An essay by Newton Hickson, as provided by Justin Short
I’m the guy who punches tigers in the face for a living. You might have read about me in one of those articles on animal cruelty. Maybe heard my name shouted by the hippies who spend their time playing chicken with whaling boats. But I swear, it’s not as bad as all that.
For starters, the tigers in question aren’t what I consider “real.” Don’t care about the Supreme Court ruling that says otherwise. It doesn’t change the less-sensational facts.
This mess all started a few years ago. Back in college, I lived down the hall from this dark-haired chick, Candy. In spite of her name, she was a genius. One of those scientific types who can’t enjoy a patch of good scenery. Too busy analyzing the particles in the breeze, determining the chemical compounds in the cloud formations, junk like that. She spent most her life in Davis Hall, the science building. Even when she wasn’t in class, she just liked being there.
Nights she’d come in raving about this idea she had. A sort of radical offshoot of cloning. She swore she knew a way to create organisms out of next to nothing. And when she invited me to the laboratory for a preview, I couldn’t say no.
When we were inside, she confided her revelations to me. Her idea was to heat ordinary water and, during the process of evaporation, combine it with genetic data of selected organisms. Something about that split second before the matter changed states was crucial.
She tried to explain all about the so-called genetic data and the importance of correctly balancing the male and female components. I pretended to understand as she lectured me on molecular doohickeys and flash gestation. Eyes wild, she remarked how she had bypassed the need for an egg altogether, by simply recognizing that nature’s own cycles could be used to jumpstart new life.
“Alright,” I said. “I get it. Kinda like cooking. Instead of heating a turkey in the oven for a couple hours, we microwave it in five minutes.”
She stared at me like I was an idiot. “No, it’s nothing like that at all.”
We were at it for a couple hours that night. I controlled the beakers and the burners, making the water steam when she told me, all while she squirted droplets out of heated syringes. We didn’t make any progress, unless you count the funny-looking stains we left on the ceiling.
We tried it a couple times a week, every week. Thankfully the university didn’t mind us using the lab, with her being their star pupil and all. But after three months of it, I was fully prepared to give up. She’d made over a hundred adjustments to her vials of genetic goop, all with no results.
But finally, the week before summer break, something wild happened. There I was, monitoring the column of vapor like always. I heard the expected hishhh of the genetic liquid as it hit the already-boiling water. But this time, there was a mass. A dark, silver something. It appeared in the air for two seconds, and then vanished.
The following night I saw it again. A dull blob in the midst of ordinary steam. After a couple flickers, the wisps and droplets took on a recognizable shape.
It was a rabbit! A fully-formed one, suspended midair, nose twitching, ears folded, staring ahead like it hadn’t just sprung into existence a couple seconds ago. It remained there for close to a minute before dissipating.
“I knew it,” she said after several minutes.
I was too shocked too speak. Questioning whether I’d just witnessed science or magic. Adjusting my grade-school notions of life and the universe.
“So, this is pretty huge,” I said finally.
She nodded. “Agreed.”
We separated after graduation. I was bussing tables at a taco shack, and of course she was working on her PhD. We talked every now and then, but mostly I tried not to bother her. Didn’t want to interrupt her studies or what-have-you.
That changed when I got her call at four in the morning. She needed my help. And in case I had concerns, she’d already convinced the university staff she needed my assistance for her biological experiments. My paid assistance.
When I showed up, Candy led me inside the new facilities. She gave me a wordless tour, and then paused between two lab tables. Skipped the formalities and went straight to description. “I’ve made progress,” she said. “Devoted as much time to the project as I could. Perfected the genetic solutions. Rabbits and mice, things like that, they’re no problem. But I’ve run into some … trouble with larger animals.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“I’ll show you.”
She twisted a knob on the nearest table, and steam issued out of a small spout. She reached behind her and grabbed a dark vial. After heating it on a burner, she leaned over the trail of steam, her eyes concentrating on its base. With a nod of her head, Candy poured a few drops into the spout.
Instantly, the steam darkened and changed form. Before three or four seconds passed, I could tell it was morphing into a dog. I saw the ears and the tongue taking shape. The shoulders rounded. A curly, almost-invisible tail grew from the opposite end. Soon it moved free of the vapor and its colors deepened.
It even looked at me. I imagined I saw it panting for a brief instant. Here was a fully-realized canine, brought into being like that rabbit a couple years back.
Then something odd happened. The dog’s eyes moved apart, shifting horizontally until one settled below each ear. Its head started splitting like fabric. Next instant, the two halves of the dog rocketed apart. The front end exploded into the nearest table, while the tail and back legs splooshed into the far wall. There wasn’t any blood or gore, nothing like that; just some wet, brown stains.
