By: Jay Horne
Doctor Datson is getting older, but that doesn’t keep him from still getting into mischief.
When one of his lab experiments re-animates some old fossils, it is up to Truman and the rest of the gang to track down the dangerous creatures and find out who’s responsible.
Illustrations designed by Jay Horne
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Datson’s Big Idea
Datson had been a credit to the world of genetic engineering. That was before he picked up his amateur interest in paleontology after retirement. That was also before the Alzheimer’s started taking hold.
Now, he was pushing seventy, and the talent he was most proud of was being able to twitch the curls of his mustache independently. That didn’t mean he wasn’t still making great discoveries. He just wasn’t advertising. After you have most of your work published in Science Magazine before you’ve even written the proposal, you start keeping the best stuff to yourself.
He was thinking this again, as he sat on one of the wooden stools in his personal laboratory, staring ahead at the stainless steel doors of the specimen freezer, watching his indistinct reflection. Though he had been going a little heavy on the Memantine lately, he posed a good argument that it helped him think outside the box.
When the colors in the steel started getting more fuzzy he knew it was about time to start.
Besides a centrifuge, which was permanently attached, and some petri dishes, there were four paper-wrapped bundles atop the steel table before him. Those were the reason for his excitement and solitude over the past two days. Well, those and SENG-2, the concoction he had been keeping near absolute zero.
He was relying heavily on the observer effect that the younger physicists had been touting.
“You wouldn’t believe the amazing things inanimate objects do when you’re the only one in the room,” Neil had said.
Neil was one of the only guys who checked up on Datson anymore. It was kinda nice to have someone care, but it also could become hair-pulling when the guy gets a little too concerned. Neil was the main reason Datson didn’t keep a phone in the lab; if you get my drift.
A foot-and-a-half thick redwood door separated his lab from his condo and all of the distractions it contained. Which weren’t many, he was still moving stuff over from his old place down on west-end.
Anyhow, the Doctor felt more at home in the lab, among the white lights, microscopes, lasers, test-tubes racks, and stainless steel appliances. He’d hung a potted plant in the corner, and there was a jalousie one-way bay window, otherwise all the living things were basically jarred up or undergoing some sort of osmosis.
Nearly everything in the lab was in a state of suspended animation, he thought, even me.
The more he thought of it, the more he was sure it would work.
He reached out and started unfolding the fossil from the tan paper wrapping. He had to stand on the rungs of his stool in order to reach far enough to roll the thing end-over-end a few times to expose it.
“Majestic,” Datson said aloud when it was revealed.
The angular stone was the secular proof that giant centipedes did indeed exist! Embossed in the rock was a Trilobite of massive proportion.
“Majestic, but creepy.”
No cameras rolling, just one lone observer, nothing could interfere. He wondered how many magic mushrooms physicists took before doing their double-slit and light-as-a-wave experiments alone…
It was going to get colder in here. Good thing he had on his long brown pea coat with the huge buckles on the front.
Datson balanced the fossil in the center of the table the best he could, as it was a misshapen stone, and placed a petri dish right at the apex; The point at which the underbelly of the creature called attention, with all of those drawn up little pincers and crab legs pointing inward.
When he pressed a button, fog rolled from under the table top where the dry ice now met the air. Out from under the vacuum of laser cooling, the atoms of SENG-2 would soon be dancing like its Friday night at the disco.
He had, what equated to a gallon jug of it, though it had been flash frozen and sliced into discs. It was the only way he was going to be able to drape the fossils with the solution before they went to work.
From the mist, Datson stood up and placed a robotic capsule onto the table. He juggled it with with a reflective pair of oven mitts until it came to rest beside the fossil.
“Now,” he said to himself, “it’s time to sing —
He picked up the forceps, which were really the tongs from his fireplace, and reached out with his left forefinger and pressed the button for Sample Number One.
It reminded him of selecting an album from an old multi-disk CD-player.
“ — just don’t call me Datson!” he said, as the tray slid out of the capsule squealing and steaming like a teapot.
“Who needs friends, when you can —
Now he held the disc of overactive matter above the petri dish, which waited atop the fossil, it spewing and whistling in all sorts of trans-formative indifference all the while, “ — make your own.”
His mustache twitched when he let the large fuming coin drop into the dish.
There was definitely something happening.
The doctor had played with enough dry ice to know that the matter being sloughed off would be heavier than air. He stepped back from the dancing multicolored disc of ice as it sublimated and produced a huge heavy cloak of fog over the fossil.
