Without air-conditioning, the lab offered no relief from the heat. Experiments were conducted in the morning or late evening, when the room was bearable. By noon, Ayden and Katey hung out in the cool room, Dr. Lucio’s office. Both young scientists worked well into the evening, like dedicated, passionate people do.
As outsiders, they took comfort in their shared aloofness. Being in the same room with Katey Cairn was special. And few were as inventive or compelling as Ayden Fry. Though competitive, they thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. Their relationship was platonic, yet intimate. They blended well as bench mates. It also helped being surrounded by lovely plants and flowers.
The lab’s focus on plants began years before, when Evo began his work on MIFF. Testing on plants instead of animals avoided the wrath of the animal rights fringe and the endless regulatory red tape. Slime can be studied on almost any object, living or dead. Animals and plants are coated with it, benefit from it, and are eventually sickened and recycled by it. Evo’s work started small, but now all the countertops were littered with plants, leaving little room for others.
Slime was the name of the game in Evo’s lab, without any need for justification. Scientists have found that biofilms are critical to most infections, and are very difficult to kill. Stopping slime is a radical notion and an unmet need in medicine, dentistry, industry and agriculture. Stopping slime could be a game changer.
Katey was now bent on creating a biofilm plant disease. But she grew frustrated, unable to find a germ nasty enough to infect her plants. Her Xanthomonas strain was a copious slimer on Petri plates, but lame as a pathogen. It was so pathetic, she called it Sluggo. A deadlier pathogen was needed to test the effects of MIFF in prevention and treatment. So, it was back to the drawing board.
Between flowerpots, Ayden was busy making monsters, pushing the envelope on bacterial speed. His fastest clone, Speedy Gonzalez 27, darted across the computer screen like a lightning bolt on meth. Alternative names for his speedy clones were Tasmanian Devil, Ricochet Rabbit, and Road Runner. But #27 was a freak of nature, no matter what you called it.
Besides the normal lab apparatus–incubators, microscopes, centrifuges, refrigerators, glassware, chemicals, and such–Ayden’s work required little space. “Speedy” was stored in the deep freeze, in the fridge, and on old Petri plates in his work area.
Katey’s work, in contrast, resembled a Las Vegas strip, with bright lights and vibrant colors. All she needed was a villain to turn it all brown and withered, but neither Sluggo nor Speedy caused disease. Yet, for safety’s sake, they were handled carefully and placed in the infectious waste bin, consisting of a large red plastic bag that divided their work areas. The bag was collected daily by special handlers and incinerated with other contaminated materials.
Side by side, Katey and Ayden were moving MIFF research forward. The task was largely theirs, now that Evo was out discovering himself. With the Chief away, his students played, deciding the destiny of MIFF technology.
Katey was currently conducting a huge experiment. Ayden just finished his and tossed several Petri plates in the red bag. As fate would have it, Disposal Services was on strike, so the waste piled up. Overstuffed plant stems tore holes through the plastic liner.
In the jumble, Ayden’s speedsters quickly found their way onto Katey’s refuse. Deep in the red bag, Speedy and Sluggo mingled and combined assets, giving birth to a creature not seen before.
The monster quickly worked its way through the rubble, causing a meltdown of the bag’s contents. A puddle of green slime collected on the bottom and oozed out from holes in the bag and onto the floor. Slime began to spread in all directions, illuminating the darkness below. Before long, a fluorescent sheen made its way onto the benches and countertops, covering all adjacent surfaces, and eventually reaching its destination: the potted plants nearby.
Hours later, Katey noticed a drooping leaf near Ayden’s bench. Having just set up the experiment, she was surprised and perplexed. Strangely, the leaf disintegrated right in front of her eyes. Moments later, Ayden joined in.
“Whoa! What happened?” he blurted, scratching his head.
“Just minutes ago that plant was lovely.”
“Sluggo got his mojo?” Ayden inquired.
“Not sure. It’s wilting as we speak.”
“That’s so bizarre,” Ayden concurred.
“It could be the heat.” Katey thought for a moment, then transferred the infected leaf onto a Petri plate to culture overnight.
“Look, another drooper!” Ayden pointed out.
“Yes, very aggressive,” Katey conceded.
Suddenly, Burt Nadley lumbered into the lab. Big Burt had come to retrieve the homework essay he coerced Ayden to write for him. Ayden searched nervously for the report in his work area.
“What’s with the rotting plant?” Burt asked.
