The Perils of Dr. Laura Whitfield
by Channie Greenberg
Table of Contents|
chapters 1, 2, 3, 4
Chapter 3: Remaining Opaque
The old neighborhood was nearly unrecognizable. Laura blinked as she surveyed the streets and treetops. The Matthews’ place had boards across the windows. McWilliams’ house had two feet of garbage piled in its front yard. As for the Iwinas’ formerly classy place, what had once been a gardener-maintained lawn was now thick with crabgrass and was spotted yellow in the places where mismanaged pets had roamed.
Laura sighed. In the two Earth decades since she had jetted off to dally with Jupiter’s natives, she had aged only two years. The people, places and things she loved, on the other hand, had aged eighteen more. While Mom and Dad were dead, and her sister, Phlox, was contemplating retirement, Laura remained in her prime.
Worse, in her absence, the media had apparently played up, much to the embarrassment of her former lover’s loyal wife, the emails that he and she had long ago exchanged. That venerated Cornell University astronomer’s hard-suffering spouse, who had also been Laura’s former cribbage partner, had sold those love letters to a trashy periodical in an attempt to force an increase in her divorce settlement.
Nearly three decades earlier, Laura had met that woman and her husband at a physics conference. Annually, she and the wife bested most comers at cards. Annually, she and the man shacked up.
Laura had thought she had put an end to that romance through a snail-mail goodbye that she had sent on route to her rocket’s launch pad. Twenty Earthly years later, when she opened her physical mailbox, she learned that her missive had been marked “return to sender.” The space traveler supposed that a few years after the affair had atrophied from her lack of presence that the man had been made to or had chosen to confess his deeds, and that his wife, believing Laura permanently missing, had accepted his request for forgiveness conditional on her receiving a big-money divorce.
In light of how her casual relationship had been outed, it was going to be uncomfortable for Laura to interact with any yet-living colleagues. Worse, the individuals who had constituted her professional “protection” were no longer in positions of influence. Those powerful academics were in retirement homes, were in other places of invalid care, or were dead.
It had been a boon to have been recognized, as a young scholar, by her field’s senior participants. That they extolled her irregular way of solving problems had been professionally wonderful. Twenty years later, though, those leading physicists could not help her.
Moreover, while many of her former associates had been adulterous, few had been caught. Unlike them, she was “tainted.” To the best of her knowledge, no other significant researcher had had affairs detailed in scientific magazines’ letters to the editor columns or in supermarket scandal sheets.
Furthermore, Laura’s erstwhile lover, following his divorce and his fulfillment of a few alimony payments, had hanged himself by his necktie. He had committed suicide at a meeting of the International Physics Assembly, where he and his ex-wife and Laura had first met.
Even two decades later, few professors had stopped winking or groaning over the incident. Bad jokes about “mooning” academic “stars” were still the stuff of happy hours. There was no telling just how long vestiges of that disgrace would linger among ivory-tower residents.
Initially, after flying back to Earth, Laura had applied for physics and biology grants. Despite her intrepid efforts at proposal writing, she received just a few hundred dollars from MIT’s Woods Hole Oceanic Institute. The rest of her applications were sent back marked “laughable.” “Everyone” knew that only Earth was inhabited and “everyone” knew that Laura was a revealed adulteress.
Since academia proved too condemnatory to revisit, Laura’s exclusive knowledge of alien life forms notwithstanding, she decided to offer astrophysics courses online and to otherwise spend her time publishing her space travel findings.
Laura took on an assumed name for her private lessons. She used a rented post-office box instead of PayPal to receive tuition. Plus, she dropped her LinkedIn and Face Book accounts and closed out her association with Twitter. Like Dr. Padmani, her friend and mentor, Laura stopped connecting via dongles.
She didn’t bother, though, with a pseudonym for her scientific reports. Laura continued to be the only known investigator to have completed field studies on Jupiter.
What’s more, Laura had arrived on Earth with more than 10,000 fertilized space lobster eggs. Those eggs, which the scientist had accepted in exchange for not being eaten alive, had not come with instructions or with funds. So, Laura needed luck and income straightaway.
Informally, it was a sapient crustacean who had spied on and had “invited” Laura to visit the gaseous giant to make interspecies contact. Formally, Laura was “presented” as a mere passerby that “happened to decide” on stopping by the fifth planet. Her host’s peers seemed incapable of considering the impact of their dietary predilections on Laura’s well-being.
They immediately commenced trying to devour her. However, after determining that her shell, that is, her spacesuit, made her impervious to being broken open by their claws or to being sucked out by their maws, they insisted on prodding her to encourage her to molt.
They simultaneously tried to engage with her. Those giant Jupiter lobsters exuded liquid waste through ducts under their eyes. Regrettably, such communications left the professor clueless. She could not grasp the gist of their pheromone tattoos. Despite the fact that the beasts of Jupiter were corporally similar to Earth’s decapods, the physicist lacked training in deciphering released scent patterns.
Meanwhile, Nenetl-the-Lobster, Laura’s contact, had somehow persuaded Yaretzi-the-Lobster, Nenetl’s beloved, to coat thousands of Nenetl’s eggs with sperm. That mother lobster attached some of those ova to her pleopods via some sort of sticky excretion. They would brood on her body for approximately half a solar revolution. Nenetl would have to keep her tail folded up to further protect her generations.
