More than a Ghost Ch. 01byMister_Shy©
I am a scientist. I am a man of conviction and not a little bit of grandeur, a colossus of erudition, master of chemical and physical applications, well versed in the theoretical as well as the concrete laws of this, the very universe.
That is how I wish my tale of genius would begin. Perhaps it was nothing more than egotistical hubris. Regardless of my once lofty aspirations I could not begin any retelling of my scientific breakthrough in such fashion without discounting a great deal of the truth. So how do I really begin? The carpool, probably.
I was driving my daughter and her best friend Amber to school. The girls had been close since the Institute relocated to Colorado and brought its research, funding and experts along with it. I was among them. We had been generously bankrolled by the federal government to develop new methods of close-quarters combat. My wing of the Institute was focused primarily on stealth. It was a dream come true.
Unlike my colleagues I had almost no interest in the applications of our work. My desires, from my earliest memories, were always in the realm of achievement. Could I excel beyond my peers? Could I disprove my professor's seemingly groundbreaking theorems; hell, could I propose my own thesis of molecular epistemology and get away with laughing in his face when he tried to pass off my work as his own? As he had. And I could—because my professor's people knew his talents. When he brought my research before the university's board they almost immediately recognized that the formulas displayed an understanding of cellular and electromagnetic potential beyond anything previously discussed. As such my professor was thrown out on his ear and I was immediately eligible for a doctorate in applied physics. I was nineteen.
It was a good thing, too, because my girlfriend at the time, an ardent catholic, had recently become pregnant. We were married the day after I was accepted to the Institute. It was a mixed blessing.
But I was talking about carpool. Amber was my daughter Rebecca's oldest friend. We had moved to Colorado when she was nine. The girls were now eighteen and in the last year of high school. A rather abrupt scandal had rocked the Institute involving the team in the cyber combat wing and the rest of us were ordered to lay low for a period of time until the Institute could salvage its reputation enough to woo the military back into our good graces. It was not a pleasant experience for me. I still taught a weekly class for the local university and had more than enough grant money to sustain me and my research. But being remanded to my basement laboratory did not please my wife, who had grown accustomed to being the kept woman of an elite engineer. She had never enjoyed housework, but having me work from home was apparently too much for her pride. Though I kept to myself (and had since our shotgun wedding) she was never remiss to question when I would return to the Institute full time and leave her tidy house in peace.
Margaret, my wife, did not approve of my work, specifically as it related to the manipulation of matter. It was against God, she said. I said that her delicate religious sensibilities did not put food on her table, nor indulge her every modern furnishing desire. She was not amused.
When I was not buried in my work I took every opportunity to escape the house. Thus, carpool.
Where was I? Amber and Rebecca had been best friends since we moved next door to Amber's parents and they had both grown into beautiful young women. I say this out of surprise more than filial respect. Margaret is not an unappealing woman but I am by no stretch an astonishingly handsome man. At my best I have always managed to look exceedingly ordinary. I am vain enough to say I am not an ugly man. But no aspect of my mortal body is glamorous. Rebecca meanwhile is quite beautiful. She has my dark hair and her mother's curls and brown, kind eyes. She is shorter than Amber but more curvaceous. Amber, meanwhile, defies the genetic failings of her parents, who are sweet but simple people who look like they would be at home as extras on the set of a sitcom. They are both cheerful, portly people. Amber is slim and tall, with chestnut brown hair and glasses (or had, until Rebecca convinced her to wear contacts). She is a runner, with a runner's muscles. For a time she and I would pass each other at 5 in the morning. I would be running after a lengthy night of working and not sleeping. She would be awake early getting in a run before meeting the rest of her team at school. She had a beautiful smile and absolutely no self confidence.
Rebecca was a bright fixture in her school's population. She was student council, theater, cheerleading, everything her mother could persuade her to join she excelled in. Amber was nearly the opposite, strong academically but sometimes cripplingly shy. Amber was Rebecca's study partner from the first. Rebecca was Amber's escape from total social obscurity. It was downright Darwinian.