Those electrons are really moving now, he thought. He just hoped that the excitement would transpose onto the dormant creature’s own mitochondria. Like a tuning fork, each dormant cell should recognize one another.
…and then, for a moment, he thought it had happened!
Maybe he had taken a little too much Memantine…
The thick fog was starting to creep him out, as he couldn’t see what the result of the experiment yet was. Just as he was feeling like a vampire might rise up out of the mist, like from an old horror movie, the table gave up under the cold and warped with a BANG!
“Jesus,” he’d exclaimed, while reaching to turn on the fan.
Though, it was mostly harmless C02, he blindly made his way to the window and opened it in preparation for the worst.
When the table had warped, the robotic capsule had tipped over and the other four discs had slid out onto the table. Now, they were barking and whistling, and the fog was growing exponentially.
It looked to him like a fireworks show, yet made of harmless gasses and ice hockey pucks dancing around one another until one pinged off its neighbor and went careening to the floor, but only after leaving a dent in the steel freezer.
Okay, that was scary.
It was time to vacate.
Datson reached up and pulled the chain for the active vent hood and headed for the door to his condo.
He could hardly hear the commotion from this side of the redwood door. Datson was leaning against it, considering the time it would take for the reaction to degenerate.
At least there shouldn’t be any mess to clean up, all the elements were well below their triple points.
He rested his curly grey head of hair back against the door and looked up at the ceiling.
The only real concern would be someone mistaking all the fog for smoke and calling the fire department.
I bet I don’t have more than twenty minutes before someone shows up here asking questions, he thought.
And he was right. This was going to be one of the three times 911 would be called over his little experiment.
The phone was ringing, but it wasn’t emergency services.
That would be Neil Inglow, Physicist from Medlab USA, adopted son and wet nurse. Datson rocked his head back and forth indifferently, “Yeah Neil, I’m fine, Neil,” said Datson to the ringing phone.
“Alzheimer’s ain’t got me yet. I still remember you call every five minutes, and I still remember you always call me Datson!”
The doctor pushed off irritably from the door and marched across the small studio to the kitchenette. The phone was still ringing.
He grabbed a half-gallon of milk from the fridge and sat down at the bar. The apartment was still relatively empty. For once in his life he would just like to be called, Doctor. It wasn’t that hard. It’s literally just as many syllables, but that was what had stuck. A PhD in Molecular Genetics, a Master of Science, and as an old man, they still called him Datson!
He took a swig. Licked the milk out of his mustache. Tilted his head to the side. Did he hear sirens already?
No. That wasn’t sirens. That was something from the other side of the door. It wasn’t any sound of solids turning directly into gases either. He knew what those sounded like.
He walked slowly over to the redwood and pressed his ear against it.
There it was again!
When there came a thump at the door, he dropped the carton of milk and it ran out on the floor.
Wringing the mop out in the kitchen sink, Datson thought, surely those compounds would have sublimated under their own weight by now! Could they still be dancing in there? There hadn’t been anymore strange noises, and it seemed Neil had given up on him answering the phone.
These weren’t questions he had time to consider any longer. The real sirens would be coming, there was no doubt of that.
He approached the lab and propped the mop against the door frame.
Reluctant, but determined, Datson pulled his pea coat tight at the neck and buttoned it up, then he turned the iron handle to the lab.
It was freezing!
The vent hoods must have pulled the cool air up. Now the whole room was filled with a uniform mist that the doctor crept blindly through.
There was no longer any whining or whistling. All of the reactions had seemed to have subsided. However, there was a chemical smell lingering, and the more he breathed of it, the more jittery he felt.
Everything had been knocked off of the metal table except for a single one of the paper bundles. He was shuffling his feet, as the fog on the floor was still too thick to even see his own shoes.
Across the room, the sunlit mist continually ducked out and under the jalousie window.
He reached down and shut off the box fan. Still the sound of the struggling vent hoods droned on, and when he looked up to them, he saw something instantly disturbing.
The tan wrappings of the other bundles were torn and raggedly stuck to the intake.
As he kicked his way, cautiously through the knee-high fog, toward the switch, the smooth tile became jagged with debris that crunched underfoot.
Squatting down, Datson took up some of the rock and rolled it between his fingers. Dusty. The fossils must have broken in the chaos.
He reached up, turned the power off to the vent hood.
The sound of the flapping and clicking wound down with the motors, and the paper fell from the intake, where he caught the largest sheet from midair.
