“Shame about Elicia,” said the short Russian with the topknot. His words bounced off the glossy floor and pummeled against the white noise of air filtration.
The plump woman with frizzy orange hair and moist purple lips shot him a look. “Y’ain’t s’posed to use their names. They got no names, far as we’re concerned.”
The Russian slumped slightly. “But she did have name, you know. And now she is dead, so why not call her by name?”
The orange-haired woman rolled her eyes, which were so big and round, it created a dazzling effect. “I guess it’s too bad, Lord knows, but it’s beyond our pay grade.” The two of them turned a corner in the hall and passed by two pairs of large, gray doors and one pair of guards. “It’s better for her in a way, though, if you think about it.”
Before her coworker could answer, they arrived at their department. The Russian ran the dense card on his lanyard over a black injection-molded box by the door, and when the light flashed green he entered the lab; the woman did the same, but only after the door closed and the light dimmed and turned off again. The hallway had been empty and still but loud in its own way; the laboratory was quieter with the filtration, though several men and women tinkled at glass equipment and tickety-typed at keyboards. The Russian’s lips quivered at the plump woman with things unexpressed, but he canted his head to the side and spun away to mount himself at a bank of monitors. The woman swallowed her misgivings and approached a stocky old man seemingly born in a lab coat. “Dr. Street, Ms. Farrow and Mr. Blevins returning from break. Any special tasks we need to be aware of?”
He turned, grinning broadly beneath deep-set Coke-bottle glasses. It seemed he never stopped grinning, and one wondered how much his glasses allowed him to see. “Danuta, Yuri! Welcome back! No, no, sad to say no significant changes have occurred in the last 20 minutes.” He glanced at his wrist, at a watch Danuta was too young to recognize in her cultural references. It would have confused her to know that Dr. Street couldn’t talk to anyone on it. “Candidates #17 and #32 are progressing normally. Candidate #12, as you know, has been ruled out as no longer feasible.”
“She died,” muttered the topknot from the monitor bank.
Dr. Street’s grin quavered. “What was that, Yuri?” When the young assistant declined to acknowledge he’d been spoken to, the doctor raised his voice—that is to say, he went louder, perhaps a little deeper. “Mr. Blevins, did you have a reflection you wished to share with the room?” This was a formal tone that would have shocked a classroom five or six generations ago into strict obeisance; as it was, Yuri’s cheeks burned a little at the unwanted attention, and that was all.
He rose from the monitor bank and faced the doctor. “Her name was Elicia,” he spoke clearly, “and Elicia has passed away under our watch.”
Dr. Street feigned an exaggerated flinch. “Why, Yuri, I hope I don’t read in your tone an excoriation of our practices?”
“Is there, heh, is there some matter you feel should be brought to the board’s attention? Have we, heh, taken a misstep at some measure for which we must answer to a tribunal?”
“Of course not, Doctor.” Slumped though he was, Yuri yet trained his gaze directly upon Dr. Street, ignoring Danuta’s sympathetic and slightly warning glances.
“Then what is this concern of yours, dear boy, that pulls you away from swift completion of your appointed rounds? As it were.”
Yuri pulled in a long breath, looking away for a moment. “Is matter of ethical and professional accuracy, Doctor. Candidate #12 was Elicia McClain, from Norfolk, VA. Married in 2000 before getting her associate’s in arts. Went to work at 7:10 a.m. every morning, took less than two weeks’ vacation last year. No health insurance. Leaves behind one husband, one daughter, two dogs. She was good at cross stitch and was learning Italian.”
“This isn’t, this isn’t information you’re supposed—” Dr. Street turned at the abrupt silence of the lab and found all eyes upon him. “Yes, well, point taken, Yuri, I suppose. Everyone? One minute of silence for Mrs. McClain.” He marked the time by staring at his wrist, further perplexing Danuta. “Thank you, Mr. Blevins, for the sobering, ah, reminder of who we’re dealing with and what’s at stake. Yes? Important never to forget the sacrifice of the…” Dr. Street faltered, unsure where Yuri’s sentiment was headed and therefore unable to ad lib a bridge to it. His head snapped up to grin at the rest of the lab. “Back to it, then! Mr. Altman, Mr. Blevins, diagnostics in ten, if you please.”
