The Rachel Who Loved Me

Day 798

My knees get weak at the sight of her. I start to sweat and my heart begins to hammer. My eyes go glassy and my pupils splay so wide they become like black holes. And I can’t think straight. I can’t even think simple thoughts, like calculating the diameter of a wormhole, which I could normally do in my sleep.

Once on Anterra, this backwater world filled with nothing but swamps, frogs, and bugs, I contracted a strange kind of brain fever. I went mad! Went all kinds of crazy. And what I felt and thought are the exact same things that I think and feel when she is near.

It’s annoying. It’s distracting. I hate myself for it. It’s like there was a revolt in my mind and my common sense lost and got the guillotine.

This is no kind of woman to be in love with. NONE! She was chosen because she was everything that I detest. Where I’m thin and neat and intelligent, she is not. Where I am outgoing, successful, and have a zest for life, she does not. Where I am complicated, she is not. Where I am anything, she is not.

Her kind was to let me focus on my important work and not entangle me with the encumbrances of love or any other complication. She was to be a simple subject for me to explore scientifically, objectively, soberly. Like dissecting the brain of a fetal pig, I care not for the pig.

Rachel, oh Rachel! You bubble into the room to pick up the garbage I’ve left on the floor and my head goes mad for you. I get all silly.

Please, let me pick that up. I’ll say. I’ve been so foolish to let that drop. No my dear, don’t worry. You could hurt your back bending over like that. Let me! Let me!

And then out she goes with a smile splitting her broad face and I can’t help but miss her when she’s gone.

I don’t know what I’m going to do.

I might have to kill her and start all over again.


Day 900

I’ve forged on with the experiment. Ignored the little nigglings in my heart and slipped the nanites into Rachel’s morning oatmeal. By now they’ve hitched a ride on some hemoglobin and are up in her brain, burrowing into her synapses.

I’ve noticed no changes in her behavior, which is a good sign. With the others, everything misfired and they went into anaphylactic shock.

Decades of work may be coming to fruition. This is a very auspicious day.

Day 925

I’ve figured it out.

I am a man and she is a woman and we are alone in this space station, way at the edge of known space.

Of course feelings would develop. That drive to procreate is deep in the marrow of our framework. It’s seeping out and corrupting my thoughts, making me think I actually feel something for the little toadstool.

But I don’t.

It’s just animal instinct. It’s just loneliness. I’ve been alone out here a long, long time.

Day 950

Day of days!

I received the first transmission from the nanites. I’ve run the signal a dozen times through the computer because at first I thought there was some kind of mistake. But the translation is the same every time.

Love.

That’s the word I’m getting from her subconscious.

It seems the little dolt has fallen in love with me. I’ve confirmed it by breaking into her computer and reading her diary. What awful schoolgirl fantasies are there! Absolutely juvenile. They’re all about me and her getting married back on Earth in some quaint country church (what’s with woman and white steeple churches?). I don’t know where she would get any of those ideas. How does she even know what Earth is? Did she see it in our movie catalog?

Honestly, it doesn’t matter. I should just focus on the fact that my work, my years of sacrifice, are starting to amount to something.

The Body Collectors

Thousands of dead, kitted out in titanium battlesuits, rattle off our hull.

THUNK! THUNK! THUNK! Like we’re driving through an asteroid cluster. THUNK! THUNK! THUNK!

I’ve gathered us in the bow of our ship near sickbay where the walls are the thinnest, so this crew–this greeny crew–can hear each and every one of those dead bodies drumming against us.

“That sound!” I say (shout more like). “Is the sound of credits plunking against our hull.”

I pause then, like the good captain I’m forced to be, and look them over. The ship’s power cycles are down to preserve energy, so their alien faces float disembodied-like in the gloom of the corridor.

I don’t know their names, just their morphology. There’s a Catargan’sia, face pulled long like an equine’s and bristling with fur; three bright jade eyes are set triangularly in the center of its forehead. A Starkinger, round white face with two huge coal eyes that, given the weak light, look like black holes in the center of its moony mug. A Pummleton, a blank, pumpkin-like face with vertical furrows that are filled with tiny gray vellus hairs. And a Labgraderon, a balloon of fat gray flesh with small red eyes that circle its head like a beaded halo.

They are the motliest of crew, from every backwater planet in the universe, suckered together here by a common cause: somehow, like me, they all owe Rex.

“All you need to do to get those credits,” I shout and then pause for effect. “Is to reach out and take them!”

I watch their reactions. Teeth bristle on the Catargansia’s long face, the Starkinger glows purple, the Pummleton’s vellus hairs flurry, and the Labgraderon’s gray balloon head swells. They are pleased.