When the rustling stopped, he should have been standing in silence, but he wasn’t. There was still something clicking. Chittering down low, beneath the potted plant.
He crumbled up the paper wrapper as he took a few steps closer to its source. Then he saw the fog turn in on itself, where the sound had come from, and instantly he imagined how terrifying the giant fossilized trilobite might be if it were alive.
He froze, then raised the wadded paper ball over head and tossed it at the place the fog had twisted. He heard it strike the tile and roll into the corner.
Finally, he exhaled.
Then, his whole body flinched with an inability to comprehend the sound of needlework dancing on the tile at his feet.
It was the sound of a hundred little pincers. Exo-skeletal legs skittering along the floor reaching for the tail of Datson’s coat.
Before he knew it, the giant centipede had climbed the fabric of his coat in an effort to reach the hanging plant, but the terror of the heavy bug made Datson scream.
He turned in circles just as the insect peeked over his shoulder. That’s when he was met with the pumpkin-sized face of a giant cockroach.
The doctor flailed in horror while the mandibles of the terrified crustacean worked at red feathers in its jaws. Even more colorful feathers were cinched in its foreclaws, and with its tiny feet it clasped the metal rigging of the hanging plant while Datson broke the top button of his pea coat off in an effort to escape.
The doctor went down in the fog. He started crawling toward the door. The chemical-smell and the adrenaline was gonna be too much for his heart.
He passed the table. Now, was getting his feet and clamored toward the door. He reached out, grabbed the handle. Turned back for one more look…
The paper bundle on the table split, and hatched some ungodly feathered hand that planted itself onto the steel. Then from the package, through a plume of clay and dust, emerged a prehistoric avian creature. A biped, sharp-beaked. It spread its wings and gave a throaty bark before stretching its neck, in an effort, toward Datson. It started pedaling toward him, flapping.
“Damn that Memantine,” he said in utter disbelief.
The last thing he remembered was the sound of sirens.
Neil was holding up the wall in the break room at Medlab, USA. His fingers were playing a tune on his right bicep as he stood with his arms crossed worrying about Datson.
He eyed the telephone again. Picked up his coffee and blew across the surface.
In walked Jimmy.
“You might as well go man,” Jimmy said. “They’re about finished up anyhow. You know, it’s the same ole same ole.”
“I’ve called twice,” said Neil, “no answer.”
“Hey, well that’s physics for ya. Never any answers,” he smirked. “Go on, I’ll cover for ya.”
Neil took a single sip and then tossed the whole cup in the wastebasket, their friendship was far past bad manners, “Thanks. It’s just I worry. He’s not as sharp as he used to be.”
“Yeah, yeah. I will tell you what I think,” said Jimmy. “I think the old man’s holding out on us.”
Neil shouldered his laptop case, “For what?”
“I don’t know,” he said, “You know, you just don’t go from Genealogy to Paleontology unless you’re planning the next Jurassic Park.”
Neil forced a chuckle at the old joke and then said, “Datson tells me he just wanted to play with toys more his age.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” said Jimmy. “You just remember who has your back if you discover him splitting atoms over there. There’s no second place in the science fair, and Datson ain’t even running anymore.”
“You got it, Jimmy. Thanks.”
When Neil pulled into Emerson Estates and got turned around by a fire company, he panicked.
“Sorry, Sir,” The fireman said, “we’ve got a Hazmat incident here. The whole condo’s been evacuated.”
“Where was the fire?” Neil asked.
“Wasn’t any kinda fire we’ve seen,” said the man. “Just a bunch of cold air, but at least one person has been asphyxiated by it.”
Someone honked behind him.
“Sorry, you’re gonna have to wait till we clear out.”
The fireman backed away and motioned for him to make a u-turn and keep it moving.
After he circled the curb and idled toward the main road he could see the main intake off the firetruck in his rear-view, laid out across the entrance to the estates.
There would be no getting in that way.
Jimmy was already in route.
The Med Lab van nearly stood on its left two tires as it rounded the block of 23rd and Walnut.
“I told you he was holding out on us!”
Neil was about to climb the rod iron fence in the rear of the estate. He had found a suitable brick support-column and was trying to convince Jimmy to find out to which hospital they’d taken Datson, “It looks like the fire trucks are finally clearing out. Just check on Datson, will ya?”
Neil put his cell on speakerphone and slid it in his jacket pocket.
He could hear the squeal of rubber on the other end of the line. The pocket reported dryly as he climbed, “Yeah, I got Truman on it. He’s on his way to Houston Memorial.”
