Yes, we must often wash our hands.
Editor's note: This is a continuation of a story Roger was working on when he passed away. This ending is one of many we received. To read Roger's beginning to the story, from the end of which each entry picks up the thread, go here. Illustration by Krishna Bala Shenoi. This is one of five endings we're posting this week. Vote on this week's endings here.
Mike Renn writes:
"Give it a chance," Alex said, "with a little evolution it'll be out of the primeval ooze and playing at Carnegie Hall."
Elliott looked agitated. It was a look he'd been trying on for weeks and it was beginning to suit him. "Where is that waitress? I did order a pitcher, didn't I?"
Claire looked at him and laughed.
"That's a little off topic," she said.
"Yes. Thinking molecules, failed Mozart, Carnegie Hall. I'm following the discussion and I don't see it going anywhere."
Regan was anything but amused.
"We've found what everyone has been searching for."
"What exactly is that," Elliott said, "bad music? It's probably nothing more than an echo or distorted feed from Cassini."
Alex lifted a stack of computer cards out of one of the shoeboxes and deftly shuffled, cut and spread them out on the table in front of him.
"Listen," Mason said, "This is all very exciting, but when it starts to get nasty it's time to put the subject to bed, where we all should be. Call me if the thinking molecules make the top 40 list."
By the time Mason got home from The Capital, he found the four corners of the bed too challenging to cover. He opted to wrap himself in a bed sheet rather than sleep on the bare mattress.
Trying to answer a phone in the dark proved to be nearly as difficult.
"Mason, are you awake?"
It was Regan. She sounded out of breath, as if she was trying to choke back a stream of new data.
"I answered the phone."
"It sounds like you dropped it a couple of times."
"Do you have something to tell me?"
Mason fought the sheet covering him. He'd wrapped himself up so tightly in it while sleeping that it bound his legs and interfered with his body's nocturnal sexual diagnostic.
"The pattern," Regan said.
Mason kicked his legs against the fabric.
"Are you there? Don't you remember? I'm talking about the patterns on Titan," Regan said.
Mason's efforts to free himself landed him on the floor by his bed. He could smell the beer he spilled on Wednesday. He felt the perch in his stomach roll over in a stream of cocktail sauce. He reeled in the telephone receiver by the cord and put it by the ear that wasn't mashed into the carpet.
"I remember the thinking molecules of Titan. What about them?"
"It looks like they are."
Mason propped himself up on one elbow.
"Tell me what you've got, what you really got," Mason said.
Regan didn't respond immediately. There was a pause, seconds long. Mason sought an answer in silence, just the way the whole team has listened to Cassini, listening for something that no one else had ever heard, or ever expected to hear.
"Come over to the lab and I'll show you."
Halfway to the lab, Mason pictured the girl in the fish bowl space helmet stumbling towards him. He felt uncomfortable even in his own thoughts recognizing how low the neckline of her orange pressure suit plunged. The atmospheric conditions that required the helmet must have also caused the female explorer's breasts to swell and strain against the confines of the suit. She looked like Regan. Why wouldn't she? Regan was always seeking knowledge. But she was running away from something she unearthed that should have remained buried.
Mason was an academic, a scientist, but he was he still a man, a man that had always thought Regan attractive, even behind her thick red glasses and beneath her oversized T-shirts and jeans. Her breathless invitation to meet at the lab stirred the primitive portion of his mind and the hope that something more than an earth-shaking scientific breakthrough would come out of it. Everything they'd done before was with the group. He felt honored that she chose him alone to share her discovery. He recalled Elliott's taunt: "your friend Regan." He thought back to the conversations they'd had. They never shared a personal word, look or inclination, but Mason wasn't ruling out anything. He hadn't gathered enough empirical evidence to disprove his chances for a relationship with Regan.
"What took you so long," Elliott said as Mason walked into the lab.
They were all there: Alex and Claire and Elliott and Regan.
"Do you care to hear?"
"Absolutely not. Now, if you want to catch up, Regan can be redundant to all but you."
Alex and Claire circled the table where their boxes of computer punch cards rested. The boxes served as a coaster for a pizza carton with the lid wide open.