“You see?” she said. “There’s an issue with larger organisms. Something in their makeup. The atoms become unstable, and before I can bring them under control … well, you saw what happened.”
“When you say unstable atoms … we talkin’ like nuclear reactor unstable here?”
“No. No fission involved. I’ve studied some results. It’s bizarre. Sort of a cellular … rejection. The nuclei act normal and well-behaved. But the electrons within the atoms go berserk. Electron clouds keep expanding exponentially; they grow farther and farther away from the nucleus, and within seconds they’ve worked themselves free and destroyed everything.”
“Ah. So we’ve got to find a way to stop it. Stop the expansion, I mean.”
“A restrictor. Maybe something ionized. Positively charged.”
“Yeah, that’s good. But nothing valence … it can’t attach itself, form any new bonds, or we’re right where we started.”
After a couple minutes, I smirked. “What about ion gloves?”
In one of her rare gestures of admiration, she stepped forward and hugged me. “Glad to have you back.”
Took a couple months for Candy’s flunkies to develop the gloves. Finally she called me in one night. They were beauties. Black and bristled, skintight like a wetsuit. A thousand miniature prongs across the palms.
I slid them on and waited. “So what now?”
“They’re automatic. When they detect gas, they become positively-charged.”
“Let’s do it, then.”
She turned on the vapor spout, waited a few seconds, and poured in her life solution. First time was a dud. Second time too. We took a brief break so Candy could reheat the mixture.
Third time around, a condensed cat started to shimmer into existence. Even think I heard it meow, but that could be mental.
The cat’s eyes looked skyward, right before one of its ears started to fall off. I tried to intercept it with my right glove. I missed. The ear splattered into a stack of textbooks, but a replacement soon fizzled into being. This time I didn’t let it break off. Kept my hands constant, using my gloves almost like magic wands.
Scientific feng shui. I modeled my movements on one of those sculptors with the pottery wheels, and kept my arms in motion around a wide, invisible circle. And crazily enough, the gloves actually worked. I swept in and out of the cat’s perimeter, and the movement kept it intact. Anytime a body part started to dissolve, I worked my glove around that direction, and the pieces fell together again.
After ten or eleven minutes of it, the cat dropped to the floor. Started skulking away, leaving paw-shaped puddles behind it. In every respect, it was a normal tabby. Well, except that hazy look. Like a ghost kitten, man.
“It’s stable,” Candy sighed.
“So, is it … is it real? Organs and everything?”
“Yessir. Once the subject makes it past the stabilization, it’s a genuine organism. Flesh and blood. Capable of eating, breeding, sleeping, you name it.”
“Whoa. I feel like quoting something, but … well, can’t remember anything good.”
Over the next few weeks, I perfected my techniques. Candy had locked herself in the exam room, claiming to be developing the next breakthrough, so I got used to working solo. In a month’s time, I produced ten more housecats, three poodles, and a pair of chimpanzees. Then I did some doves and five or six chickens … I wanted to make sure the process wasn’t limited to mammals. Continuing that line of thought, I made a handful of snakes, a mess of turtles, and one particularly-fine largemouth bass.
Through trial and error (in other words, a couple unfortunately-exploded monkeys), I found new and more effective ways to stabilize the life during that crucial time. Some of the smaller animals, it was easy enough to wave my fists in alternating circles and keep the electrons from going out of control that way. But I learned it was simpler to create my own disturbances in the organism’s structure. That is, if a dog’s head started to pull away from its neck, I would give it a smack on the skull with the old ionized gloves. If a chicken started to shed its wings, I gave it a good uppercut in the craw.
It seemed the jolt to the developing life forms was enough to balance out the expanding, unstable electrons. After receiving the shock, they’d align correctly for a few moments. Rinse and repeat.
I accompanied Candy to the zoo in a neighboring city one morning. She had to collect more genetic material. During our stroll through the African exhibit, she revealed her upcoming plans. She wanted to share our project with the public. Have an exhibition at the university. Invite the press and the community. Give them something to really see. Not just kiddie stuff, but beasts. Alligators, elephants, wild cats, you name it.
A lot of money could be made off something like this, but she never mentioned anything about it. Just wanted to focus on noble pursuits. Replenish the dying breeds of the world. Prevent extinction. She mentioned the possibility of creating a vapor human at some point, but shook her head at the controversy it would likely bring. “Not what we need at the moment. Pointless scandal.”
Before the big day, I began to grow nervous. Already there were whispers. Rumors of the soulless abominations being grown in our lab. Letters to the editor about the unnatural look of some of the new arrivals on the university farm, the queasiness people felt when looking at our glow chickens, the repulsive shivers they got from petting a vapor kitten.
The exhibition was set up in the university gymnasium. We were on the half court line, so people could see from all sides. There were a few hundred there. Some of the press stood on the basketball court itself.