Neil jumped down from the column into the grass. Lucky he was at least wiry as he was at his age, if not as spry.
He pulled out the phone again and held it up like a mic. Started across the grass toward the back lot. Most of the strobes had gone dark, but a red one still blipped a good distance off; in the vicinity of Datson’s condo — maybe a three minute walk.
“You sent Truman?” he asked doubtfully, “You might as well have sent Sixty Minutes!”
“He was the only one there after hours!” barked Jimmy.
“I just want to know Datson’s okay. If he knew Truman was the one who leaked his stuff to Science, he may just have a heart attack at the sight of him!”
“Well, he doesn’t. And Truman isn’t going to find out anything before we do, unless Datson comes right out and says it.”
The vehicle passed under a yellow light and Jimmy scratched the ceiling of the van for good luck. There was a short moment of silence. “Fact is —
Neil was now walking along the sidewalk in the Estates, listening.
“ —we were lucky he was there. He’s probably the only one who would have cared enough to go.”
Neil took the phone off speaker. He watched from behind a jungle gym as the last of the fire hose was rolled and loaded onto the one remaining truck. Then, he said, “Probably guilt.”
“Well, for whatever reason, that’s handled. I still see lights, where are you at?”
The last fireman was climbing up into the cab.
“Right behind his house. The community clubhouse. You should be able to park here now if you come through the front. I think there closing up shop over here.”
Neil looked, when the airbrake hissed, as the firetruck pulled around the cul de sac and started motoring out toward the road. The last red strobe switched off when the truck reached the stop sign.
Then he saw Jimmy pulling the van in to the lot.
Jesus Christ, he thought, eyeing the Medlab logo on the side of the van, Way to be inconspicuous.
“Just park it over here,” Neil said, waving him over. But he watches, as the firefighter’s ride away, in their backward facing seats, just to be sure their attention was on their cell phones rather than he and Jimmy.
He was sure at least one was wondering why in the hell a Medlab van was staking out a playground after a Hazmat incident.
Regardless, the asphalt crunched under the van’s rolling tires when the van stopped catty cornered across parking spaces.
The window rolled down on the driver’s side and Jimmy’s square teeth outmatched his wild hair and horn-rimmed glasses for attention, “I think we’re good.”
“Just park the damn thing,” Neil said, stepping back and up onto the curb.
Jimmy let her idle forward and then crunched it into reverse, focusing on the side views while he attempted to back it in. His tongue was poking out from the corner of his mouth when Neil objected.
“No, no!” Yelled Neil at a high whisper, flapping his arms,”Nose it in, so we can get to the back doors, you idiot.” It was getting a little chilly.
Jimmy got the van into a spot and shut the door.
He took off his gloves.
“You think he’s got a dinosaur in there?”
“Shut up, Jimmy. We’ll be lucky if the key’s still under the mat,” Neil said, rubbing his hands together and heading toward the sidewalk.
“What if there’s cops?” Jimmy asked, tagging along suspiciously.
“It’s a private residence, just relax will you?”
Neil had gone into Datson’s a hundred times before, at all hours. He was practically his stepson. He felt bad undermining the doctor, but he had to admit that Datson had been acting a little strange lately.
“I just hope he’s okay.”
“What did they tell you?”
“I know as much as you, Jim. But smoke with no fire means only one thing to me; and asphyxia is just a smart way of saying ‘something sucked all the oxygen out’. I would assume Datson was testing his theory on sublimation of electromagnetic neurological geobinding.”
Neil stepped onto the landing of Datson’s condo, lifted the brown doormat, which was scuffed with gray bootprints, and grabbed what was beneath.
Then he tried breaking it down again for Jimmy, “He was trying to match the harmony of the genetics in dead rock to those of excited, yet artificially dormant, familiar matter.”
Neil put the key in the lock and turned.
“Ya mean he was trying to convince the rock it wasn’t a rock?” asked Jimmy.
A simple explanation, he supposed, but it did have some merit. “Yeah,” he said, “by example, ya know.”
Neil pushed the door open a crack.
“That’s alchemy, in’t it?”
Neil motioned for Jimmy to just shut up for a second.
But, he did have a point.
They went inside.
The kitchen counter was empty. The only sign that the emergency worker’s had been there were the multi-directional boot prints that danced random patterns across the hardwood floor.
By the sink was Datson’s Namenda; his Alzheimer’s medication. Active ingredient, Memantine.