"Pizza at four o'clock in the morning?"
"Cold pizza is traditional fare for breakfast at colleges and universities all over America," Elliott said, "Besides, I'm the only one that had the good manners to bring anything."
"There were a couple of slices missing," Claire said while choosing her own wedge with extra coagulated cheese.
"Mason," Regan said, "This is Serious."
Elliott circled Regan and Mason like the pizza. He flexed his fingers and seemed annoyed that he had nothing to hold.
"Serious science fiction," Elliott said.
Mason saw Regan clench the papers in her hands a little tighter and her gaze dropped to the floor in front of her.
"Do you need those docs?"
Regan looked absently at Mason and said no.
"Here," Mason said.
He took the papers from Regan and handed them to Elliott, "disprove to your heart's content, but don't forget to annotate. We're going out."
"Out? Out where?"
"Outside," Mason said and then pointed to the door, "out there."
"Regan is already out there," Elliott said.
"What's your problem, Elliott? We're all friends."
"Apparently, not as close as you two are."
Alex looked over at the instant drama. He tongued a mouthful of pizza into a cheek to talk.
"Wow. Mason, you finally making a move? Nice," Alex said.
"Are we pairing up now? Someone's going to be left out," Claire said.
"Musical chairs at dawn will solve that problem," Alex said.
"Elliott, don't be jealous."
"Jealous? Jealous of what?" Elliott said. He seemed flustered, "I just want to know why you need to sneak off to talk about what everyone else already knows, unless there is something you're not telling us."
"You are jealous," Regan said.
"Nonsense. What are you not telling us? What are you planning with your friend? We deserve to know. We deserve…"
"The credit: that's what this is all about. You're jealous I discovered something you didn't and now you're worried you won't be included in the Academic credit," Regan said.
"Jealousy has nothing to do with it, but we are colleagues and the credit should be shared."
"I don't care about the credit. I care about the discovery and you should too. Come on, Mason. Let's go for a walk."
The stars were waiting for them. Even behind a full yellow moon, the unchanging constellations were easy to spot in an indigo sky.
Mason pointed up at the sky and said, "There's Saturn."
The ringed planet hung low in the sky. It is often mistaken for a bright star. Who knows how many times it has been wished upon?
Regan didn't even look up. She was focused on her findings.
"I've seen it before," she said.
"Huh. That's weird."
"I could swear," Mason said, "that it just winked at me."
"You know as well as I do that twinkling stars, and in this case: planets, are only the results of atmospheric conditions."
"Twinkle I know about, but wink in new to me," Mason said and then moved on, "what's new with the Titan molecules?"
They walked away from their lab down a white pavement. The color was drained out of the trim lawns and trees of the campus by the dark and only reflected in the pools of light beneath the globes of street lamps.
"The pitch of the pattern has changed, intensified." Regan said as they walked down the street, "It's almost as if it swarmed over Cassini to study it. The molecules are evolving exponentially. It's as if they are learning. I checked with a friend of mine at NASA and he confirmed the activity and the trajectory of the molecule stream migration."
"You have a friend at NASA?"
"Yes. You should too."
"What do you mean by trajectory?"
"I know what trajectory means. I mean you detected movement?"
"Yes. Definite mass and complete movement."
"Your question should be: from where."
"From the surface of Titan to an orbit around Saturn. If appeared as a barely discernible iridescent streak within the rings. Most of the big labs missed it."
"You said appeared."
"Yes. If left orbit a couple of hours ago and is on its way."
"On its way where?"
"Here? You're sure?"
"Yes. I verified it with the…"
"The friend from NASA."
"And with another at a government agency that I can't talk about."
"That's the question. It seems to be trying to trace back the course that Cassini took to Titan. Of course it can't replicate it due to…"
"I know my astrophysics, you don't have to explain. But why?"
"That's your best answer?"
"Answers need validation."
"What is your best guess?"
"Guessing isn't part of the scientific process. I don't deal in or proffer them."
"I know you."
"I know you are a great scientist, because you have the soul of an adventurer."
