Prose Header

Standing Athwart History

by Ian Cordingley

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

She walked into the lab a couple of days later, fighting down her thoughts and feelings. Musgrave practically blocked the door. “I didn’t think you’d be back so soon.”

“I’m just popping in,” Carol said. She shifted her bag from one shoulder to the other. She kept her face half facing Musgrave and half the wall.

“Three days isn’t enough, in my opinion, to constitute suitable bereavement leave, especially after a terrorist attack.”

“I’m not going to get my thesis done sitting on my rear.”

“Mourning isn’t the same thing as procrastination.”

“I’m okay,” Carol said. “I’ve got a hold of it.”

“Take some more time off,” Musgrave said. “You’re allowed time for bereavement.”

Carol shook her head. “Work will help. I just need to get to work.”

Musgrave struggled to suppress the approving grin. “Sometimes taking time off helps more.”

“I have H-277 running in the breeder.”

“Can you put it on ice?”

She shook her head. “It’s been in all night.”

“Just... just be careful.” He rested a hand on her shoulder. “You don’t have to push yourself. Haste makes waste.”

“I will,” she said, short and quick. “Thanks.”

She popped into her office to hang up her coat. She double-checked the sympathy card her department had signed. With dearest condolences, Nelson Clark. A bulletin on orange paper was taped to the door of every office; a related bulletin flagged URGENT was in her inbox. Schedule D or greater strains/related Shenzhen/Xi’an family must be signed for before each use.

The breeder was at the far end of the lab, a large orange box purring and blinking. She cursed when she learned it still wasn’t done. Strains took a while to breed if you wanted the job done properly, and H-277 was a particularly finicky beast.

H-277 was a compromise, a hybrid between Shenzhen Red and Green and a branch of the Edmonton Schedule, speeding up a slow Edmonton strain, slowing down a rapid Chinese spectrum one. Nicole was inclined to think that was the problem. “If you want to make a change,” she said, “you can’t be wishy-washy about it.”

Yeah, look where it got you. Care to revise that opinion, sis?

Fifteen minutes longer. Carol took out her tablet: a few minutes to draw, what the heck? Her stylus rapped against the tablet screen. Draw what? Her latest update to deviant art had been a tribute to her sister and the other victims of Bangkok. Simple, bleak: she might as well have painted the screen black. She tried tracing out a sketch of octagons multiplying into more octagons, or molecules with panicked faces as nanotechnological sharks consumed them. Nothing felt right.

The breeder buzzed. She opened the lid, selecting the test tubes she had placed inside. The fluid inside the test tubes was translucent, off-yellow in colour. Her material samples were two tubes of gritty water, swimming in toxins and heavy metals. Half the arctic, pretty much, right here in her hand.

She inserted the material sample and the experimental strain into the experiment box. She snapped down the lid and hit “activate.” A merry hourglass spun on the computer screen. Now she had another half hour to kill, carting samples from one box to another. Ah, the scintillating world of science.

After a few minutes of staring at a blank page, she heard the box buzz. Now she could commence the experiment. She took her material samples from the tube rack and put them into the reaction chamber, a blue box for some reason located on the other side of the lab. She poured the samples into the respective slots, hit the timer and waited. She passed the time rapping her stylus against the pad.

The computer chimed: finished. She scanned the rows of figures. Nada. Not a success, but not failure either. Maybe Musgrave was right, maybe this could wait until after a few days, but who was she kidding? After a morning of enforced boredom, she’d scale the building’s walls to get back into the lab. If she pulled that stunt, how would Musgrave react?

So she looked over notes again, checking the configurations, double checking environment parameters. If it were more like Blue, if she could add a drop of Blue to the mixture...

Mix in Blue?

Too many inhibitors stalled the reaction; too few let it get carried away. Here, she thought, look at it. Call up the electron images. Go on, look at them. You can almost hear them plead: “Please, Carol, please let us be free!”

Blue, in its appropriately coloured bottles with yellow hazard stickers now littering their fronts, was in a hazardous material cabinet. Carol walked over to the cabinet, and opened it. She held a bottle in her hand, staring at it for the longest time. Since the attack, they had been intentionally weakened. Musgrave had fought against it; Clark couldn’t have been happier.

If this was going to work, she would need Shenzhen Blue that was fresh. Not hard to do, but harder to authorize. If she pulled that stunt, how would Musgrave react? How would Clark? Clark had senior tenure. Anything involving Blue, almost certainly, had to go through him. Crap. She knew this would not be easy.

* * *

Clark sighed. A definite improvement over the tirade Carol was expecting. Her email had intentionally been vague to get his attention. He had been very patient as she explained what she wanted to do

“It’s been very stressful for the two of us,” he said. “I’ve been trying to defend our grant from people who think we’re going to get eaten alive.”

Carol swallowed. It was best he left Nicole unspoken — more effective that way.

“We’re not in danger of that, of course.”

“Good to know.”

“But,” Clark pointedly leaned forward as he completed his sentence, “we are still living in a sensitive time.”

“If we’re not going to use Blue, we need something as mean as it is. I can’t see any way around the problem. ”

“Perhaps there isn’t one.”

“No,” Carol said, finding the words as hard to say as it was for Clark to hear them, “but I think this might be the only way.”

Clark was quiet. Carol knew she needed to press the initiative.

“And, to be honest, at some point we are going to do this.” The words were easier to say than she thought it would be. On some level, within her chest, they burned as they left her mouth. She wasn’t committing treason against anyone, her sister or memories of her.