They were all Doctors. Just a dissociative. Take three of those, might as well have taken a bump of PCP. Only difference, when your over sixty… it’s legal. Just named different.
He lifted it, considered it, tossed it down thoughtlessly, and then opened the fridge.
He reached in and took a can of Pilsner. Then he swung open the freezer door. Wrapped packages in tan paper. He slid his finger across them, calling out to Jimmy their labels.
“Chuck round, beef tips, pork loin… Stegosaurus liver?”
“Shut up,” said Jimmy.
Neil laughed and popped the tab of his beer.
“What are you doing man?” asked Jimmy.
“Relax,” said Neil, “Datson always has beer. Want one?”
“No, thanks,” said Jimmy, “that the lab?” He’d hiked his thumb at the huge redwood door and started that direction. The slated footprints were more concentrated there.
When they pulled the door open, the first thing they noticed on the threshold were three drops of blood. Dry now. But it was definitely blood.
The fog had cleared totally away.
Besides the blood, the entire lab had a gray film on it, that can only be described as moon dust. The center island had a check-shaped dent across the entire length of the table. Now, the mounted centrifuge sat askew.
“What could do that?” asked Neil.
The sodium arcs still glowed along the workspace cabinets.
“…Dinosaur,” teased Jimmy.
There was a rich black pile of soil under where one of the chains had broken that once supported the potted plant. Now the pot hung upside down. The green underside of what was left of the leaves contrasted sharply against the dull gray of everything else.
Neil squatted down and picked up the top button of Datson’s pea coat. It had been nearly invisible in the sediment. He blew it off, and the button was right back to its natural black again.
He held it up to show Jimmy. The light from the bay widow came through the four pinholes.
Jimmy’s shoes were leaving skids and Nike swooshes in the heavy dust as he paced over toward the window. It was still rolled out and open. Beneath the sill were shapes in the sediment.
Neil came over while Jimmy reached down to pick up a few of what looked like feathers made of dust.
When he lifted them the dust drifted up from the objects and the bright red of the down was unmistakable. Two, three. Red, green, and blue. He fanned them in the light of the window.
“Look at the size of the quills!” said Jimmy.
That was when Neil saw the rest of Datson’s pea coat piled in the corner. It was a jagged mound of dust about two feet tall and three feet long. What else could it be?
The volume on his cell was at ten and it just then started blaring the ringtone to Jurassic Park.
“Nice,” said Jimmy.
Neil glanced down at it, “It’s Truman.”
Neil slid the icon and answered on speaker, “Yo, Truman. How’s Datson?”
“He may live. They won’t let me in to see him. They have him on something called a Vap-o-therm, helping him to breathe.”
“Yeah? But he’s there at Houston?”
“He’s here,” said Truman. “Hey, is Jimmy with you?”
“Yeah,” said Neil, he can hear you.
“Good. So, you won't have to tell him for me that he’s an asshole.”
Jimmy made a salute with the feathers, “Thanks, Truman.”
Just then, Datson’s pea coat split along the ridges, transforming into what might be the wasted shell of a giant cicada.
What they had mistaken for an inanimate object, was now a flurry of dust inside the lab.
Neil dropped the phone.
On the other line, Truman heard the two men screaming.
The giant carapace swam along the wall toward Jimmy, carried by its hundreds of tiny clicking pincers.
Where it wound through the sediment, there was a zigzag imprint embossed in a cloud of dust.
Jimmy tried unsuccessfully to backpedal up the wall and onto the windowsill, but he only managed to get one buttcheek on the ledge before it raised up in front of him and opened its mandibles.
He mashed his left foot down hard on its leathery helmet and the huge bug chittered and recoiled.
“What the heck is going on?” blurted the cell phone in all the crazy panic, but Neil wasn’t listening. He had climbed up on the table by the centrifuge and only managed to keep his wits when the giant centipede rolled up in a ball.
Like some ancient roley poley.
Now, Jimmy was dancing a retreat up onto the table with Neil, completely unconscious of the bug’s position of defense.
“Holy shit!” cried Jimmy, nearly knocking Neil off. The warped stainless steel made thundering sounds under their feet.
Neil held on for dear life. They were caught up in a real life game of king of the hill.
The bug momentarily relaxed its coil and Neil nearly lost it again, but it seemed to think better of it and cinched back into its armored ball, tumbling neatly into the corner.
That’s when Neil saw the glow of his cell staring up from the floor. Truman was still with them…
“What the hell is going on?!” demanded Truman.