The Pathosian, my second in command and Rex’s official plant, materializes out of the hallway gloom.

His legs, arms, and body are like cooked strips of lasagna that waver and wobble limply. He’s a morphological feat, not a bone in his body though he stands perfectly upright, orthostatically. With each step, his fluid like carapace hardens to keep his legs straight and his body upright, then softens to bend at the knee and step forward; it’s a fascinating dance between the conscious mind and his autonomous nervous system. He looks like he’s swimming through the air. It’s beautiful.

I’d love to get him on one of our autopsy tables and crack him open. Not just because I hate him, but because his structures are like nothing I’ve seen or studied back on Earth. Despite what I’ve done, that part of me, the scientist, is still there, still amazed by the morphological wonders of the universe.

His voice is like wet macaroni being stirred, which the adapter stapled into my auditory nerve translates to: “Jack, are you done with the pep talk? Now can we get to work?”

In his decentralized brain, the motivation for whyever we’re here should be good enough and pep talks are just a waste of time.

“Do you need a pep?” he asks. “A reminder of your son?”

After splitting him open, I’d jab a couple of fat needles into him and pump him full of radiocontrast, maybe a radium-phosphor mix, that would light his arteries up like a Solstice Tree. Then I’d like to mount him, take him back to Earth and hang him in the hallway at the Astrobiology section in the University of Antwerp, my old alma matter, so everyone walking by can gawk and learn.

But telling him off accomplishes nothing and jeopardizes the thin thread my son’s life hangs by, so I simply ignore him and press on.

“Gentlemen!” I say. “Let’s get out there and bag those bodies.”

The Redemption

Three years and not a word from the world. Three years of fighting to stay alive in the overgrown nuclear wasteland of Chernobyl amongst desperate criminals. Without law. Without hope.

But our redemption is now at hand. We remaining three. We insidious, hateful three–a thief, a prostitute, and an assassin–have packed our atonement into a thick lead case, placed it in the back of a rusty Kamaz truck, and are rattling down the highway to Moscow for deliverance.

Anastasia sits shotgun. Her AK-47 rests across her lap with the loud end pointing out the open window. Yuri sits in the truck’s cab behind us, an MP412 REX revolver–a Russian knockoff of the .44 Magnum–is in his hand; it’s more gun than hand. And then there’s me, Gordon, in the driver’s seat with my Glock resting in my lap and my AK-47 snapped into the gun rack over the windshield.

I can’t tell if Yuri and Anastasia are sick, nervous, or otherwise. I can only see their eyes through the glass portholes of their black masks. The rest of them is sealed up in yellow radiation suits, which are broiling in this summer heat. The pavement shimmers like a watery dream and even though the windows are down and we’re driving at a good clip, I’m sweating like I’m in a sauna. The short, hot breaths I have to suck through my mask’s circular filter are leaving me dizzy and gasping for more.

I don’t know if this is the hangover, the heat, or the radiation poisoning, but my stomach feels like I ate a bag of nails.

We partied like it was the end of the world last night and I think Yuri and Anastasia got together. I remember at one point her arms were around me, bottles of Black Cherry Stolichnaya were in our hands, her tongue was flickering in and out of my mouth, and she was grinding her crotch against mine in time with that godawful Russian music. Then I can’t remember what happened next. I woke up in bed alone.

I am mentally kicking the hell out of myself for this. She is an absolute knockout with a body as sleek and as sexy as a Bengal tiger’s. The Russians would line up around her decrepit apartment building in Chernobyl. And then there’s Yuri: skinny, sickly looking, and with just a handful of teeth. How the hell did I lose out to him?

“Anna,” I say, but my mask muffles my voice and she can’t hear me. “Anna,” I say louder and put my hand on her leg. She bats it away and looks at me. Her angry blue eyes shine through her mask’s dark lenses.

“What did I do?” I shout.

Then I slam my heavy rubber boots down on the breaks, throwing everybody violently forward. At the side of the road ahead and glinting in the sharp sunlight is a Skitter. He’s alone; just one from the hungry hordes that swept across the world, devouring every animal, man, woman, and child, leaving nothing but stillness in their wake.

Anna snaps back the bolt of her AK-47 and Yuri cocks the hammer of his hand cannon.

“Time for go!” Anna whoops.

Aberrations

Nina disgusts me. I don’t tell her this though; it would crush her. She was beautiful: creamy smooth skin, ocean blue eyes, raven black hair, and a body to die for–a real hourglass figure.