“We can’t just say stop and expect the entire field of nanotechnology to just stand still. It’ll run us over. It’ll take time, sure, but it’s not going to stand still because we’ve decided that we’re squeamish. Yelling ‘stop’ isn’t going to stop history.”

Okay, it wasn’t an argument tightly wrapped as a Gordian knot, but it was serviceable. She could see on the older man’s face that something inside him had relented.

“Sudden, breathless graduate students frantically messaging me about new breakthroughs are old hat,” he said. “Lord knows I’ve done that a couple of times in my life.”

She smiled, hoping that she could bridge the student-professor gap with fond memories.

He returned the smile and then his face was blank again. “So what do you want from me?”

“Help. The Shenzhen Blue strains we have are too watered-down,” she said. “We need to let it loose.”

“And how,” Clark asked, “am I supposed to facilitate that?”

“We can request purer strains for preventative research. It would only take a Petri dish and a little time...” she cut herself off before she dug herself in deeper. Might as well have asked Clark if she could set up a breeder reactor in the lab.

“We haven’t been very responsible,” he said, “and now we’re paying the piper.”

“No,” Carol conceded. “I mean, yes, true. We have been that, but this is something we’re only going to get better at it, if we don’t stop arbitrarily.”

“Better to stop it before it stops us all.”

She looked at the floor in shame. Clark nodded, sitting back, knowing he’d scored a direct hit. He was a hard man but a fair one, and continued in a more conciliatory tone.

“There are a couple of vials left,” Clark admitted. “They are locked up tight, and the university doesn’t know what to do with them. We could spare a couple of drops, if I explained in nice enough language what we were doing. You’re still doing your Master’s. You’re not certified for the Hazardous Reaction block, although...” he ruminated a second more, “I could ask one of the doctoral candidates to pop it in for you.”

Carol perked up a bit, knowing full well the hammer would fall. Things had been going pretty well, and there was only so much good fortune to go around.

“However,” Clark said, “if this doesn’t work out and we waste some Blue for nothing or, God unwilling, it all goes wrong...”

“It’ll be my ass,” Carol said.

“Considering we’ll be bending the rules, I would say so.”

“I’ll be out of the program?”

“Maybe not,” Clark said, “but it could be made very difficult for you to remain.”

“How difficult?” Carol asked, wondering if this was a warning or a threat.

“Don’t ask me. Personally, I think this idea isn’t as crazy as it seems. Not that I’ve warmed up to it. Musgrave would fight tooth and nail for you. I think you’re bright, so I’d put in a good word. The powers that be might disagree. But,” he concluded, “that is your call.”

She nodded.

“I’ll make a call or two. Give me until tomorrow.”

“Thanks,” she said.

She was closer than she had been this morning. That was progress.

Studies in graduate student boredom No. XVII. A sketch of a couple of newspaper boxes, a garbage can and a pigeon. She saved the drawing, examining her half-eaten bagel and stone-cold coffee. She had drawn those several times.

She had boxed everything up that morning in a bright orange box with the word “Extreme” labelled in large black letters. The technician accepted it with a curt nod and walked off into the bowels of the building, past the “employees only” sign, into a maze of concrete and steam pipes to the secure material labs. Since then, she had been sitting in the building’s lobby, waiting.

All in the hands of fate. Hopefully Nicole’s vindictive spectre would not frown upon her. Carol was curious what Nicole would have thought, seeing as how Carol was dabbling in the means of Nicole’s death. Carol figured her sister would have been sympathetic. Sympathy didn’t translate into support, so Carol just fought the thought and dropped it.

Occasionally someone would ask what she was doing and she replied, “Just waiting for someone.” Which was true: they said she would be called. It just felt it made all the difference in the world to be here.

Just my academic and professional future on the line. No big deal. Shall I start number XVIII?

She called up a blank page and looked around for something else to sketch. Queen’s Park? She’d done three of those already. It looked like it was going to rain, so going outside to draw it from another angle was out.

She decided to sketch the lobby. Aside from the benches running along the walls, there was only a receptionist’s desk and stairs and elevator leading to labs she wasn’t allowed in. Not hard to draw; it certainly hadn’t been hard to design. She left it at a bare outline of the room.

Her phone buzzed. Reluctantly she picked it up and checked who was calling: it was the lab. Moment of truth time. She thumbed the phone’s screen.


“Yes?” she replied.

“This is Connor Maye from this morning. How are you?”

“Fine,” she said, hoping to skip through basic etiquette and get to the point.

“Anyway, I’ve got your results here...”

Brace for impact.

“Sixteen percent efficiency,” he said. “The inhibitor slowed the reaction chain down but I presume that was the entire point.”

“Yes,” she admitted, feeling a tad better.

“Well, I don’t think anyone is going to be thrilled there’s Blue in this, but all things considered it looks great.”

“Can I have the results, please?”

“Incoming,” he said. Her phone beeped as the data arrived.

“Thanks,” she said, hanging up. She paused for a moment. It worked. She forwarded the results to Clark and Musgrave, and took a moment to think about what to do next. She sat back and smiled. Well, Sis, I did it.

She called up another blank page. This was a more abstract drawing: a chain forming and reforming itself, spiraling out from the centre of the page. Interlocked into one large mass. Things were going to be all right after all.

Copyright © 2013 by Ian Cordingley

Proceed to Challenge 524...

Home Page