The diagnostics showed that #17, Shantel Beane (Lincoln, NE) was maintaining in health after 12 days of observation and testing; #32, Melonie Berube (Atlanta, GA) was likewise looking good and holding steady, despite a couple downturns in health in weeks two and three. By “good health” it meant they were tolerating being subjected to a new strain of macrobacteria. It was not hostile to human organics, nor was it of terrestrial origin. When Yuri trained a monitor closely upon a patch of skin on one of the test subjects, the rest of the lab could plainly see a familiar scene in an unlikely context. Knowing what they knew, their pragmatic minds struggled to square the scene their playful, guileless perceptions readily accepted. And if they’d displayed their lab monitors to the rest of the world, odds were that any random viewer would also see what their playful minds saw and struggle to reframe it as what it really was.
Any close-up view showed crowds of naked people running around a vast, dimpled field. They were happy, and they were apparently in a hurry, but the only activity they hurried to perform was to bend down and lick the surface of their terrain. Just like that. It was easy to see and easy to interpret, though it didn’t make a lick of sense. Why were naked people running around, and why were they lapping up the ground they stood on? It was one scene that begged explanation, but that’s where it got sticky.
These weren’t people at all. These were the macrobacteria, and they had been introduced to test subjects #1 through #40. Many of the subjects, like #17 (Shantel) and #32 (Melonie) were perfectly fine, unharmed, uncompromised. The teeny-tiny little people crawled all over them, subsisting on dried skin flakes and sweat. When there wasn’t much of these to be had, they were able to lapse into a dormant state—what Danuta called “chillout mode”—until their host bodies were able to produce more, through time and mild exertion. Yes, the landscape they roamed over, with its divots and furrows, was an extreme close-up of simple human skin. The tiny beings steered clear of the deep follicles from which tall, arching strands of hair sprang; they leaped over the sharp ditches that linked follicle to follicle, everywhere they went. They gamboled and cavorted over the challenging landscape as though it were greatly entertaining to do so. Unfortunately, their presence was occasionally deleterious to the host bodies, as in the case of #12 (Elicia). The microscopic people triggered her immune response, and it went awry since they were not of this earth, which freaked her body out and led to a systemic and total shutdown. All the scientists agreed this wasn’t the fault of the macrobacteria, who were simply trying to eke out a living and who wouldn’t have been there had the scientists not introduced them. Indeed, that last bit was the sticky point that kept these monitors from public view and disinclined the staff to refer to their test subjects by name, because about a third of the test subjects were “not tolerating” the introduction.
The two-thirds that were, however, were not considered a success. The subjects hadn’t died, but the lab was looking for something more interesting than merely surviving. And this they found in #40, Tera Selby of Santa Ana, CA, owner of a lawn and garden equipment and supplies chain, unmarried, no pets. Good at crosswords, licensed for scuba but hadn’t gone diving in over twelve years, much to her chagrin. She had hoped to take one more dive, ideally at Bonaire, but as of this morning she was unlikely to.
“Good morning, Tera,” said Roscoe Altman, a tall mixed race man with glowing green eyes. His was an ideal face to wake up to. “How did you sleep? What did you dream of?”
She grinned at the strange personal connection, grinned harder at the trait of dreams to melt away quickly with the light of day. “I don’t remember… something about peanut butter, a new brand of peanut butter. It wasn’t released yet, but this woman really wanted me to try it, except I knew there was something wrong with it. And…” She clenched her eyes. “Something about very strange elevators. Like they went up and down, but they also turned, and none of them went all the way up to the top floor, so you had to go up to one floor, down a few floors in another, then run through the casino traffic to the elevator that went the rest of the way up. Except I found a family’s wardrobe in of of them, and I wanted to turn them in to the concierge…” Tera laughed at herself, reading Roscoe’s expression as it wavered between fascination and confusion. “You asked. I apologize for nothing.”
“That I did,” he said, smirking as he reviewed her diagnostics on her med tablet. “Wow, these little guys really seem to like you.”
Her smiled faded slightly. “Is that a good thing?” Noting her expression, he asked how she was feeling. “Fine, really, but it’s a weird kind of fine. You know how familiar things in dreams don’t feel right, but they also feel completely natural and in place, in the new context?” He did. “That’s what this feels like: I feel strong and healthy, energetic, but it doesn’t feel like what strong and healthy and energetic should feel like. At least, not how I’ve felt them before. Those are the only words I can use to describe them, though.” She looked up questioningly into the finely sculpted features of the lab assistant, and she kept looking because he really was beautiful.
