They'd been working on the Thing for awhile. It was bubbling in the corner of the room, filling its own private glass basin, lurking the way a teenager does at a bus stop after curfew, black clothes illegal cigarette and all. Occasionally it made a gurgling sound, reminding them that it was still there. They never voiced their thoughts, because there was something secret about shattering a life's work, but each wanted to do just that, pick up a beaker and fling it at the wall, take a hammer and smash the delicate aspects, methodically. One by one.
They felt there would be some pleasure in that, some relief. Some sense of dominance over what—after its creation—easily proved its superiority.
None of them did it, though.
Since the beginning of time, men have wanted women. Eve was a part of Adam, a rib, apparently, and that's disgusting but romantic. Now the modern Adam is named Jesus, pronounced "Hey-suess," and he can point and click his way to a candlelit dinner for two if that's what floats his boat. There're dating services and ten-minute date rounds where Jesus flits from table to table. He can always go to a bar. He can even go to a gay bar—that all depends.
Wouldn't it be nice to eliminate the hunt?
Genetic tampering was the kind of thing nobody used to mess with. Too dangerous, and too many bad horror movies, where the hero drank something purple and fizzy and morphed into the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, even. Because people couldn't see DNA, they were scared of it—terrified of tampering with it. So they didn't. They left it alone, and the more they left it alone the bigger it grew in their minds, until it was something unspeakable, something you imagined and wrote about and were afraid of but never thought probable; certainly never did.
But now modern times were upon them, which meant that every past taboo was embraced. All sins became private joys, and genetic alterations became a goal. Not just any goal, either—one that was attainable. Workable. Logical.
The Thing came into being then. It was capitalized in the minds of its owners. There was something about it that screamed Proper noun, proper noun, address me the way you ought to, because you're afraid! Aren't you? Just a little? Yeah. You say you shouldn't be, but you are. And they were, unfortunately. Just a little.
The notion was simple. The Thing eliminated hunting. No more crystal wineglasses abandoned on the dining room table, holding blood-red sparkling dregs while the ones who'd kissed them were curled around each other in the back room or went home separately to sleep alone. No more blind dates while mediocre musicians tickled the ivories of a baby grand; no more nervousness. No, some said, more romance. That's the price the world pays for easy attraction.
Easy attraction. Think about it. Alter a simple DNA base, cytosine or guanine or adenine or something someone hasn't even identified yet, by rubbing a little into your hands, and you're irresistible. You buy the spray-bottle version if you want to feel alluring, so you spritz your neck with it, once, twice, while you wait for him to arrive. After that you never bother to leave.
He'll be all over you.
The Thing was meant to work for women. When they'd finished, they were going to sell—a company would snatch the deal right up. Be first on the market with a brand-new aphrodisiac? Advertise a drug the likes of which the world had never seen? Anybody'd go for it. There was only one problem.
They couldn't finish.
After three-and-a-half years, they'd almost completed it, but they weren't celebrating yet. Something was still wrong, still off. Animal testing—yeah, the activists went to arms, but you couldn't test dangerous stuff on people or you got more activists on your back, so they had hamster mating season, rat fancy-dress balls, bunny rabbits copulating behind the generator on the day of the cage-break.
It worked for animals just fine—you almost saw their eyes double in size. Wow, that's some hot stuff over there, man. How's she fit that fur so fine? She's the best-looking thing I've seen in years. Hey, babe, you wanna hit the wood chips? But it didn't work on people yet, because human specimens were the next step and nobody liked anybody. They'd stand around nearly smothered in it and… nothing. You like the way I look yet? You feel anything? Yeah, me neither.
Meanwhile, the beakers bubbled quietly to themselves, and the green foam lapped at their rims like secrets whispered after midnight. And when they thought their friends weren't looking the scientists, discovering that their lab coats were thin, dreamt of nightmares.
Eventually disaster struck, because it had to.
Charlie came in every evening alone for no reasons other than his own—probably the fear was worse at that hour and he wanted to check one last time, make sure it hadn't escaped yet. There was always a yet, never a question. Somehow he knew it would. Best that he was the one to die, because he wasn't married; no children to attend his funeral in suits appropriate for adults. As he tiptoed over to That Corner, he was thinking of the television show he'd watched earlier, a reality thing, beneath him really but funny.
A ticking noise set in from the largest tub—ominous, but he didn't hear it. He didn't hear it until the world went all shades of red and flames licked at his running shoes, eating their way through to his feet, and he didn't accept it until it rose and smothered him like a moldy thing from an open grave, and perhaps not even then. Sorry, Charlie.