But now every imperfection of hers is somehow magnified. The tiny divot in the center of her nose, which I found so cute before, is like a crater on the moon. Her eyes aren’t symmetrical either; one is actually quite bigger than the other. Her breasts are sagging, not at all upturned like they used to be. And there’s a thick layer of fat overflowing her hips that I never noticed till now, making her body more pear shaped than anything.

I am nothing to look at. Far from it. I’m a white-haired, gangly, ugly thing, so I am the last person in the world to criticize anything, but for some reason this is what I see when I look at her. When I look at everything, in fact.

The redheaded nurse is a freckled nightmare; the hospital bed sheets have a dozen disgusting stains on them, though Nina swears they’re perfectly clean; the overhead lights buzz and flicker terribly, which nobody seems to notice but me; and the yellow paint on the walls isn’t finished properly, enormous spots are missed down by the baseboards leaving the white drywall to shine through. It’s all so hideous I can barely stand it.

The procedure hasn’t worked as far as I can tell: I can’t do calculations any faster, my memory seems the same, and I am no closer to solving the same theories I was baffled with before. All that’s changed is I’ve somehow become hypersensitive to my surroundings, every little fault pops out as though it were under a microscope.

The thought has painfully crossed my mind maybe a dozen times now that something may have gone wrong. Did the monkeys’ heads hurt this much when I performed the procedure on them? They were rather ornery after, but was it this bad? And what about this propensity for seeing nothing but faults? Is that normal or a sign the formula is incompatible with the human brain?

I desperately want to get back to the lab. Every minuscule change taking place in my brain is of the utmost importance to track and record for posterity. But here I lie in frustration on this lumpy hospital bed, bored to tears and playing a memory card game on my iPad because I promised Nina I would stay till the doctors cleared me.

Something catches my eye. I look over the iPad at my bare feet and see two thin, curved sticks poking out from the top of my right foot, like my big toe grew antennas. I lie the tablet down on my chest and stare closer. They’re moving I notice, twitching in fact. I shift my foot a little and a huge wasp’s head connected to the antennas peaks out from behind my big toe. He’s the size of my foot. I can see his striped black and yellow abdomen sticking out from my behind heel. The sharp ends of his legs scrape across the soft skin of my foot’s arch, sending a shiver rippling through me. Frozen in shock, I stare at the thing.

Then I let out a shriek and a mad buzzing fills the air. He springs up and hovers over my stomach. He’s a monster, just over a foot tall and six inches wide. A long black stinger descends from the bottom of his swelled abdomen and drips amber fluid onto the bedspread.

He flies closer to my face, and I react and swat at him with my iPad. Catching him dead on, the screen shatters and his body blasts into the wall with a sticky, wet splat. Then he slides to the floor, leaving a thin red trail as he goes.

He angrily buzzes and rattles about beneath my bed. Not yet dead, but dying.

I scream for the nurse. My pulse thunders in my chest and I break out in a cold sweat. My God, I think, his mandibles were big enough to lop off my toe with a single bite. How is that possible?

Red bursts in, her wide eyes flare about. Her freckled face is a measles outbreak.

“What’s the matter?” she demands.

“Goddammit, there!” I say while pointing to the floor, completely amazed she hasn’t seen what’s right at her feet.

“What?” she says, staring at the ground and raising her hands in confusion. “I don’t see it. What is it?”

“You dumb ginger,” I say and roll to the side of the bed, so I can point directly at the thing. “There!”

It’s dead now. Curled up into a ball by the poorly painted cream baseboards.

“A giant wasp!” I exclaim. “Don’t you see it!?”

“Oh, of course.” She says. “We’ll take care of it right away.” And with that, she bustles out of the room.

My head has swelled during this insanity and it feels like my skull will split open from the pressure. The room swims a little and I lie back on my bed, breathing heavily.

Nuclear medicine, I think. Somehow that wasp got into the hospital’s nuclear imaging system, was infused with gamma rays, and grew gargantuan in the process. It’s so damn ridiculous when I think about it–it’s like something out of a comic book–but that’s the only explanation I can think of.

My doctor sweeps in through the door. The hairs of his toupee are blond push-broom bristles that are combed flat to one side, a pimple on his cheek has grown into the category of a cyst, one eye is a darker color than the other, and on and on the minutiae of his faults go.

“Grant,” he says. “How are you feeling?” He takes his pen light from the pocket of his terribly wrinkled doctor’s coat and shines it in my eyes.

“Goddammit,” I say, brushing his hands from my face. “Don’t you see it?” Again, I point at the thing.

He doesn’t follow my finger.

“Grant,” he says. “What year is it?”

