I’d suggest plenty of beauty sleep and pure water and completely no stress. I’ve booked you a massage and pedicure at the Queen’s in the morning — not too early.”
“Just what I need, thanks.”
“I’ll wake you personally, and I’ve taken care of all the dietary stuff so there’ll be vegetarian, vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free, salt-free... everything available.”
“I don’t need all of those, Charles...”
“No, but it’s a smokescreen so the Interactives can’t pick up on anything specific. You know what they’re like about celebs and diets. I’ll just let slip that you insist on everyone having the widest possible choice at all of your receptions.”
“You are a marvel, Charles. What would I do without you?” She yawned and stretched out her endless legs on the silk sheets. “You must have things to do. I’ll see you in the morning,” she said dismissively and like a lamb, he left.
Dr. Richard Vance typed the word ‘indestructible’ in his notes, took off the spectacles he insisted on wearing instead of having the simple corrective procedure, and rubbed his tired eyes. The clock read one minute to midnight. That seemed ironic. He was so far beyond sleep, it didn’t matter much what the time was. He hadn’t slept properly for days.
Vance had three Nobels. The Ruminant, colleagues called him. Nobody could chew over a problem like Vance. He was an undisputed genius. Micro-biology to Cosmology, nothing was too small or big for his study. He had a couple of Nebulae named after him and a retro-virus that had cured some melanomas and virtually wiped out AIDS. Research money poured unsolicited into his lap. It had enabled him to fit out this state of the art facility in the cellar of his Kensington home. His emeritus status at Oxford left him plenty of freedom. In fact they were rather protective of him, diverting many of the drains he could normally have expected on his time.
“No progress?” asked his partner Jess, bringing a cup of herbal tea. “Maybe a few hours sleep...”
“Hours, days,” said Vance, “Do we have that long? I don’t know the next move, Jess.”
“It’s unlike you to be despondent. Be a good boy and drink this.”
Vance laughed weakly and took the mug from him. “I hope that’s ClariTea and not SleepEezee,” he joked.
“It’s Lapsang — weak, with lemon, just how you like it.”
Jess was his touchstone to reality and they’d been together for years.
“I promise I’ll rest okay? But this is bad. I have NASA and CERN on a leash here.” He nodded towards the computer and fax systems and the open-door secure vox link — that kept him in touch with science facilities and governments all over the world.
“I know,” said Jess. “Take a look at this.” He handed over an Interactive Tabloid Pad.
‘Pseudo-matter New Therapy Craze,’ crawled across the screen.
Some exclusive clinics were offering injections of the stuff straight into the vein for those whose vanity required that they stay young and beautiful forever and who could afford it. Fortunately, Vance thought, they were precious few. The before and after celebrity depicted looked vastly more mannequin-like than usual, mummified alive, like too many face-lifts. Vance knew the mentality, though he didn’t understand it.
Vance slung the ITP onto the desk. “This stuff arrives from god knows where, god knows how, and in only a few months they’re injecting it?” He put down his tea. “No one can come up with anything to counteract it.” He was talking aloud rather than to Jess and as he spoke data was coming through on his link to CERN. He glanced at the graphs being automatically generated from it, saved and filed. They all looked so normal. He’d check them later just to be sure. At last he looked at Jess again, remembering this was supposed to be a dialogue.
“If this kind of thing gets hold, people won’t need injections soon. As it is, I can’t even quantify the rate of spread.”
“It’s spreading naturally?” asked Jess, “How?”
“W.H.O. tells me it’s contagious but there’s more to it, I’m sure. It seems to be capable of taking on quorum sensory functions. I’ve found some evidence of myxoplasts at the cellular level and...”
“In English please?”
“Some of it’s behaving like bacteria, Jess.”
“You tell anybody yet?”
“Nope.” Vance paced up and down. “The tabloiders would be all over it like... well, like bacteria. You know every one of us has ten times more bacterial than human cells?” He stopped and looked Jess in the eye. “What does that tell you?”
Jess wasn’t sure whether a response was required, let alone how to respond, but Vance went on. “We think we are what this universe is all about. We’re not.” Then he carried on pacing. “The universe isn’t any way efficient at making humanoid life. We might be the only ones. Bacteria and black holes — that’s what it’s good at.”
Vance stopped again. “I hate that name. It was supposed to be a stop-gap term until I could reach some classification but it’s caught on. Ah, well! I don’t think ‘Pseudo-matter’ is even from this universe.”
“How can you tell that?”
“It’s just... made of different stuff.”
“That doesn’t sound very scientific.”
“You see, our matter is made of fermions. This isn’t.”
“You mean it’s like anti-matter?”
“No.” Vance shook his head. Jess’ grasp of science wasn’t that great. His profiteroles were wonderful. “Anti-matter is just positrons instead of electrons and it destructs immediately it meets ordinary matter. We use it every day. PET scans for instance — Positron Emission Topography? It looks at the destructive path of positrons through tissue to map the brain and show up problems.”
Jess looked mildly alarmed. He was having a problem with his brain right now.
Vance could see he’d lost him. “Anyway, this matter isn’t made of fermions or bosons, it’s... different. We can’t even make this stuff here. CERN is running every experiment we can think of to find out what it is made of.”
“Bet it’ll be made of Vancions,” joked Jess.
“I think maybe Jessions,” teased Vance. He sighed. “The top and bottom of it is, we can’t make it and we can’t destroy it.”
“So what’s it doing here?” asked Jess. “I mean what is it doing?”
“I can’t explain why but it’s combining somehow with our elements and then stabilizing so we can’t reverse it. That’s why I haven’t announced the spread. I don’t want to create a panic and I don’t want to look like a fool. Basically this stuff is metabolizing with carbon and oxygen. It’s trying to follow the rules, tending towards stability like... like iron — like every element known to man. But it doesn’t form any known element and it alters our matter at the quantum level not just the atomic or molecular. It’s as if a stream of Pseudo-quantum matter,” he slapped his own wrist for use of the hated term, “has...” Vance looked at the pained expression on Jess’ face and decided to cut the techno-spiel. “There may be a leak of some kind.”
“Try plugging that,” said Jess.
“Try finding it,” said Vance. “I’ve got every observatory and the Deep Space Five looking for something that we can’t even see till it hits us — unusual phenomena. The Higgs was a doddle compared to this.”
Jess picked up the mug and put it back in Vance’s hands. “Well it’s not going to help if our best brains are too tired to think, is it? Come on. Drink this and let’s turn in, shall we?”
“Jess, this is for everyone.”
Jess knew when he was outnumbered.
Bettany was furious again. This time because no one had bothered to airbrush the picture.
Copyright © 2009 by Oonah V. Joslin