“Believe it or not, Tera, that’s not bad news.” Even his voice poured from his lips like boiled caramel. “Most of our patients are unchanged. They don’t notice anything different. What we’ve been waiting for is someone like you.”
“What about someone like me?”
He licked his lips, glancing at the ceiling. “If the aliens came down from the skies and opened up the doors of their craft, let’s say three things would be the most likely to happen, without splitting hairs. What would you guess those three things could be?”
She laughed lightly at herself. “I couldn’t possibly imagine. I’m not a sci-fi gal, I never did well in science in school.”
“I think you could guess, though.” He grinned at her so warmly that she wanted to please him.
“Well, the obvious one would be an allergic reaction: people would get sick or die in response to the space bacteria.”
“But it might not have any effect at all, either. Just because it’s new and strange doesn’t mean it’ll do anything.”
She felt his pleasure flush across her chest. “So I suppose the other extreme would be that we gain… super-powers… from the alien organism?”
When he grinned, his cheekbones swelled until even his eyes smiled back. Roscoe pulled up a chair by Tera’s mechanical bed. “You pretty much nailed it. In your case, though, you won’t be getting any super-powers, as far as we know. It looks like the macrobacteria really like you, and by your report—and the stats on your med tablet—you’re receiving an unprecedented new range of metabolic benefit. We’re going to watch you closely to figure out what that means, but in the meantime…” He raised his eyebrows and gave her a thumbs-up before socketing her med tablet and leaving the observation rooms.
After the briefing with Dr. Street and the other workers, Danuta asked, “What’s this new metabolic benefit mean for her, though? Is she stronger? Immune to diseases? Does she heal quickly?” Yuri stared at her with hooded eyes but said nothing.
Dr. Street’s chin wobbled with all the ideas racing in his head but dared not speak. “Yes, well, that remains to be seen, doesn’t it? Our #40—ah, that is, Tera—seems to be doing well.”
“More than doing well,” Roscoe said, cutting in. “She’s thriving. The macrobacteria are thriving, and her body loves it.” Yuri shot him a dark glance; it went unnoticed.
“That’s so, that’s so,” conceded Dr. Street. “And that’s why it’s my pleasure to—” The double doors behind the assembled group opened with some force, and everyone turned to look at who the two security guards were admitting into the room. It was a tall, slender woman with perfectly parted blonde hair, swept back into a dream of Scandinavian braids. Her large, milky eyes prompted everyone to glance at the red-tipped cane in her right hand, as she made her way gracefully into the center of the room. “This is Dr. Celestine McIntire, administrative director of our—”
“Thank you, Harlan.” Celestine’s voice was sweet and warm but nonetheless firm, and Dr. Street backed into the horseshoed group with minor obsequious babbling. “Thank you all for taking time out of your busy day to hear me, now.” Her head turned slowly, constantly, back and forth to address the people she expected to be there. “And thank you, Mr. Altman, for your very tender attention to our Patient #40. I particularly appreciate anyone who recognizes the humanity behind the numbers and stats, as we do our important work.”
Yuri’s jaw worked silently, behind Danuta and Roscoe. Before Dr. Street could get a babble in edgewise, Celestine continued. “Thank you, all of you, for your hard and diligent work. I know we’ve kept you in the dark for a good portion of our research, but that is how it had to be for the time being. We segmented a great list of responsibilities between groups of specialists, leaving them all to do what they did best, and then my office assembled that information, interpreted it, and gave you your next agenda.”
Dr. Street’s grin wavered. “I didn’t know about, that is, I wasn’t part of—”
“And under these conditions, you nonetheless pulled off a truly stellar performance. I can’t thank you enough, but I do hope the bonuses you’ll find in your accounts to go some distance toward recognizing what your crucial work means to this office.”
Danuta checked her phone at this, and Yuri and Roscoe glanced at her breathy “holy shit.”
Celestine dimpled briefly, maintaining her air of leadership. “With that, I would like to thank you once again for your service and assure you that while this project has concluded—”
“What?!” yelped Yuri.