After introductions, Candy started the steam to going. We brewed up a cottontail rabbit and a sparrow to begin with. Small, basic creatures that didn’t require the use of my gloves as much. People freaked. They shouted and spilled over each other. Eyes widened and mouths opened. Probably doubting this was all real. Some of the more superstitious fled the gym.
Next we tried a tiger. I swear, it was a big rascal. Couldn’t very well wrap my hands around it. Had to box it in the teeth to keep it from dissipating. At one point it started to colorize and fill in with stripes, just before pulling apart at the shoulders. I punched it between the eyeballs to pull it back together.
“What in the world?” someone shouted.
I landed a blow below the cat’s chin. Its form became more solid.
“Someone stop him!” another spectator said.
Candy held up her arms. “Folks, this is necessary. The organism is not stable–”
“He’s hurting the poor thing!”
“Just look at it!”
The tiger was fading. I gave it a jab in the ribs, then brought my fists around both sides of its head. It still threatened to pull itself to pieces, so I introduced its nose to my haymaker.
People were really murmuring, some of them raising their arms and treating us to their obscenities. The anger in the air was incredible. Just ridiculous. But when I thought their noise had reached a boiling point, the tiger finally settled to the ground. It was stabilized! The new beast let out a roar that silenced the nonsense.
A trainer intercepted it and led it on a roundabout course to its prepared cage. I leaned against the table, sweating and out of breath.
Their opposition forgotten, the masses cheered. Candy calmed them down. Said we had one more demonstration if they promised to be good. They agreed. The girls from the press giggled at the spectacle.
“I don’t think they can handle it,” I whispered to Candy.
“We have to try it.”
“We’ve never done anything this big before.”
“True. But think of the result.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. Good luck.”
She started the fount of steam–a larger quantity than we’d ever used–and poured in the pachyderm essence. Almost immediately, a monstrous elephant appeared in the mist. I knew from the start it was going to be trouble. Incredibly unstable, the beast was pulling apart in every direction.
I rounded the thing like a boxer, tossing ionized punches to all sides. Legs, trunk, head, hide, anywhere I could reach. The elephant was still ripping itself into silvery slivers. As I watched, it diverged into three separate columns of steam, but I forced them back into one.
It was all I could do to keep the monster together. I moved faster than I thought possible. My fists were blurs.
Some of the spectators lost it. They abandoned their seats and rushed us. Shoved their way past the editors and reporters. Insane accusations were shouted. Candy was trampled. “He’s gonna blow!” I managed to say before they floored me.
The results were horrible. The elephant exploded center court. The entire gym was covered. It hit the baskets, clung to the ceilings, painted the bleachers. No one was left dry. All were stained with gray residue. I hurriedly tried to explain it wasn’t elephant guts, just particles of steam and biological material that hadn’t become anything yet.
Deaf ears, man, deaf ears. I was called everything from a devil-worshiper to an abortionist to a bad dresser. In the end, we slipped quietly from the gym while the provost tried to settle people down. Candy was crying.
The affair soured our taste of public life. That’s not to say we stopped the experiment. Both of us published scientific papers. We made the university rounds. Gave presentations, demonstrated our steam creations. They reacted best to the jungle cats. I gained a reputation among the academics as a tiger fighter.
Most our babies found homes in wildlife reserves. We always heard reports of the native animals rejecting them for the first couple weeks. But in time, they got used to our slightly-fuzzy beings and treated them as their own.
Forget public opinion. When a fellow can watch great beasts bounding across the savannah, when he can see marvelous birds soaring far overhead, knowing he sculpted them by hand … there’s nothing can replace that joy.
Candy died three days ago.
Head-on collision after leaving a presentation. And here I always had this nagging fear she’d be shot down by some wild-haired Luddite. Someone who’d followed her accomplishments, read her papers, and convinced himself she was the Whore of Babylon.
In the end it was just a freak accident. Both parties killed. A person never knows, I guess.
Before the burial, I collected as much of her skin and blood as I could get away with. It may be unnatural, but her genius was too strong to just die in a parking lot.
I’ve tried to bring her back the past two nights. I’m a little worried about depleting the supply of her genetic material, but I have to keep trying. I won’t give up.
Sometimes I get a glimpse of her in the steam. But human beings are inherently unstable, and she always evaporates too soon.
Newton Hickson is a scientist, more or less. When he isn’t punching vapor animals in front of audiences, he can usually be found in his laboratory. A tattoo on his bicep reads “Candy.” Sometimes he listens to Baroque music and weeps. Sometimes not.
Justin Short lives in the Midwest. His fiction has previously appeared in 365 Tomorrows.
Image credit: sirylok / 123RF Stock Photo