As I drove our family's minivan to school I tried to cool the engine inside my head. Something was happening in my experiments that I had not expected to see for several months (years, even, when I consulted my notes). I had to remove myself from my basement to calm myself. Was it an accident or hard work that suddenly accelerated my research? Cutting through my inner calculations and refutations I heard Amber and Rebecca discussing prom or some other high school event. Rebecca kept trying to set Amber up with some boy or other, and Amber was adamantly opposed to them all.
"What about Rob?" I heard Rebecca ask.
"You tried to set me up with him before," Amber said.
"Didn't you like him?"
"He wanted me to..." In the rear view mirror Amber glanced to see if I was watching. "You know..." she finished.
Rebecca gave an exasperated sigh. It was the same one her mother made when I tried to explain that I had yet to find any angels dancing on the heads of my electrons. "You're going to have to..." This time Rebecca glanced at the rear view. "You know...eventually."
Amber shrugged her shoulders uncomfortably. She really was very fetching. That the boys of her school would want to "you know" with her was not so strange. But I had never been a desperately lustful man and my observations were clinical at best. Clearly Rebecca, who was buxom in all the ways Amber was not, already knew much more about what boys wanted than perhaps either Amber or I would ever know. As to my daughter's sexual activities, I made it perfectly clear to her that while her mother would bring the wrath of God upon her should she ever catch wind of any shenanigans, I could not be bothered to monitor her choices. I made two things clear, however: always bring condoms and always make sure he wore them. Rebecca was the beautiful result of my teenage impropriety. Had I the capacity to invent a time machine, intervening before the moment of her conception would be a troubling choice. But I suppose I had the luxury of Margaret and me never pretending that we loved each other...
Amber and Rebecca left the car with the two of them still bickering over whether Rebecca should have a boyfriend before her first year of college. I was already far beyond caring. My mind was on the eight hundred and sixty first mouse in my laboratory.
It had disappeared.
The one positive aspect of the Institute banishing my team and me to our homes was that I was now free to work completely alone. And unsupervised. My interests always pointed first at achievement. What average men made of my superior talents was not relevant to me. That I was paid was. That I was allowed the free reign to use those talents was. That I was recognized for having created something their small minds could only use but never understand was paramount. I am a scientist and a prideful man and my life begins and ends there. I am not the sort of man who invents a weapon to make the world a better place. I am the sort of man who makes things lesser men fear. I want the credit for those nightmares.
Which is not to say I am a nihilist. Of course there is a great deal of good that can come from my research. It simply does not interest me what kind.
The mouse had disappeared at 3:47 AM. At 3:45 AM I watched it drink from a bowl of lightly irradiated particles (the ingredients of which I will not disclose here) and sit back to rub its whiskers and face. Unlike the previous subjects there was no increased heart rate, no muscle spasms, no neurological anomalies. At 3:46 AM the mouse seemed to be levitating. Its feet had become two pink blurs. I rubbed my eyes. When I opened them again, the feet were gone as well as its naked tail. The mouse seemed unaware. After another minute only the mouse's head remained. It floated over its cage, ran in its wheel, munched on a pellet of food. And then the head too was gone. All that remained was the mushy remains of the pellet floating somewhere inside of it. But that disappeared too after another few minutes: an unexpected side effect. I had hypothesized that the lining of the stomach would produce enough of the stealth enzyme to veil any of its current contents, but newly-introduced matter would remain visible. This was so, but only for a matter of minutes. The elixir seemed to work faster than I planned, making it that much more effective.
Fittingly, however, or perhaps humorously, I lost track of the mouse until it left a solitary dropping in the northwestern corner of its cage. It seemed that elements that left the body were stripped of the invisible property. I waited to see if the creature's little heart might stop or if it might reappear. But neither occurred. When I had left that morning to take the girls to school it had taken a full 4 hours and all that had returned was its tail.
Back at the house, ignoring my wife's calls from upstairs, I descended into the basement and made a beeline for the mouse. There it was, whole and undamaged. I immediately ran it through a series of tests, took a blood sample, and gave it a nice chunk of cheese for its efforts.