“Good question,” Ayden responded.
“Listen, I’ve got football practice, so…” Burt gestured secretly to Ayden. He got through college bullying nerds like Ayden Fry.
“Sure,” said Ayden, handing Burt the report. Without a thank you, Burt was out the door.
“What was that all about?” Katey asked.
“Oh, nothing. Just helping out the big lug.”
Meanwhile, several more leaves had wilted. They retired to Evo’s office, not ready to draw conclusions. Katey stared blankly at the computer. Ayden stood by quietly, in a daze.
“Research is funny,” Ayden offered. Katey nodded, soberly.
It was lunchtime, but Ayden’s appetite was gone. Katey stared warily at the wilted lettuce in her salad. Something was wrong.
Before rushing off to class, Katey noticed more infected leaves on several nearby plants.
Heading to football practice, Nadley cut through a cluster of campus buildings, oblivious to the green lantern hanging from his back pocket. His mind was on another grueling, hot practice. Coach was old school and never let up on the boys.
As fate would have it, Nadley dropped from heat exhaustion during practice. Trainers rushed him to the ER by stretcher, a few blocks away. Burt secured the neon essay in his jock strap.
Back at the lab, Katey nearly fainted. Gorgeous plants were now piles of mush. Her shriek coaxed Ayden from Evo’s office.
Evo arrived at the same time with a dozen organic roses. He wanted to check his e-mails and phone messages before dinner and theater in New York with Nan.
“That’s one hell of an infection!”
“I don’t get it,” Katey said. “Sluggo is garden-variety at best.”
“Did you inoculate all these plants?”
“No, only half of them.”
“Evidently, this is not about Sluggo. Looks like it started near Ayden’s bench.”
Katey peered into the red bag. “It’s filled with slime!”
Ayden put 2+2 together: “Cut the lights!” he shouted.
Evo flipped the main light switch. Once their eyes adjusted, they witnessed the unholy. Green slime radiated from the bag and the plants. A dim fluorescence illuminated the walls and ceiling.
“Witness the marriage of speed and slime: Prime Slime!” Ayden exclaimed.
“Yes, Prime Slime,” Katey echoed, “the culmination of our research.” It glistened in her troubled eyes.
“Our baby,” Ayden whispered.
“And a potential disaster if we don’t stop it,” Evo added. “Can MIFF kill this thing?”
“Sluggo is highly sensitive,” Katey offered.
“Speedy also,” Ayden added.
“Let’s make a big batch then,” Evo commanded.
Katey rushed to the chemical hood, while Ayden gathered reagents. Evo dusted off three large spray canisters from a cabinet. This MIFF batch would be much larger than anything prior.
“Whew, that stuff stinks!” Ayden cried. The smell from MIFF was unbearable, even under the hood. Katey’s head pounded as she filled the canisters with the yellow stench.
“We’ll hear from Security soon enough,” Evo warned. This was worse than ever. Sure enough, they showed up promptly.
“No problem, officer.” Evo put on his best poker face. But he didn’t have to make excuses. Security had orders from Brookstone to downplay the stink. MIFF was one of its prized technologies, so the school learned to tolerate the wicked odor.
“You got our attention this time, Doc.” Evo kept the officer from entering, to prevent further spread. But, when a local newspaper reporter showed up, he was not so easily deterred.
“Those plants look horrible! Did the smell kill them?”
“MIFF is not toxic,” Evo assured him.
“You’ve already sickened half the community,” he muttered through his handkerchief. “That stuff melts your brain.”
“Sorry. Some things cannot be helped.”
“One whiff of MIFF and this drug’s going nowhere,” joked the reporter, as he was escorted out by Security.
Evo locked the door and turned to his students: “Time to terminate your precious Prime Slime. Spray every inch of the lab.”
“I cultured some of it earlier,” Katey informed him.
“Good! We’ll keep it alive for further study.
The plants were fonts of contagion and targeted often. The rest of the lab got a lighter but thorough coating of MIFF.
A green sheen also permeated the walls and surfaces in Evo’s office. One light coating of MIFF made the room grow dark. Any recurring luminescence was doused repeatedly. Tagging these mutants with a firefly gene was paying off. Wherever the germs went, the light followed. As did the scientists.
Katey noticed that the roses on Evo’s desk were not lit up like the other plants. The bouquet’s striking beauty did not escape her. She placed them in a beaker of water, and admired them for a moment, before going back to attack mode.