A day ago.
“Yes, Lisa, of course I know where you live,” Eva said, balancing the land line between her ear and shoulder while simultaneously typing on her laptop.
“We’ve been living in the same town for five years, Eva. Five years, and you’ve barely even bothered to visit once.”
“We see at the mall.”
“Yeah, like that’s supposed to be normal … for family?!”
“I’m just busier than most, is all. Let’s trade jobs; you’ll get just what a real drag this is.”
On the contrary, Eva loved the seclusion her office afforded. Stationed at the end of the long botanical reserve they called the Greenhouse, she could work without disturbance while enjoying the fragrance of exotic plants and hybrids from across the world. The Centre was studying the medicinal and curative properties of these plants for experimental purposes and, while Eva felt this job was a dreadful waste of her capabilities, the isolation was heaven to her. If her plans turned out well she wouldn’t be stuck here for too long.
On the other end Lisa sighed. “I believe in you, Eva. I still believe you’ll find the cure to cancer or whatever it is you’re doing. But you gotta cut loose once in a while. Even genius needs fresh air. You won’t get that Nobel by cutting us out of your life.”
“I’m not cutting anybody off…“
Just then, Andy appeared at the open door, knocking slightly. She motioned towards the phone to indicate she was busy, but he held a wooden crate. That wooden crate.
“Lisa, I’m gonna have to call you back.”
“Yeah, that’s original.”
“I’m sorry, but I really really am busy this time.”
“As opposed to other times when you really weren’t?”
Eva winced. “I promise to call you back.”
Lisa sighed. “You just make sure you do that sometime before 2050, or you’re dead to me.”
“Give Kelly a hug for me, OK?”
“Sure, if she still remembers who you are by then.”
“Lisa! I really have to go now.” Andy was already by her desk, placing the crate on the table.
“Alright, alright. Just don’t … don’t go crazy on me, okay?”
Eva smiled. “Love you too, Lizard-Breath.”
“Wait, did you just—?“ Click.
She took her time placing the phone back in its cradle, considering how to explain the situation to Andy as the squeaking mice in the crates filled the silence between them for the moment. She had not planned for him to know about this yet. He wouldn’t understand.
“I can explain,” she said.
He arched a brow. “I’m not accusing you, Doc.” He motioned towards the crate. “I just found this.”
She really didn’t have time for whatever he was going for. “They’re lab mice,” she said. “Like that’s not obvious. It’s for a, uh, control experiment. Something I’ve been working on.”
He nodded slowly, but he still didn’t seem satisfied, and she really needed him to be convinced so he could get way off her back. He lifted a folder. “And I saw these delivery notes with the crate back in the greenhouse.” It was then that she realised he knew everything.
“You read that, huh?”
“Doc … I really hope you don’t mind me asking, but what’re you doing?”
“Like I said, it’s just an experiment.”
He took a seat. “Please don’t let it be what I think it is.”
“Andy,” she placed a hand on his. “Can you trust me on this one? Please? Just trust that I know what I’m doing, is all I ask.”
“Even if it’s dangerous?”
“Every new discovery was dangerous, possibly even illegal, once. Don’t make me feel like a monster for this.”
“Even if it could cost you your career? Or your life?”
“Gee, thanks a lot, Dad.” She pursed her lips. “Andy … you weren’t supposed to find out about this.” With the look he gave her she realised that had come out wrong. “I mean … ugh, you wouldn’t understand.”
“I’m begging you, Doc … you do not have to do it this way.”
“What do you mean, I don’t—!” Realizing her voice was rising, she lowered it to a whisper. “What do you mean, I don’t have to do this? If I don’t, somebody else would.”
“Then let them! Not you. Let’s say you get the grant. That’s another load on your plate. You’ve got so much already. What else do you need to prove? Not this way. This won’t be enough for you. You’ve got to let go sometime, Eva.”
She remained resolute, sitting up. “Mr Davies, I have given you much freedom and access to me. But let’s not forget who you are and who I am. You can’t tell me what to do, and I don’t have to listen to this. Got that? Now if you’ve got nothing to say, there’s the door. Don’t let it hit you in the butt on your way out.”