This was a new task for the Thing, the absorbing of a living creature, and it tackled its duties with delight. It sank into Charlie's eye sockets and filled his orifices, drawing him down. At last, when his baseball cap surfaced with a sucking sound, its tendrils embedded themselves in his brain.
No one came until the next morning. They didn't frequent the place at night; the room was bad enough at mid-afternoon. The beakers were shattered dream-like, the walls tinged with tell-tale soot. The floor was dry and spotless, cleaner than before. A hat lay abandoned in the center, where the experiment had been, but there were no traces of its wearer. They did a head-count to figure out it was Charlie, and each looked at the others as if to say I knew this would happen, sharing a moment of doomed agreement.
It was loose. And they were too late.
They built the laboratory under a college campus, not a prominent college because that would attract attention but a college that was ignored, the backup on every senior's application list. They accessed it through a subway station that, while not yet abandoned, was seldom used. There were vents in the ceiling, unfortunately, and the Thing crept through these in the dark of night. All creepy things go on in the dark of night; that's when the zombies under kids' beds and the werewolves crouched in city parks and the vampires that are good with sunscreen emerge, and it was when the Thing chose to move. Quietly.
The Thing stole through the ventilation system and slithered past the silent fans, and found itself in the dormitories. Charlie's right hand poked out at absurd intervals to wave, as if greeting someone long gone.
That morning, fifteen thousand college students, some underclassmen and some putting finishing touches on masters' theses, woke up. Fifteen thousand sat, blinked, looked around. And fifteen thousand fell immediately, head-over-heels in love with their roommates.
Disastrous—but funny. All while the scientists scuttled underground, searching for that secret ingredient, they could've tossed someone into the biggest beaker and had done with it.
Here is what happened:
Joe Blow, in room 304 (third floor fourth from the elevator), and Mary Sue fell into an intimate embrace. There were some half-whispers and a lot of surprise.
Professor Stephenson, who stayed on campus, stepped through his front door, spotted one of his students (playwriting class early evening Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays), and kissed him. There was a broken nose and no small indignation. There were also a court case, a hefty fine, and a jail stretch—but that came later.
Sarah, who'd never had a friend, soon had a lot; three, all men and none feeling like sharing. There was a gunshot from a banned weapon and a woman's scream. She was better soon afterward.
The Thing absorbed every body until it sprouted dozens of limbs, which emerged when the urge struck them and flailed in space. It found eyes and ears and a mouth from a teenage girl who'd pierced her lips with silver rings. They tinkled against the walls and windows it passed. As it absorbed, it increased in potency, until victims did not need to touch it, only to come within range, to fall in love. But it couldn't control its myriad fingers and toes—it couldn't walk and it couldn't turn doorknobs, and so it couldn't leave the building.
Elvis has left the building, John murmured from the corner of his bedroom. Elvis has left the building. Where you going, buddy?
He was an English major, but he hadn't decided what to do with his degree. If he thought about it he heard the voice of his mother, who'd died of cancer the year before, looking surprisingly frail in her nightgown and thin bones—she said over and over You have your whole life ahead of you, Johnny. Don't sell your soul before you turn thirty. That philosophy made deciding awfully difficult. He couldn't say no to a woman with a malignant tumor in her left parietal lobe, especially when the doctors said it would spread to her kidneys and liver and if a piece broke off and she had a coronary embolism she'd die before she could finish her last breath. He'd drowned her sickbed in promises that blossomed into a crystal spider web, her lying at the center with a bloated stomach full of gnats, and eventually he knew she choked on his dreams.
Now there was a mossy-green plague to deal with.
He heard it oozing through the hallways and felt it in the marrow of his bones when a fingernail from its crumbling hands scraped across his closed door. He didn't know what it was, but he knew he had to do something. There were people twined together everywhere—beneath tables, pressed against windows so their forearms glowed fishy on the other side. Maybe it was a love bug. At least they'll die happy, he whispered, and laughed a little. But he didn't want to die, so—well, he had to kill it. An eye for an eye, right? He laughed again. Yeah.
He stood. His knees popped audibly. That was scary. Could it hear? He didn't know yet. He'd have to run some tests—there was the first step. Tests. Could it hear? Could it see? Could it breathe?
Someone knocked on the door then. Safe. It hadn't mastered fine motor skills yet; he knew because it hadn't left, and it never tried to come in. Elvis has left the building, right? This was a human being.
"Who's there?" he said. Thinking of the words wasn't easy, more like excavating them from a long-forgotten tomb than plucking them off shelves.
"Have you been affected?"
"Let me in. I know what's going on."