Neil couldn’t help but start laughing at Jimmy, and would have reacted differently if he weren’t trying to balance against Jimmy’s attempt to get behind him, and as far away from the massive roach as possible.
As it was, Jimmy was still doing a jig, trying to find out which way that thing was going to roll.
Once he calmed down a little the armor threatened to break open again and an antenna started feeling its way out onto the floor.
Best not let it get confident.
Neil screamed at it, “Hey!”
That sent it back into a ball again.
Jimmy saw his chance and leapt from the table toward the door like an olympic athlete in bifocals.
Laughing, Neil took a run for it too.
Truman was left on the other end of the line in abject silence. But, once the door closed behind the boys, it only took a moment before he started hearing the chittering, and then the tapping of a hundred little curious feet.
Safely in Datson’s apartment, Jimmy was pulling at his curly hair with both hands, “What the fuck was that, Man?”
Neil was leaning against the redwood, trying to catch his breath, both from laughing and from the pure adrenaline.
“I mean, what the f — ” Jimmy started, then throwing his arms wide, “That thing nearly bit my fucking dick off!”
He took a breath while Neal squatted at the door trying to compose himself…
“You’re not telling me — ”said Jimmy. Then he took another deep breath and paced away and back again. “You want to fuckin’ catch that thing? Fuck that!”
“Oh, now, I think that is a good idea, Jimmy!” said Neil shaking a finger at him. Then he stood up and let go of the door handle. “It’s already trapped.”
“You’re crazy,” said Jimmy. Then with less than crazy eyes, he asked, “What the hell was that thing?”
Neil made an L out of his thumb and forefinger and propped his chin in it while he thought.
He said, “Some kind of arthropod.”
He was sure they could coral it into a cage, but something was missing.
Jimmy didn’t like the way he was looking at him, and recoiled when he approached.
“What?” Jimmy asked.
Neil reached into Jimmy’s hair and pulled out the green and red feathers like a magic trick, “The question is, what do these belong to?”
Truman had sat on the line for a couple of minutes to the sound of clicks and pitter patters, before he decided to ditch the baby-sitting duty.
He hung up and tried calling back a few times but got no answer. He wasn’t an idiot. Something was going on.
He propped his laptop open on the seat of his F-150 and opened the navigation app for Medlab. Ahah, one of the fleet vans was tracking near 23rd and Walnut, that must be Datson’s place!
He stowed the pc in the floorboard by his tacklebox and put the truck in gear.
“If we’re going to do this, we have to be smart,” said Neil.
Jimmy was nodding. He had opted for a beer after all.
“It’s almost noon, but at least it’s a work week, so we got that going for us. Still, we don’t need to leave the van out front of the condo while we catch that thing.”
“I can’t believe we’re really gonna do this,” said Jimmy.
“Heck yeah. We get that thing successfully back to Medlab and we will be up for promotion!” Neil was tapping his chin with his forefinger, “But, all it’s gonna take is one nosy neighbor, and the news will beat us to the punch. Besides, I think those feathers are a sure sign that there are more of those things out there.”
Jimmy downed the rest of the pilsner.
“Wish we knew which fossils he tested on, and how many.”
“We could go check out his old place on west end. Whatever’s missing from his collection would be a good start.”
Neil gave it some thought. “No good. If something got out of that window, and I would say it’s safe to assume it did, then it’s just a matter of time til the story breaks. We should nab this thing now and split.”
Jimmy was less than excited. “But what about the how of it?” he asked.
“Well, we hope Datson pulls through. Otherwise, testing will have to bring out the how.”
Jimmy seemed more agreeable, now.
“Then, after we drop the thing at the lab. We’ll go scope out west end.”
“Okay,” Jimmy said, tossing his beer can in the trash bin, “how do we do this?”
The fishing poles swung and clicked against their lures when Truman pulled up by the Medlab van. He always kept them mounted in their pole-holders, back in the truck bed, just in case he got a moment to himself.
His favorite fishing spot was on the way home from Medlab, right along the Riverwalk. He never caught anything but mudfish out there, but it was a great excuse to drink a beer, and besides, smelling like fish kept his wife from asking questions.
The back doors to the van were open and Neil and Jimmy were hauling the collapsible cage into Datson’s condo.
“Aw shit,” said Neil.
“What? Nosy neighbor?” asked Jimmy, grunting as they heaved the cage up the final step.
“Worse,” Neil said, “Truman.”
They propped the collapsed cage against the wall just inside.