I am well aware that I am a genius. Still, I felt pretty fucking smart.
I must have slept. It would be impossible to carry out the gauntlet of examinations and seven-fold tests, checking and rechecking the data. I should have dissected the eight-hundred and sixty-first mouse but the vanishing rodent stirred a sentimental chord within me. The creature had been the first live organism in the long history of our planet to completely escape light's all encompassing touch. I thought about that in my half waking state of diligent notation in a much more philosophical sense than I'd previously done. Eight-six-one had done what only black holes before it had ever accomplished: subdued the light. The mouse, obviously, did not swallow photons. Instead it achieved a more subtle mastery: it convinced the sun that it wasn't there. Not too shabby for a mouse. So, no, I did not sacrifice him in the name of science. If nothing else—and the remainder of my career was spent grasping desperately at the same result—that mouse and I would know. But of course eight-six-one was not the only mouse to disappear that week. That first day I tested five more mice. Three of them disappeared. The other two just got hungrier. The second day I tested ten more mice. Nine of them disappeared. The last gorged itself from its food dish until it passed out. I understood the feeling.
I don't remember dreaming. I sat up all night testing and retesting and correcting my numbers until after the fourth day I had a nearly 100% conversion rate. Most of the mice disappeared for three to five hours at a time. They tended to be exhausted by the experience and quite hungry but I have no idea how much of that was due to the anxiety of staring through one's own paws.
I worked straight through the night and then departed my basement at 5, taking great care to lock the door. Then I ran. I ran from my house to the outskirts of the neighborhood. On more than one occasion I passed Amber in the dark blue hours. Always we crossed paths in the opposite direction. She kept her eyes straight forward until we were just within yards of each other, waving her hand with a breathless smile and then skipping out of view. I ran like a man possessed. Then I returned to the lab, locked the door behind me, and collapsed.
My wife was displeased. I didn't care. I missed carpool. I didn't care. Eight-six-one and I were blessed with enlightenment. I recorded several sessions of disappearing mice and made copies. One went into my safe deposit box in town. Two went on external hard drives that could only be found by me.
At long last, that Friday or Saturday, the work was complete. I had the formula. I knew, at least as far as mice were concerned, what the side effects were, and they were negligible. In fact, they were better than anticipated. Of course the psychological shock of the body watching itself become invisible was really the most dangerous part. Keeping the mind anchored to the physical sensations was paramount and I made a note to bear that in mind when human testing began.
But...I suppose that was the problem. I am a scientist. I wanted to know. What did it feel like? I imagined it was cold. Could it perhaps feel like nothing at all? These were questions for months, maybe even years down the line. Long term testing had yet to be made. Maybe the serum wore off after a week? Suppose the conversion of photons harmed the anatomy in some way? Triggered cancers? What didn't I know?
I wanted to know.
It was late at night. It must have been ten, eleven—perhaps not so late where you come from, but for a small, secluded town in suburbia, even a Friday or a Saturday on the right block can be deathly still. I ran.
I had actually slept the night before—the long, contented sleep of faith rewarded. So as boundless as my attention and energy normally were, tonight it was racing through my veins. Curiously, Amber was also running. I had never known her to run so late at night. What's more, she was running ahead of me, in the same direction. I began to close the gap.
I watched Amber's gait and studied the way she jogged. Her long, muscular legs kept her in the air with the grace of a pursued gazelle. Yet there was never anything spindly about Amber. She had never been bony, all elbows and knees like many of her track mates tended to be. She was built with stamina. Her metallic blue track shorts whipping against her thighs, her gray tank top stained with sweat. Her auburn hair was swept back into a wet ponytail and it bounced from shoulder to shoulder as she went.
If every day we crossed then today would be no different. I would pass her. It didn't matter why—it only mattered that it took my mind away from the racing and dangerous hypotheses of my brain. So I closed the distance between us. I overtook Amber on her left and made a friendly wave over my shoulder.