Hard to believe that anyone did, but he reached for the doorknob and turned the key. He'd left it unattended in the lock—rookie mistake. The woman on the other side was wearing scrubs and her lab coat was spattered with blood-red stains. She was smiling, and he found that even harder to swallow. Smiling. Wow. Smiling.
"You're John, right? Jonathan Hernandez?"
"Right." Probably checked the roster. "Come inside." He knew it was gone, had heard it making its way down the hallway to the right half an hour ago, but the thing was to play safe, stay as far away as possible. She stepped over the threshold in low boots.
"Make it quick," he said.
"My name's Susie. I'm a scientist, right? You guessed that, yeah. We have a lab set up under the school and we've been working on something that's supposed to be like the ultimate love potion. You know? Anyway, we came back two weeks ago and it escaped."
"So you're saying this is… your project?" She couldn't be much older than he was—probably an intern.
"Yeah. Weird, right?"
"Weirdest thing ever. It's gonna kill us."
They were silent then, because there was a noise outside the door, a hushed scratching. He opened it carefully and a rat scampered off into the darkness.
"Just a rat."
"Yeah." But she looked frightened. Its eyes had been too bright. "I know how we can kill it first."
"Well, you better tell fast, 'cause we don't have much time."
"Let's talk on the move."
"Where can we go?" he said. Really he didn't see how she could go anywhere without running into the thing. It was almost omniscient and pretty agile for a big lump of Jell-O.
"I'll show you. C'mon." She tugged at his sleeve with surprising energy, and he followed her out the door.
She took him around a lot of corners and down so many hallways that he got lost, could only focus on the way her coat glowed in the dim light. Her hair had a mind of its own, he noticed, spiking at odd angles in places it shouldn't and lying flat where she'd obviously tried to curl it.
"Where are we going?" he said when he caught up. "You sure you know?"
"I'm taking you to the lab. There's gotta be something there we can use."
"But there's a problem."
"What?" She paused by the elevator and thought about taking it. What were the chances of an encounter? What if it broke, or stopped between floors? "Where are the stairs?"
"Uh—down that way, to the right." They headed for the stairwell. "The problem," he said, between breaths, "is if we have to get close to kill it we're gonna—you know—we're gonna fall in love. If it is what you say."
"I can handle it."
"No you can't." Now they were running down the three flights between his room and the street, and she moved fast for wearing boots. He could hardly make it in tennis shoes. She got to the door at the bottom first, opened it, glanced around.
Out of the dorm the air was better, tasted better, and the fading sunlight raised their spirits. "Where's this lab of yours?"
"Subway station. Quick."
The lab wasn't how he'd expected. He'd been thinking of mad scientist lairs from horror movies, with strange chemicals bubbling and popping and pale specimens suspended in formaldehyde, but hers was sterile and almost nothing was visible—a red baseball cap abandoned, a row of white coats by the door. She headed for a terminal against the wall and began tapping keys.
"What're you doing now?" He came up behind her and looked over her shoulder.
"Opening the supply cabinet." A panel slid back to their right.
"Yeah?" She smiled at him again. Her nose was freckled, and she had a dimple in her left cheek.
"Nothing." The question he hadn't voiced died in the air between them. "C'mon, we gotta hurry up."
The cabinet was what he'd expected—glass phials sparkled in the fluorescent lights. "I'm thinking heat's the key," she murmured. "We had to keep the temperature below sixty so the nitrogen bases would bond, and your dorm's pretty cold, so it's survived. But—"
"If we turn up the heat—"
"Then why are we here?"
"Don't you want something in case we're wrong?"
They weren't. When they got back to the dormitories and found the main thermostat (locked but he picked it with a credit card and a whole lotta luck), it was holding steady at sixty degrees. At her suggestion, he slid the lever up to eighty-nine—better safe than sorry, his mother said, voice whispery and fingers skeletal. They returned to his room and sat on his bed and talked until they thought they'd waited long enough. Her family was in Missouri and she wanted to save the world.
"So who died?" he said, looking at the window. The curtains were drawn, and he couldn't see the moon.
"Charlie Burke. No kids, no wife. We kinda thought it'd happen. He always came late and it was—" It was what?
"I dunno. It scared us a little, I think. Something was wrong about it."
He understood that. Something was wrong with it. It was eating people, and when it didn't eat them it absorbed them so they were half-alive half-gone and their fingernails scraped across the chalkboard walls. He opened the curtains.
She stood beside him and looked out. "Yeah."
The moon was rising behind the city and it wasn't white but gray, the color of storm clouds—her hair smelled of daisies and tickled his arm. He could almost see his mother. He thought for a moment, I'm sorry, and smiled.
Beneath them, in the second-floor hallway, love was dying.