Pauline stared at yesterday’s data illuminating her laptop’s screen. The failure to capture any kind of change, any kind of spark, weighed upon her sloped shoulders like slabs of concrete. She yanked off her safety goggles and pinched the bridge of her nose to ward off an encroaching headache.
Maybe today, she told herself.
The optimism failed to soothe her weary eyes or spur her from her desk’s rickety chair. The snap of the lock in the laboratory’s door, however, forced her to wipe the scowl from her wrinkled brow and don her glasses once more.
“Afternoon, Professor.” Helen’s bubbly exuberance flooded into the room like spring after a brutal winter.
“Hey, Prof,” added Jared as he closed the door with a vacuum hiss from the seal.
“Meristem today, right?” asked Helen.
Pauline blew out a breath and worked a grin onto her narrow lips. Adjusting her safety goggles she rose and turned toward the pair of students disgorging textbooks onto one of the lab’s tables.
“Right. Set it up,” said Pauline.
The two shared eager grins before busying themselves with the usual arrangement. Jared hefted the brewer from the cabinet beneath the counter and set the homemade fomenter down with care. The center dish, suspended between the cardinal bars connecting the middle to the four outer vessels wobbled while the rest of the components clicked and groaned. He plugged in the power cord to the socket beneath the table’s lip, and then inspected the porcelain with a hawkish eye.
Meanwhile Helen fetched the fluids chilling in the rumbling refrigerator. Filling a tray with a neat row of sterilized containers and rack ladened with rubber-stopped tubes, she slid the platter onto the counter.
The metals scraped against one another, peppering Pauline’s tawny skin with goose bumps.
As they worked with the vigor of youth and expectation, Pauline hoisted her laptop from her cluttered, corner desk. Striding to the table in her stout orthopedics, she prepped her observing station at the foot of the counter where the camera could view past the faucet and sink to capture the afternoon’s attempt. She brought up the diagrams and sensor software before plugging in the necessary cables. Jared took the other ends, hooking into the slots on the base of the fomenter.
“Ready,” said Jared.
Helen nudged his elbow as she donned lab coat over her sky-blue sweater and khakis and set a pair of goggles over her hazel eyes. “Safety first.”
“Duh.” He scurried to toss a coat over his tee-shirt and jeans and then strapped thick plastic glasses on his face with a twang of elastic.
“Now we’re ready,” said Helen. She stared over the rigid collection on her tray. “Where do you want to start?”
Pauline suppressed a sigh. “Your pick,” she said, keeping her protected gaze downcast.
“Adenine?” said Jared.
Helen shrugged and selected the appropriately labeled bottle. With a syringe she sucked out ten millimeters and added the drops to the waiting crucible hovering in the center of the fomenter. Jared flipped on the heating switch and the unit hummed with electricity.
They each seized a test tube and thumbed out the stoppers. With another set of syringes, they added the verdant and sulfurous mix to the four waiting trays in even amounts. While the center solution began bubbling, the funnels connecting the middle to the outer ring began dripping in the primordial formula.
The ticks from the wall clock blended with the soft sizzle and plops of liquid from one dish to the next. Helen and Jared both stood by the fomenter, as if half expecting the faint specks of life to be visible in the first few seconds of brewing. Pauline grinned at their passion and tried to absorb in their energy and hope with a deep breath.
The laptop’s beep drew her attention to the screen. The lines of temperature readings and chemical compounds filled one half, while a graph corresponding to time and molecule count dominated the rest. The rows speed by as the electricity and heat brewed the concoctions together until each flew past faster than Pauline could read.
“Professor?” said Helen as a syringe clattered to the floor.
Pauline glanced up from where the graph had begun bouncing between trenches and jagged peaks. Helen and Jared both leaned away from the counter while the fomenter bubbled and spat. The liquid landing on the steel sizzled like fresh burgers on a grill. In the center, a dome had formed, the fluid within captured by a thin film. The bubble began inflating until nearly occupying the entire dish.
“Cut the power,” said Pauline, glancing down at her screen while her heart thumped against her sunken chest.
“What?” asked Jared.
“The plug,” said Helen, shoving by him to yank the cord out of the outlet.
Smoke billowed from the center dish and flooded over the other crucibles like morning fog. The faint stench of low tide began wafting out of the haze.
The fluorescents above them throbbed and Pauline glared at the hissing bulbs. Her frown melted as she noted a pattern. When the lights dwindled, the pool beneath the mist glowed, as if the illumination was transferring from the ceiling into the fomenter’s contents.
“It’s still growing,” whispered Helen. She leaned toward the device as if drawn by a magnet.
“But there’s no power,” said Jared. “How can it be growing without fuel?”
The lights flickered in and out again and the dome bloomed like a helium balloon.
Jared coughed and Helen brought a hand to her nose as the malodorous odor intensified. Pauline scowled and then flinched as a ripple of power laced through her laptop. Sparks danced across the keyboard and then the unit whined a dying breath, leaving a dark screen reflecting her startled face.
“What do we do, Professor?” asked Helen
“I think it’s feeding off the ambient power,” said Pauline.
“But that’s impossible,” said Jared.
Pauline let out a nervous laugh, one to her ears, tinged with a manic thread. She watched the concoction grow to absorb the entire fomenter in one sphere.
“We need to stop the chain reaction,” she mused, “or else it’s going to spread too far.” She grimaced at the thought of cutting short the one test of any note, but the stench and the acidic burn on the counter, cut through her doubt.
“Jared.” He jolted out of his transfixion with the bubble. “The fuse box. Turn everything off.”
Jared stumbled toward the cabinet and fumbled with the latch on the metal door. Each switch thumped as he threw one fuse after another. The refrigerator stuttered and fell silent. The lights snapped off. The ambient hum of power circulating through the lab ceased, leaving a dearth of noise.
Pauline held her breath and heard Helen and Jared do the same. The bubble inflated further.
“What do we do now?” asked Helen.
The concentration of the aroma grew, until Pauline thought her throat had been stuffed with fouled cotton.
“We leave,” said Pauline, closing her laptop. She clutched her computer, cradling the precious data within, and pulled on Helen’s sleeve in order to get the young woman moving.
Pauline chuckled again, as initial explanations began swirling in her thoughts. She ignored her students’ worried glances as she flipped the fuse for the door and reactivated the locking mechanism.
“We’ll call security and then containment,” she said, motioning them outside. “Maybe the fire department too.” Holding the door open, Pauline glanced at the table where the fluid chopped into the counter. “Because we’ve definitely done something this time.”
“But what?” asked Helen, her eyes wide.
Pauline grinned and followed them out into the corridor. “I’m not sure.” She drummed her fingers upon her laptop, “but we’re going to find out.”