In all their time working together she had never needed to pull rank. There had always been an understood modicum of respect in the midst of everything. But now they were just not going to see things the same way.
He just sat there staring, his eyes still pleading. He eventually sighed. “I was going to get some coffee and head home. Wanted to know if you needed anything before I go.”
“I’m fine, thank you.” She turned back to her laptop, avoiding his gaze as he stood and headed out. She really didn’t know what to say, and she was not going to apologise for something she was convinced was not even a problem.
He paused at the door. “Take care, Doc.”
She didn’t bother to look up. “I always do.”
It would be their last conversation.
Eva, now in cuffs and seated under a bright lamp in the dark, could still remember that day. She wished she could go back in time. “Andy was my assistant,” she said. “But he was also my friend. We worked together at the Greenhouse. It’s not actually green as in the colour. It’s—“
“I’ve been there.” the man said. “I know what a greenhouse is.”
“Yes, there’s thousands of exotic plants there. Hybrids from across the world. We collaborated on a lot of research, Andy and I. Did a lot of good. He was always quite nice. Wouldn’t hurt a fly. It’s probably why we complemented each other. Where he would question things I was the push.”
“Your relationship was purely professional, yes?”
She stared at him dryly. “Get your head out of the gutter. He’s like … he was like ten years younger.”
He was actually gone. After a rollercoaster of a day, the reality of this fact was dawning on her more and more. It wasn’t just any dead body. It was Andy.
“I get that. So this young guy with big dreams comes into your world, he gets attached to your corner, and you work together. Ever feel threatened by him?”
“You’re trying to establish motive for homicide,” she said more as a statement to which he just spread his hands wide. “No. We were a team. Where I was the one pushing for new discoveries, pushing boundaries, he was the reality check. He did have big dreams, no doubt. He was just maybe a little too conservative for his own good. He needed me, and he knew it.”
He seem amused. “Have I ever complemented your flawless humility?” Ok, that one deserved at least a smirk from her. He cleared his throat. “So you pushed a number of boundaries.”
She bit her lip. “I admit I have a bit of a reckless streak sometimes.”
The agent flipped through the pages. “Yes, your colleagues testified as much.”
“They did mention something about a spat you had with the dean, Professor Wildsmith, over a comment he made regarding your, uh, gender and your relevance at the STEM Colloquium last year.”
Did she remember! “He had it coming.”
“So … you’re telling me there was nothing you didn’t disagree with Andy about? No fights whatsoever?”
“None that I can remember.” But the one that she did remember was the very reason she was here. And she could feel the agent’s eyes all over her face, drinking in every tic and tell.
Ever since he told her about students exhibiting feral traits she knew that she had done this. How, she didn’t know, but she knew it must have come from her office. But every time she tried to remember what actually happened she drew a blank.
All she could remember was sitting at her desk one moment, and then the next moment finding herself with her office trashed, blood everywhere, and Andy dead. Oh, Andy…
Andy, why do you have to be always right?
“We found a crate in your office, and I assume it was for mice per the labelling. Was he complicit in your eugenics project?”
She tried to hold his gaze without giving away the panic building up. Why did she feel responsible for this even though she didn’t know how? “Mice?”
“Oh, it’s from the STN Foundation Grant. Something about a project on disease resistance, and with rats as your subjects. It was the most recent entry on your case, hence my interest. And Davies’ name was conspicuously absent from the by-line, unlike your other projects. Wasn’t he party to this one?”
She knew hiding information would never do any good. “He … wasn’t.”
“Mm, and what did he think about it?”
“I didn’t … I mean it’s not like we fought or argued about it. We don’t always have to collaborate. Our careers are mutually exclusive.”
“So he was fine with it?”
“He, uh … he was actually pensive about it.”
“He thought it was dangerous. He actually tried to stop me.”
“He ‘tried to stop you’?”
She looked up at him. “Ok, I realise the mad scientist vibe that must have given off. It’s not like that. But, he felt it was a bad idea.”
“And you didn’t.”
“Well I do, now.” It was as he looked up that she realised what she’d said and all it could mean. “I mean, h-his major hang-up was my bringing my pet project into the greenhouse, which is out-of-bounds to, you know, pets. No pun intended.”
“I got it.”