“Go move that van and tell Truman that he might as well get in here.”
Jimmy went out and shut the backdoors of the van. There was a brief exchange with Truman, before he hopped in the driver’s seat and pulled away.
Moments later Truman came up the walk.
“Well, well,” said Truman, “I take it you aren’t here to iron Datson’s three-piece-suits… or do his dishes?”
“Leave it, Truman,” said Neil, closing the door.
At this rate, Datson was gonna be out of beer.
“Ah, come on, you didn’t have to hang up on me. You don’t think I can be trusted, or what?”
Neil handed him a beer, “Here, you’re gonna need it.”
Truman took the can and opened it, eyeballing the cage, “We got ourselves a regular ole moving out party here.”
“I didn’t hang up on you,” said Neil. “Phones on the floor in the lab — ”
He cocked his head toward the big door, “ — be my guest if you want to get it,” he smirked.
Back at the hospital, Datson had taken a turn for the worst.
His O2 saturation wasn’t holding above eighty, the nurse kept hitting silence. But, someone else had set his heartrate alarm below forty, so by the time the heart monitor went off with an audible alert, he was already in respiratory arrest.
They were going to have to start CPR.
Meanwhile, the three guys were standing in a circle in Datson’s kitchen drinking his beer.
“You’re telling me there’s a three-foot cockroach behind that door?”
Neil had seen this coming from a mile away, Jimmy hadn’t.
“Believe it or not,” Jimmy said, three beers deep, “Damn thing almost bit my dick off.”
Truman stepped over and turned the handle of the lab door. The other two watched.
“Don’t let it run out at your feet!” Jimmy said.
Truman extended him a considerable glance and cracked the door a little, peering in. Dust, debris. Enough of a mess to convince him that something was definitely not right.
He shut the door.
“Did’ya see it?” Neil asked.
Truman shook his head, “No,” he wasn’t taking any chances though, “you say it’s about three feet? Rolls up in a ball?”
Truman was just back from his truck.
“That’s gotta be the stupidest thing I’ve heard in my entire life,” said Jimmy.
“Well, what’s your suggestion?” asked Truman.
Jimmy just laughed a little and started getting the cage ready.
Truman went back over the plan, “We just put the cage at the door here, and if there is a creature in there, we’ll scare it into a ball, and…”
“I’m telling you that fishing net ain’t gonna hold that thing,” said Jimmy.
Truman raised his other hand (the one not holding the aluminum handled net),”It doesn’t have to hold it. It just has to go down over it so I can push it into the cage.”
“Yeah Yeah, okay,” Jimmy said, finally unfolding the cage, “until one of its thousand claws — ” he locked the cage in shape with a metal clap, “ — clips your dick off.”
Then he pushed it up beside the door, “I think I’ll just stay out here and man the cage.”
Truman was still gauging whether he was joking. Neil’s expression offered him no consolation.
“Look at these feathers,” said Neil, hoping to bring Truman around. But when he reached into his jacket pocket to retrieve them, there was nothing but dust.
He held up his clay covered fingers and then turned his pocket inside out. Jimmy looked stupified, too.
“Well,” Truman said, “the plan’s sound. You with me, or aren’t ya, Neil?”
Neil put his beer down on the counter, “Let’s do it.”
“Ladies first,” said Neil, once the door was open.
Truman stepped sideways through the doorway, his net taking up the lead. Neil followed. Dead silence, besides the trill of a weedeater from far off.
Both Doctors craned their head back at the door when the floor screamed while Jimmy pushed the crate into place. If something was going to happen, it would have been then.
Neil got goosebumps, but there was no killer centipede hold-up in the lab.
He reached down and picked up his cell. It lit up like normal. Then, while he was stooped over he noticed something that wasn’t there before.
“There, under the freezer,” he said to Truman.
They both saw it sticking out from underneath. But it wasn’t a creature, nor a fossil, it was a just a rock. A flat rock. That happened to be carved in the likeness of a giant centipede, or cockroach, or whatever the hell it was.
Truman used the end of the fishing net to push it out from under the cooler.
Neil stood up straight, puzzled.
Jimmy was gawking from behind the cage, “What is it?”
“Well,” said Truman, “I’m not in danger of it biting off my penis.”
Jimmy looked defeated, but was feeling smart when he looked at Neil, who knew the truth, “Well, I’d venture you weren’t in danger of that happening before.”
Neil took the net from Truman, “Heads up,” he said. Then he used it like a push broom and slid the flat statue across the floor and into the cage. The metal edge only catching briefly.