And then I go a little ape.

“There!” I shout. “There you ignoramus!”

Finally, he follows my finger to the floor, but not a bit of surprise crosses his face.

All of a sudden, I feel water running in my head and a rush of darkness swallows me.


Blood drips from the razor-thin line I cut across my forehead. I dab at the incision, turning the toilet paper a deep red Rorschach.

My bruised over eyes are blue baboon lips. I can barely see between the slits. Unable to stand my visage, I turn from the bathroom mirror.

Little vignettes of the procedure play in my mind. The cold metal slab touching my back. The robotic arm with a silver scalpel slicing open my brow. The circular saw buzzing through my forehead. A sudden gush of hot fluid filling my skull as my formula was pumped in.

I reasoned that if man can use drugs to increase muscle mass, bone marrow, white blood cells, and lung capacity; thereby, increasing his strength and endurance, then cannot a drug be invented to grow the neural pathways of the brain and increase intelligence? Would not a brain with more neural pathways think faster, better, and remember more than one with less?

The monkeys I experimented on certainly showed that to be true. They went from drooling morons that eat their own feces to quiet, contemplative creatures that signed for food.

It was a breakthrough, one I desperately sought as I’d been suffering for far too long in the shadows of obscurity. I figured that with one more courageous push I could show the world that the same could be done for the human mind. It would be a quantum leap forward for mankind and would smash my name into history with such force that all would remember me long after I was gone.

I grip the sides of the white porcelain sink and watch the water stream from the tap and spiral noisily into the drain.

Have I gone mad? I wonder. That wasp thing was real, saw it with my own eyes, killed it with my own hands.

But then why can no one else see it? Not even Nina.

“How is everything going in there Mr. Hopsinger?” The nurse shouts through the bathroom door, knocking my train of thoughts off its clattering tracks.

“Give me a second!” I say.

The door latch clicks open and her measly face pokes in.

“Everything OK, Mr. Hopsinger?” she asks. Her blue scrubs have faded with the million washes they’ve been through, yet a bright green stain is on her shoulder. Couldn’t she see that when she put that on? If that were me, I would have thrown it away and worn something else. It’s awful to look at, like a hunk of booger melted on her shoulder. Deplorable.

“I’m fine!” I hiss.

I see Nina looking in over her shoulder. Her face is pinched with worry.

“I’m fine,” I say to the both of them. “Really, I’m fine.”

The nurse pushes the door open and bright light washes into the room, searing my eyes, making me squint.

“I haven’t finished,” I protest, but the floor shifts beneath my feet and I have to grab the walls for support. The nurse and Nina spring to my side and help me into the bed.

“When can I leave?” I say after Nina pulls the covers up to my neck, like I’m a child being tucked in for the night. “I must get back to my lab. It’s been two days already and that’s two days worth of valuable data I’ve already lost.”

“We haven’t got the test results from the spinal tap,” the nurse replies.

“It’s not meningitis you fools!” I shout. “It’s encephalization, purposeful encephalization.”

That registers nothing but a blank expression on her ugly face.

I turn to Nina and squeeze her hand pleadingly. “Please Nina let me go. There is nothing they can do for me. They don’t have the knowledge or the equipment. Let me go back to the lab. Please?”

“Grant,” she says and squeezes my hand back warmly. “Please stay Grant.”

More than anything in this world I love this woman and my resolve to leave this place melts at her touch.

“OK,” I sigh. “I’ll stay and suffer these fools for you.”

An unprofessional flash of fury crosses the nurse’s face, every freckle briefly flickers red. She didn’t like being called a fool, not one bit.

“Look hun,” I say to her. “Isn’t there a bed pan that needs changing somewhere?”

“Yes of course,” she says and leaves, closing the door to my room with a gentle slam.

“Grant!” Nina says sharply. “Do you have to be so cruel? She’s just trying to help.”

The rims of Nina’s eyes swell and redden. Wet, salty globules begin to trundle down her face. I can barely look her.

“Dammit Nina! This is nothing to cry over. How do you think Jonas Salk invented a vaccination for polio? He had to use it on himself because no one would volunteer to be a test subject. If he hadn’t, we’d be all crawling around with atrophied legs dragging behind us. Testing monkey brains can only take you so far. Can’t you see that? Can’t you understand that?”

I’ve worked myself up into a hell of a fervor. My whole body tingles and my breath comes in ragged gasps.

“No,” Nina says. “I don’t understand how you can risk your life for this.”