“I probably shouldn’t have done that.” She was leaving out a whole lot of relevant info, she just didn’t know whether it would further condemn her or vindicate her. “Now that he’s gone, I feel really bad about it. Our last conversation wasn’t our best.”
He’s dead, the world is going crazy out there, and even though you really don’t know how or why, this is all your fault, Eva!
It was still so bizarre to accept, let alone imagine. How? Why? And again, HOW?
Something nagged at her mind about the whole thing. Something that was very obvious but that was just beyond her sight.
The man turned a page in his notepad. “The work you’ve done is not as streamlined as usual. From botany to phytomedicine and disease control to climate change to biological immunity and infectious diseases…” He took a deep breath here. “And your most recent interest, Eugenics and the transformation of the human genome.”
She was fidgeting now, but tried to keep herself stable. “What can I say? I’ve got an eye for discovery. I’m science-y like that.”
“You’ve got quite an impressive range.” He looked up at her. “What’s your motivation?”
“Is this really necessary?”
“Please. Humour me.”
She shrugged. “It’s ‘cause I want to make the world a better place.”
She stared at the table for a moment. “I think … it’s easier to say that I want to make the world a better place, and I really do. I mean, that’s a good thing. I want to save the world. There’s a lot I can do and that I want to do. I want to use my abilities to … stay at the cutting edge. And, of course, to make the world a better place. I’m sorry, hearing myself say all that makes me sound selfish, right? But then, who isn’t?”
“Did you feel selfish?”
“I don’t know. Andy felt I was trying to prove something; that I was pushing myself too hard. Now that I’m the one in a mess and he’s, you know … I don’t know if that makes him right.”
“Your mother passed away when you were 7,” he said, reading his notes. She hadn’t seen that detour coming. “Leukaemia. That must’ve been quite traumatic for you at that age.”
She kept staring at the table. “Well … yeah. That happened.”
“I’m truly sorry for your loss.”
“It is what it is.” She didn’t want to talk about this, and wanted to change the subject whenever the chance came up. “I barely even remember her now, so it’s fine.”
He kept staring at her with that apologetic stare that she had wanted to move on from all her childhood. “Was that what made you want to go into disease control? A deep-seated desire to take away what took your mother as a child?”
She hadn’t thought about that in a long while. “I don’t know. It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do—”
“I mean, your undergrad dissertation was a study on…” he checked his files. “An exploration of natural solutions, and an analysis of the ineffectiveness of chemotherapy in cancer treatments. And your case study? Leukaemia. Bizarre for a degree in botany.”
She shrugged. “So sue me. I got the degree.”
“Yes, and you’ve done well with it too. But you do get where I’m going with this, right?”
She really did not want to talk about this. “What is this? Some kind of therapy session?”
“Like I said before, I just need to know who I’m talking with. Call it a profile. We’re getting somewhere, aren’t we?”
“Are we? What’s this got to do with anything? If you’re right, lives are in danger out there and you prefer to waste the time contemplating our navels? And what’re you writing anyway?!”
He stopped writing. “Does not having control, or not knowing what is going on, tick you off?”
She clenched her fists. “What do you think?”
Actually, even before all of this, she had always been quite the perfectionist. Why trust things into other people’s hands when they could just mess it up? Getting Andy attached to her workstation had been a real pain, but the younger man had found a way into her space by persistence and his usually unbearably cheery disposition.
He turned the pages again, scribbling. “Got any other friends at your workplace?”
“Everyone’s got their own thing. We see when we see.”
“So no close friends. Except for Andrew.”
“I tend to be a bit … introverted, I think. I prefer the solitude of my work.” How Andy became a friend was more to his credit.
“But you like the accolades too.” She gave him a look. “Oh, I’m just speaking off of the framed awards in your office. You are reserved and introverted to the casual observer, but you are basically a torpedo. You see a good prospect and you go after it. And you’re proud of what you’ve accomplished.”
“What’s wrong with that? You make me sound vain. In my world modesty gets you nowhere. People respond to what they can see. I earned it so I flaunt. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.”
This line of questioning made her more nervous because it was only prolonging the inevitable. She was expecting the gavel to drop as quickly as possible, not to be recounting the story of her life.