I have never personally known Amber to be competitive. I suppose it should have been intuitive, given that she was an athlete (and the school's prize runner). But it never occurred to me. What I knew of her rarely fell beyond the context of my daughter Rebecca, who strived always to be the center of attention and seldom was denied it. Amber was never in her way because Amber was never after the same thing.
The girl swept past me like perfumed wind. It wasn't perfume, though, it was the natural scent of Amber's sweat. It was a bright yet robust odor. It whipped around her caught in the turbulence of her forward motion. In my mind I analyzed the intricate whorls and currents of the disturbed air molecules around her. Then I sprinted past her again.
The neighborhood was dark, the lights blazed past us like heady haloes of suburban madness. The slap of our rubber sneakers ground against the wet pavement and echoed back to us against the houses. We were running side by side. I don't think either Amber or I had made eye contact with the other. And yet, suddenly, we were almost shoulder to shoulder, racing. I ran when I was in school; never competitively. But I ran almost every day. Amber was adapted to running. Her lungs knew how to filter efficiency and power from the air. Her flushed cheeks were slapped by the wind and invited the breezes to push her bangs away from her nose and forehead to allow her an uncompromised view of the street and the sidewalk, her eyes tearing just enough to keep her vision from blurring. All of these things were on her side. But I was trying to escape myself. And a man can bolt when he tries to outrun himself. A man can practically fly when he senses the need.
I promised myself that so long as I was willing to even consider ingesting the serum (just to know what it was like!) I would run. I would run until I passed out or exploded. I did not know Amber's desires. Perhaps she was just a girl who liked to run. But for whatever her personal reasons she never gave me quarter. We ran side by side for the first mile out of the neighborhood in silence, then the second. The last mile we ran all out. It was the last one for me—maybe the girl could have gone another fifty. But it was nearing midnight and my lungs were ready to split.
We hit the edge of an unknown cul-de-sac and slowed (she at least a solid yard ahead of me) until our sneakers made rhythmic clops on the pavement. And then I bent over and put my hands on my knees to suck a hearty packet of air from the silent neighborhood. I looked up.
Amber was breathing hard, her hair sticking back from her forehead, sweat collected in an oblong splotch down her front, her nose and cheeks flushed a bright, pretty pink. The wet tank top molded itself over her breasts. She had her fists pressed against her hips and suddenly smiled, her mouth still open to force the good air in and out of her body. Her white teeth glinted at me under the streetlamps and the moonlight. Our eyes connected and she laughed breathlessly.
I smiled back. I don't know why. But I had to refocus on pulling air down into my gut.
Amber put two fingers to her throat and checked her watch. She counted quietly for sixty seconds and then steadily brought her wrists down.
"You okay?" she asked. She sounded a lot better than I felt. In fact, she sounded stronger, huskier than I'd ever heard her around Rebecca.
I grimaced. "I'll live."
"Are you sure?"
I stood up straight and turned around. Amber bounced into step beside me. I looked down at her beside me and watched a small droplet of sweat run down her chin and dance on the edge of her neck before dropping into the hot expanse of her bare chest and staining the sports bra that covered the entirety of her cleavage. Amber was not a busty girl (running at her pace would have been impossible) but she was agilely shaped. Her breasts were not insignificant, but she contained them well in her sports bra and tank top, the two of them appearing very round and somewhat high on her chest. Amber glanced at me and I shifted my gaze to the alien houses on her left. The blood pumped over my ears and neck and I was embarrassed.
The first mile we walked in silence.
During the second mile, Amber said, "You usually run in the morning."
Amber wiped a sheen of sweat from her forehead and smeared it on her hip. "I run at night during the summers," she went on. "A lot," she murmured.
I coughed. I wanted to hawk the phlegm that had collected in the back of my throat to the sidewalk but the present company compelled me to swallow it. Which was unpleasant. "What day is it?" I asked.
Amber turned to me. Suddenly I saw her as she would be in five years' time, after college, as a young woman. The expression on her face was a slightly patronizing one, but quizzical, intrigued, ready to laugh. The line in her forehead slanted slightly from her right eyebrow. The dimple in her cheek tugged her lips, deep red from the blood flow, into a wry, good-natured smile.