“That’s because you have no ambition! You have no drive! You don’t know what it’s like to be consumed by something, to feel something like this burning in your veins. To move forward into greatness, there must be sacrifices. My goal is no less than eliminating the ignorance of mankind. Everything else takes a back seat to that, including my safety.”

I have to stop because the room is spinning again and my breath is falling short. I lie back and look at my chest, rapidly swelling and deflating. I’m tired now. My eyes begin to droop uncontrollably and I drift off to the sound of her sobbing.


I welcome the night. It washes the faults away. When I look at the ceiling, I don’t see uneven, asymmetrical tiles with brackish stains–I just see a dark ceiling. And the walls aren’t covered with filth and painted poorly; they’re just dark walls.

Nina is right. Something has changed inside me. When I think of how I was before this, I remember being nicer, more even-tempered, happier too. Perhaps, the new pathways growing in my frontal lobe have affected my personality. I recall my studies about how lobotomy patients became listless and apathetic after their pathways were severed. What I’ve done is the very reverse of a lobotomy, so perhaps it’s pushed my personality in the other direction. Instead of listless, I’ve become active, animated, irritable.

A shadow splashes through the pool of moonlight on the wall, startling me. A bat, I think. But no, a bat couldn’t disturb that much light–something larger.

The window creaks at the foot of the bed and my body goes rigid with fright. I see two grey hands beneath the sill, slowly lifting it up.

I must be asleep and dreaming because we’re ten stories up, but the pounding in my head and heart tell me I’m awake and that this is real.

The window slides upwards and frigid night air pours through, quickly filling the room. Goosebumps ripple on my skin and a cold, icy lump sticks in my throat.

A head appears in the opening. Two milk-white eyes regard me from across the room. I can feel them, running over every inch of my body. A long arm reaches through the window and grabs the radiator below the sill. Whatever it is, it’s climbing in.

My body roils in revolt, tries to get free, yet the restraints hold me still.

He climbs in, stands at the foot of my bed, and smiles. His two eyes are clear moons and his teeth are shrunken corn kernels. He’s wearing a trench coat so rotted and frayed it’s like a lace cape. Open at the middle, I can see his thin, mummylike form beneath the coat. His skin is grey and is stretched so tight across his body that every bone, rib, and joint is visible. Even from this distance I can smell him: stale, wet earth; the smell of compost.

He smiles impossibly wide and my whole being runs cold.

“Nurse!” I scream. “Nurse! Help me! Nina! Somebody!”

I shriek and shriek, but not a soul comes.

He slinks up to the side of the bed and leans in. His breath is like gasoline fumes and my eyes water. He reaches out and taps my forehead with one of his long, pointed fingers.

My skull is so tender the tapping sends fireworks sizzling across my vision. I thrash my head from side to side to get away from his vicious claw.

He pulls his hand back and points to his huge milky eye. He’s trying to convey something, I realize, but I haven’t a goddamn clue what it is.

A loud click of the lock makes him snap his head towards the door. Light spills into the room as the nurse pokes her head in; annoyance is plain on her ugly face.

He slinks along the walls in the shadows, stops near the window, and turns to give me one last look.

Hate is in those eyes, pure burning malevolence.

Then with a breath he’s gone.

The Transceiver

A cold shudder runs through me as I look through the one-way mirror at the psycho in the orange jumpsuit who’s handcuffed to the table. What I’ll see in his head, what I’ll feel and experience first hand will be like living nightmares. I don’t know if I can handle them. I’ve seen some terrible things, but nothing like what he’s done.

The psycho raises a styrofoam cup of hot coffee to his mouth, but the chain connecting his handcuffs to the table is too short, so when he gets the cup halfway up, his arm jerks to a stop and the coffee spills onto the lap of his bright orange coveralls. He swears and frantically squirms in his seat to stop the coffee from scalding him. The pained look on his face tells me that he isn’t succeeding.

Good, I think. He deserves that. That’s fitting for a guy like him. That’s perfect.

He plunks the cup down in front of him and shakes the hot brown liquid from his hands, which sends his chains rattling and clanking over the table’s black metal top.

He doesn’t look like much sitting there, coke-bottle glasses, short salt and pepper hair, and so skinny he seems lost in those orange overalls. With what they told me about him, I imagined some beefy guy with tattoos of little spiders at the corner of his eyes and pipes the size of my head–not somebody who could have been my grade 9 science teacher.

Let someone else do this, my inner voice tells me. Don’t they have people trained to do stuff this? Why the hell does it have to be me?
Then I remind myself of the deal I made, a deal I’ll find nowhere else: get what the authorities need from this lunatic and then the agency goes back to working out how to shut off this mechanism in my head.

Life will be worth living again without it.