He cleared his throat. “Alright then. So, tell me: why Eugenics? I’m not an expert, and the only thing I think of when I hear that word is Hitler and the Nazis.”
She snorted at that. Most people didn’t give themselves to do the reading to find out these things, and she loved to show them how much she knew. “We prefer the term Transgenetics. Hitler ruined a lot of concepts just by association. It’s not about killing people or making one race superior to others, as far as my work is concerned, anyway. It’s genetic progress for all humanity. The next step in our evolution.”
He folded his hands. “Really?”
“How do I put this? OK, do you know that many species have resistance to some diseases that plague us? OK, there’s this tumour-suppressing gene we call p53. There’s 20 times more p53 in elephants than humans, and only 5% of elephants die of cancer. Bowhead whales live up to 200 years, and molerats live up to 6 times the total lifespan of their sister species because of these death-defying provisions in their genomes.”
He smirked. “I have to say, you’re good. I feel I’m at a TED Talk. But please go on.”
“Yeah … but just think what would happen if we could modify the human genome. What if we’ve been short-changing ourselves by seeking help from beyond the stars when nature has already provided what we needed? A puzzle for us to figure out? What if immortality was possible and death didn’t have to be a problem anymore?”
She remembered discussing this with Andy. She was amazed how much remembering the things and moments they’d shared made her miss him even more, and it made the grief and confusion of it all pierce even deeper.
“If death could be hacked, sounds like every homicide would be moot,” he said. “Even this one.”
“Especially this one! Don’t you see? How could I say no to the prospect? What we could discover about ourselves. I mean, if He even exists, God sure didn’t ‘heal’ my mother, did He? What if we’ve just been deluding ourselves expecting some miracle, when the answer could have been in our hands all along? But we’re too stupid to even try to find out.”
“Speak for yourself.”
“So we become immortal,” he surmised. “Become like gods?”
“Maybe not ‘Zeus and Hercules’ immortal. More like immune to diseases. Senescence could be delayed when aging is slowed down.”
“And if more diseases come up? Pathogens yet undiscovered?”
“Then we’ll just further the research and find an immunity in nature that the next generation would be enhanced to beat. Evolution in motion.”
“You seem really interested in all this.”
“Oh, you bet I am.”
“I understand that these genetic modifications are not legal—.”
“Yet. They’re not legal in the country yet. And I don’t see why.”
“The ethics, maybe? The risk to human life?”
“Gene enhancements are no different from the mind enhancements we all go through in education. Of course we’d need to examine the compatibilities of the enzymes or genetic codes we extract from other mammals, but we don’t even have the freedom to do that. We’re too stuck up behind religious bigots calling it a sin to ‘meddle with creation’. Too stuck-up to smell the science.”
“I take it you’re not a fan of religion.”
“Ethics aren’t the sole property of religion, but come on, are you kidding me? What kind of God would create more p53 in elephants than in humans and still expect us to believe He loves us still? I’m supposed to believe He’s got bigger problems to deal with in His ‘Big Plan’. God works in mysterious ways, so let’s forget how He lets people — good people — die for no reason. It’s a godforsaken world because there’s no way you look at all of this and still believe that a benevolent God exists.”
“Maybe if we did become immortal, this Big Plan would make the tiniest bit of sense to us because it’s clearly too complicated for our wee little minds to comprehend. Maybe then we’d understand what problems He’s facing up there that keep Him too preoccupied to show up when we need Him. Oh wait, He’s perfect in all His ways, so He’s got no problems whatsoever. How could He ever relate with ours?”
She wondered why the interrogator was bringing these thoughts and emotions to the surface. Or was she the one going beyond what he asked because of the emotional stress? The last time she had spoken about God this long was with her sister, and was probably the reason she tried to avoid visiting her too often. But she did have many hang-ups about the subject.
“Problems,” he repeated that word. “Like the problem of evil, or pain. Does immortality solve the problem of pain and evil?”
“I was being sarcastic. But what is evil? Who or what really determines morality? Why should I be kind to my fellow man except for self-preservation? You can’t possibly look at this messed up world and really believe there’s some big cosmic plan ‘cause that just makes it worse. There can’t be meaning. There’s no grand purpose. We only do enough to get by until it’s over. Nature is cruel and random, and the sooner we all realise that, the better.”