“—in no sense are you unemployed. You will be transferred laterally to labs throughout our organization, meeting or exceeding your current level of…”
The rest was board-approved legalese that they all knew to anticipate. The lab crew knew to be grateful they weren’t being laid off, unceremoniously booted out the door, though this did little to assuage their disappointment at being abruptly disconnected from the project they’d (unadvisedly) formed such emotional connection to. Danuta looked at Yuri, who was already slumping more than usual. They looked at Roscoe, who was normally optimistic but by his gently waving hands and weak knees appeared as groundless as they felt. Roscoe searched for words; Danuta wondered what would happen to the friendships she’d formed; Yuri only wanted to know what would happen to the subjects who hadn’t been chosen.
“They will be cleansed, debriefed,” said Celestine authoritatively, “and returned to their homes within two weeks, unchanged but for the generous stipend our foundation will provide to them.”
“And the successful subject, Tera?”
“Number forty,” he spat.
Her milky eyes narrowed with a false grin. “Ah, yes, well, you needn’t worry about her. She’ll be fine, and what happens next is…”
Beyond your pay grade, Danuta mouthed to Yuri. He nearly laughed.
“Good morning,” said Roscoe. “How did you sleep? Do you remember your dreams?”
Tera Selby tried to roll over, but her eyes did that thing where they snap awake and all the little muscles in her eyelids wanted to stay that way, no matter what every other muscle in her body wanted. “I don’t know. I feel like I slept very deeply. I don’t remember anything at all.”
Roscoe’s voice crackled over a speaker. “I hope this doesn’t come as a shock to you, but this is a recording. I remember that you liked to wake up this way, but right now I can’t hear anything you say.” An entirely different voice said “touchdown in T-30.”
“Touchdown? What does that mean?” Tera tried to sit up, but a network of black nylon straps held her in place for her own safety. Zero gravity would have left her bouncing around the tiny cabin. She yelped and spotted the lancet in her right arm, feeding a translucent golden solution into her vein. “Roscoe, what’s going on? Roscoe?”
“Likely you’re confused,” the recording said. “Please say ‘admin’ at any time, but by now you’re nearing your destination, so it’ll be some time before someone can respond to you. I really need you to be patient right now, Tera.”
“Patient? For what? What are you doing to me?”
Mr. Altman’s voice was replaced by easy listening music. Yacht rock, specifically, the Doobie Brothers, telling a story about a failed romance punctuated by erroneous perceptions. It was catchy enough and nostalgic enough to still her panic until the golden fluid turned milky white, and then she felt relaxed entirely against her will.
Thirty minutes burned themselves off in this way, to the dulcet tunes of Ambrosia, Captain & Tennille, Dr. Hook, Chaka Khan, Santana, and many others. The small craft she was on righted itself in the atmosphere of a new planet; chutes deployed to slow her descent. Touchdown was rocky but well cushioned within her little capsule. The music feed cut, and a monitor lit up beside her head, displaying a blonde, blind woman she’d never seen before.
“Thank you for your tremendous sacrifice,” the woman said in tones so self-assured that Tera almost felt grateful to have played a part, somehow, to an extent she couldn’t comprehend. “We salute you, and we will always remember you. It may interest you to know that, in your way, you have provided the United States of America many powerful and strategic benefits, not least of which is the limitless clean-fuel resource known as cold fusion, long thought an impossibility until contact was made with the civilization to which it is my honor to introduce you.” What she said next didn’t make any sense to Tera, not that everything before it was entirely assimilable.
The doors of her tiny pod opened, and violet light streamed into her little room. Click-click-click went the buckles and the myriad nylon straps relented and fell away. As Tera raised her arms, strangely sore and weakened, the bed she lay on rotated ninety degrees and rolled backward out of the shelter of the pod. The blonde woman with Viking-goddess hair was still talking, but her voice grew quieter as Tera rolled out of the pod and onto a broad, rocky landscape. Not rocky: as her eyes focused, she reinterpreted a sequence of stalagmites as a skyline of bustling skyscrapers with winking lights and everything.
“Those look like…” she mused, as the bed lowered her to the ground, dumping her with marginal ceremony upon an alien terrain. ‘They look like.. but they can’t be…” She squinted to make sense of the structures, as hundreds of thousands of tiny people swarmed over her body, their appetites stimulated in new and exciting ways.