He locked it. Handed the net to Truman and dusted off his hands. He met Jimmy’s eyes, “Well, let’s get it to the lab.”
Truman looked at both of them like they were nuts.
“What’s this?” asked Jimmy, thumbing through a manilla folder that was on the dash.
Neil was driving the van. They were following Truman to Medlab who was still not quite sure why they were holding a statue prisoner; though those tracks on the floor had been convincing.
The cage was in the back of the pickup where Neil didn’t have to take his eyes off of it.
Neil offered only a glance, then trained his eyes back on the road and the cage, “The observer effect,” he said.
Jimmy riffled the pages.
“You know,” Neil shook his head, “how the outcome of an experiment depends on the observer?”
Jimmy was nodding with interest, and then shaking his head with guiltless ignorance.
“Ya know, like, take a tree for example… would it bear fruit if there were no one who needed to eat it?”
Jimmy actually stopped shaking his head, and the way his corneas went to the corner of his eyes in thought made Neil think that perhaps a light bulb went on.
From above, three birds of the Jurassic period could see the van gliding along I-5 behind the F-150.
The doctors and nurses had successfully resuscitated Datson. He was intubated, and for awhile, despite the versed and the valium, he was conscious.
He had seen the trilobite. He had seen those aerophatryxs fossils react to SENG-2.
He had been the observer.
Truman knew something was wrong when he saw Neil flashing his high beams and then realized he could make out the faint sound of the horn through his sealed cab. At the same time his cell started ringing.
He glanced up in the rearview and saw the cage rocking rhythmically back and forth of its own accord.
Jimmy was listening to the phone ringing while Neil still worked the horn when Truman swung the F-150 over to the shoulder. Once the right tires went off the pavement, it proved too much for the teetering cage and they watched as the thing slammed over onto its side.
Truman got the truck to a stop as quick as possible. He could feel the metal cage hit the back of the cab at the sudden change of momentum. He threw the shifter to park and jumped out.
Neil had to mash the brakes to keep from rear-ending him. But, when the van came to a halt and Truman leapt out of the driver’s side door, he and Jimmy stayed put with their windows sealed.
They had seen the cage door break open. Truman hadn’t.
“You gotta be shittin’ me,” yelled Truman.
He was riding his left hand along the bed liner above the wheel well and wondering why Neil and Jimmy were waving wildly from behind the windshield of the van. Silent mimes in panic.
That’s when he heard the chittering.
As Truman peeked over into the bed of the truck, the trilobite raised its ass end up to greet him. From under a cowl of shell, the creatures anus extended in a pulsing straw.
Truman was oblivious of the tube taking aim at his face. He was grasping the reality of the situation, and his eyes were busied by the tiny pincers that were clicking and snapping on the underbelly of the horrid thing.
Neil and Jimmy knew Truman was done for when his arms came up to cover his eyes.
The bug had shot a thin line of fluid into Truman’s face from beneath its hooded carapace. The liquid steamed in the cool air and they watched their friend double over to the ground in pain.
What was more terrifying, was how the trilobite wasted no time. While Truman was on his hands and knees, palming at his eye sockets, the thing slipped over the wheel well.
They got a look at the full length of its segmented body as it rounded the huge tire of the truck to the road. It was like watching liquid pouring down the side of the vehicle, across the pavement, and up onto the back of Truman.
Once the creature surrounded the doctor’s face it was all over. He fell sideways, stiff.
When it was certain that no fight was left in its victim, the animal simply poured off from the corpse and moved like a shadow across the road into the brush.
Gone for good.
…and that was the second of three times 911 got called because of Datson’s little experiment.
The third time 911 got called was after Datson went back into Cardiac Arrest at Houston Memorial.
He had been awake long enough to consider his experiment, and aware enough to experience the discomfort of being on a ventilator and life support, to learn one last life lesson.
That lesson would be this experiment’s grand observer’s dying thought.
Things that are dead, should stay that way.
911 hadn’t been called because of Datsun’s death. Well, not entirely; he was already at the hospital.
911 had been called because, somewhere along I-5 the statue of a prehistoric bird came plummeting from the sky and into the windshield of a Medlab Van where two guys were just thinking they had gotten away with a seriously botched attempt at an undeserved promotion.
No one was going to be leaking any of Doctor Datson’s shit to Science magazine ever again.
Jay Horne is an author and publisher out of Bradenton, Florida. He is a husband and father of four.
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