He tapped on the table. “You don’t really believe that. You make it sound like there’s no hope.”
She was still staring into space when she responded. “Hope is an illusion. It’s baseless.” She stared at her handcuffs. “We’ll be expecting the hour of release, but it’ll never come. Hope is just a fairy tale. This is where we die. This is where I die.”
He exhaled. “Come on, there has to be a reason you want to break that immunity code. If you’re going full-on nihilist, then why pursue something better?”
She was going to respond, but then the awkwardness of it all dawned on her. She was the suspect here, but somehow this man had made her leak. People were dying out there, and now she was arguing theology and reality. “Everything dies,” she said. “We’re all going to die someday, but we really don’t want to. Not just yet.”
The more she thought about it, the more alone she felt. She had had to come to accept the lack of a reason because she had tried to find it. If God was real, He’d really dropped the ball on making a big entrance. Life, the stars, the universe, all of it was meaningless. And temporal. It was all going to end someday, and that made it ugly. Beautiful in its intricacy, but ugly in its totality.
An image of Andy’s dying bleeding body flashed in her mind and it stung. What was she doing? “I don’t want to die either. I just want to live a little bit longer.”
It would be easier to gauge how this man was taking these things if she could see his face. All she had to go on were his body movements.
The man jotted again. “So the rats would be your test subjects.”
She sat back, deflated. This was an interrogation after all. “Mice,” she corrected. “We share a similar homology with the species – all supraprimates do. Makes them perfect for controlled studies.”
But something else wasn’t right. A lot was wrong in all this.
“Eva, don’t mind my train of questioning. But do you know where these mice are, right now?”
Another memory flashed in her mind. “The plan was to groom them in a facility off-campus. I had been collaborating with a foreign fledgling company over the past few months. I just got a delivery of the first batch for tests on Monday. It was in a crate. In the greenhouse.”
He glanced at a page. “You got this delivery from the Daemon Intelligence and Biological Logistics Office. You do realise that DIABLO’s a black market operation unrecognized by most legitimate institutions.”
She snorted. “Call me a snitch, but ask everybody. They all cut corners too. Nobody wants to admit it, but DIABLO’s the shortcut we all take. Go on, ask them.”
He was already shaking his head, probably bemused. “You really aren’t trying to make this easy for yourself.”
“I figure I’ve got nothing to lose.” But she felt light in the head so she held on to the table.
“I inquired with faculty, and usually the college has a perfectly available supply of equipment and facilities for studies requiring livestock testing. Why didn’t you go through those channels?”
She knew she was wrong here, despite the fact that she still felt somewhat right. “It would have been turned down. They don’t see what I see. Yet. And if I were to wait for the approval of the system the grant would’ve gone to someone else. We all want to do the right thing, mister, but sometimes bureaucracy is just a b—”
“But you did it anyway?”
“Yes … yes I did.” A screech. A snarl. What were these memories?
“Do you know what kind of mice you got, Eva?”
The mice. The crate. I opened the crate. She was remembering something. She felt cold all of a sudden.
The man closed his book and placed it on the table. “Eva, the only crate we found in your office was empty. The mice are gone.”
A slash. A bite.
A bite. She could remember that.
She turned to check her right leg but she couldn’t reach it. Only when she placed it against the chair did she feel the wound. It had clotted by now, but it proved this wasn’t a false memory. She had been bitten in the leg! I’m remembering.
And then she realised that she knew what had happened. When she looked at the man again she feared he could see the realisation dawn on her face.
“What would happen if those mice escaped from containment, Doctor?”
It all fell into place now. Her pulse quickened as the memory washed over her, but there was nowhere else to go. No doubt the man was seeing all of this. She had tried to evade everything about the experiment, but now it was glaring at her in the face.
“Are you OK, Eva?”
Dear God! The memories were piling on top of each other. She remembered. She knew.
Oh God! Oh dear God!
She looked up, all the colour gone from her face.
“Eva, do you need a medic?”
Her eyes watered as the realisation of it all dawned on her. “I swear, I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. I didn’t know … I didn’t know…”
“Eva. I need you to tell me what you remember.”