The mother lobster urged others of her eggs upon Laura. Nenetl had, with her enormous claws, attached their sacks to Laura’s suit. That exchange between Nenetl and Laura was complicated and confusing.
Laura hoped that she would not be seen as kidnapping would-be crustaceans. If she was thought to be an abductor, then nuclear tensions on Earth would be as nothing compared to any war that her world might have to fight against Jupiter’s denizens.
Immediately after being covered with those sacks, Laura felt compelled to go home. Nenetl’s pinchers were of tremendous size and strength. Laura’s body armor would eventually give way to those chitin and calcium appendages if Laura did not, post-haste, leave Jupiter.
Back in her rocket, Laura reviewed her notes on Jupiter’s lobsters. She estimated that while encased in their egg masses, the future lobsters would have to be undulated every six weeks in a hydrogen bath containing a one-tenth portion of helium and trace amounts of ammonia, sulfur, methane, and water vapor. Thereafter, Laura was not sure how she could help the Jupiter fry survive.
Lobster young on the far planet, like those on Earth, lived in their world’s sediment’s sub-surface. Any species seeking to dwell there had to pass through miles of gaseous clouds before reaching a nearly solid overlay. It was of little wonder that Jupiter lobsters were far and few between.
More specifically, large numbers of lobster hatchlings, when attempting to float or to drift toward their planet’s crust, wound up as food for Jupiter’ other cloud-dwelling species. Great schools of predators awaited, hungrily, the seasonal air currents that disbursed lobster babies. Those other beasts’ populations rose and fell comparative to that food source. Laura had filmed and successfully avoided those killers.
Over time, online teaching proved to be of limited profitability. Broadcasting her cutting-edge research, too, brought in no income. Consequently, Laura decided to make the rounds of the college lecture circuit. She charged tens of thousands of dollars per speech to talk about the possibility of life beyond Earth. Her relationship to her famous sister helped to sell her act.
When traveling among schools of higher education, Laura requested two staterooms, one for herself, and one for her tiny lobsters. All she ever disclosed about the occupancy of her extra room was that it was “for family.”
As they grew, the Jupiter lobsters, unlike their Earthly care provider, seemed to shimmer increasingly. By degrees, they became transparent. That change worried Laura; she had not observed translucent crustaceans on their mother’s planet. She was doing something wrong in the lobsters’ care and feeding. Likely, baby hard skins were not meant to be raised in an environment as foreign as Earth.
Laura’s worries turned out to be relative though, when those Jupiter babies were brought to the public’s attention. A careless access by a chambermaid here and a curious trespass by a bellhop there eventually lead to their detection. While hotel staff members couldn’t tell a Jupiter lobster from an earthly one, scientists who viewed commonplace data feeds could.
More specifically, biologists who lingered on Buzzfeed or on YouTube, knew they were viewing an alien species or something from so far beneath the oceans’ surfaces as to be of equal value. Suddenly, the shame attached to Laura’s publicized affair was as nothing.
Zoological gardens and aquariums, worldwide, along with a vast array of research facilities appealed to Laura for access to her critters. There were bribes. There was blackmail. Laura gleaned nearly half of a million dollars in “gifts.”
As well, she was threatened with being reported to the USDA APHIS, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service. Didn’t the good lady realize, wrote unfriendly sorts, that if the government caught wind of the baby lobsters’ existence, those young would be seized and impounded and eventually dissected. No politicians wanted otherworldly diseases included in their legacy. Yet, nearly all statesmen would gladly associate their name with providing the world with protection against aliens.
Laura invested her “gifts’ into better and bigger tanks for her wards. She weighed hiring someone to help her with their care, but worried about further security gaps; hotel staffs’ cellphone pictures had already done enough damage. Fortunately, none of her Jupiter babies got nabbed.
Afterwards, Laura operated against intuition. She engaged in a “Frank Serpico”: she brought additional news of her cache to the public. By selling her story to the same tabloid, which had featured her tryst on its front page, she succeeded in delegitimizing her scientific breakthrough. In actuality, she was no lamp-lighter like Serpico, resembling him only in her attempt to exchange publicity for limited safety. At least in “selling out,” she met George.
George worked for the yellow paper that had purchased Laura’s story and its accompanying photos. That Balkan transplant was an alleged specialist in time dilation, who claimed to be a Methuselah of sorts. He referred to himself as three hundred years old.
In Laura’s estimation, George wasn’t a day over thirty. She couldn’t believe, either, that he could slow time to a standstill using relativity. All the same, that opinion was irrelevant as long as George, one way or another, derived the correct moment to pick her up for their dates. It mattered little to Laura whether the dark-haired European calculated hours in relation to a distant star or per cycles of the Earth around the sun. He always looked good in his button-down and blue jeans.
Their evenings together were not so much about Baroque music played by string quartets or rom-com movies performed by the latest, most acclaimed actors, as they were about testing George’s potential fidelity. Laura realized more and more that she need a confidant and co-conspirator. She planned to hire George as her personal assistant. He was easy on the eyes.
Copyright © 2015 by Channie Greenberg