“Those freaking mice bit me! I didn’t think that’s possible, but they did. I remember now.” Her fingers trembled and her efforts to keep them down didn’t help.
“Do lab mice do that usually?”
“They shouldn’t, right?” She swore under her breath.
“How many were there?”
“I don’t know, four? Maybe five?”
“And what happened after that?”
“I was … I felt dizzy, but it was … there was this rush. I remember toppling through my office. I remember falling to the floor.” She looked up at him. “That’s all I remember. I don’t know what happened after that. You don’t think … Oh my God!”
“So you’re telling me that the mice bit you, and you lost consciousness? Is this like a rabies thing?”
If she didn’t realise before that she was in big trouble, she did now. “Oh my … I don’t know what happened! I really don’t!”
He didn’t argue. “I believe you, Eva. I need you to understand that.”
She nodded frantically. She wished this was all a dream. Maybe this was just a dream.
But the man opened another folder and slid some photographs to her. “This is from security cam footage. We’ve always known.”
Security Cameras?! She didn’t know there were cameras in her office.
From these pics the cameras were most likely in the corners of the ceiling. The time stamp at the bottom matched the timing of the incident. Her office was trashed, framed photos hanging at odd angles, the table toppled on its side, and papers strewn all over the floor. But the one image that drew her attention and crushed whatever spirit she still had left was of the hunched beast at the centre of this mess, its face turned up at an angle. Its very posture was an affront to nature. Its clothes were the only giveaway of its nature because she could remember the very day she had bought it on a splurge run three years ago.
She was a monster.
Somewhere in the back of her mind she had always known, but it all felt like a distant fantasy, a crazy thought that just would not shut up. But facing this reality was more than she could bear.
She tried to lift her hands to her face but the chains stopped short. There were more pictures showing her at different angles.
There are more of me out there. There is more of this out there!
But in the midst of the shuffling and reordering of memories, emotions and realisations, what hammered the final nail in her heart was the one picture that showed a young man standing by the open door. Andy.
I killed him.
She could remember blood flying everywhere. She could remember his body.
Her pulse thumped in her neck. She could barely breathe. He stared at her hands again. Her nails. “What have I done?”
“We knew that you needed time for your mind to relax, so you could remember every detail,” the interrogator said solemnly. “That’s why we did this.”
But she wasn’t all there anymore. Her mind was crowded with so many thoughts she could barely think. “What have I done?!”
“The trauma caused you to subconsciously lock up some details. We needed you on the same page with us before we could make any progress.”
She knew she was guilty. She had killed him. Dear God, she had killed Andy! “Oh my God—“
“Doctor, please I need you to calm down.”
Her head weighed heavy on her as the pain of the shock racked through her skull. “I can’t do this. I knew, I just knew, but … I didn’t really know. Oh my God, I’m in so much trouble…”
“Everyone’s in trouble, Eva! Please try to calm down and think. What details are we missing?”
“The mice. They could’ve escaped from the greenhouse, maybe?”
He took notes. “It’s a start. You think they’re the hosts of this thing? Are they contagious? If they infected you and all those students out there, that changes a lot of things.”
“What if they’re still out there? What if other people get infected? No one is safe!” She swore again. “What kind of mice did those people send to me?!”
“Have you worked with this species before?”
I did this…
Oh my God! I actually caused this! All along she thought she had an edge over this interrogation. But now she realised that she was a ticking bomb, and many more people were going insane. Or worse.
She let the tears flow freely. The snarky comments weren’t coming anymore. You really did it this time, Eva.
“I didn’t mean to torture you with this, Doctor. This is a day of Truth, and Truth isn’t always comfortable. Now that everything’s on the table, literally, we can finally get somewhere.”
She couldn’t stop staring at her hands.
Murderer! You’re a bloody murderer! And now the world is going insane because of you!
“Eva, are you listening to me?”
You’ve doomed all those people. You killed Andy.
“Eva, could you look at me? Eva?”
She tried to, past her tear-filled eyes.
“Everything is going to be OK.”
“How can you say that?”
“Because, as far as we know, you’re the only person that has been infected and has returned to sanity. If we can figure out how or why, perhaps we can fight this thing and save the day. Would you like that, Eva?”