"We're talking souls now? We've completely slipped out of the scientific realm."
"Yes," Mason said, "yes we are talking souls and adventure and a romantic love of science. So let's throw out the process for a minute and act like we are new age philosophers or the Associated Press."
"Can you elaborate?"
'What if the thinking molecules are trying to meet their maker?"
"What it Cassini triggered the creation of the thinking molecules? What if it sank beneath the ice and ignited life?"
"Battery powered life?"
"Are we sure Cassini uses batteries?"
"So you are suggesting the bad Mozart we discovered mere hours ago," Mason said, "mastered space travel and navigation and is coming to earth to meet the engineers that launched Cassini?
"I'm sure it's violating the laws of physics on its way."
"Where's a cop when you really need one."
Mason walked along Regan in silence for half a block.
"Say this swarm of molecules actually brought something to the party."
"You need to say, what if."
"I'm being new age. Remember?"
"What if they are a totally new form of life, nothing like the aliens in Amazing Stories, but a pure new life-form not restricted by physical bodies or our conventional concepts of time and space, just innumerable molecules with a quick evolving adaptability and curiosity?"
"I wouldn't go that far. It could be a chemical or a new kind of instinctive chain reaction."
"Image if, and I mean if, that's true. These thinking molecules may solve the mysteries of the universe on the way and be much more evolved than their makers when they arrive."
"What if the thinking molecules are disappointed in their human creators?"
"It's very probable," Regan said, "I know I am."
"Is that a question," Regan said, "or are you agreeing with me. It sounded like a question."
They walked down a deserted Matthews Avenue towards Park Street. There were a few lights on in the Beckman building and you could hear a car's tires squeal down the ramp of the concrete parking garage across from it.
"Are you," Mason said, "disappointed in me too?"
"What an odd question," Regan said, pretending to walk the edge of street curb like a tightrope.
"Not worth an answer?"
Regan stumbled from the curb and feigned falling from a great height. She laughed and said, "Oh. I'm sorry. I didn't realize that was a real question. No. I'm not disappointed in you. I don't know you well enough to be disappointed in you."
"Would you like to get a chance?"
"Are you asking me out on a date?"
"Not yet," Mason said, "well maybe, if you say yes."
A car exited the parking garage. Its headlights flashed across Mason and Regan as it turned out onto the street.
"I thought you were dating that grad student with the funny name and the bouquet of roses tattooed on her back." Regan said.
"Observation is kinda my job," Regan said.
"That's over. I'd rather not talk about it."
"Good. End of subject."
Mason walked besides Regan in silence as they crossed Park Street.
"Don't pout," Regan said.
"I'm not pouting."
"You're a good catch. You're a scientist, but it looks like you spend more time in a gym than a lab."
"That's not true. I just have good Pennsylvania coal miner's genes," Mason said, "I can get a pump by just picking up a newspaper."
"A newspaper. How quaint," Regan said.
The car from the garage pulled up behind Mason and Regan. It kept pace with their steps. The headlights cast long shadows in front of them.
Mason spun around. He covered his eyes as best he could against the light and said, "What is this?"
The front driver's door opened and a dark figure stepped out.
"Regan, Rog needs to talk to you," the figure said.
Mason said to Regan, "You know this guy?"
"Is he a friend of yours?"
"No. Not a friend."
"Regan please step inside. Just you. It was a long drive here," the figure said.
"Gene, give me a minute," Regan said and grabbed Mason by the arm, "listen Mason. I just need to hear what they have to say."
"You listen. I'm not letting you get in a car with these guys by yourself."
"I'll be all right. You can wait for me or go back to the lab or home," Regan said and she walked up to the car.
Gene opened the rear driver's side door and Regan got it.
Mason ran up to the car. He balled his left hand into a fist and swung it as hard as he could at Gene the driver. The punch landed with a thud against the side of Gene's head and stung Mason's fingers. The driver staggered back and Mason pushed him away. Mason reached inside the car for Regan, but ended up falling across her lap as the driver shoved him from behind. Gene got a hold of Mason's T-Shirt and proceeded to pull him out again. The T-shirt tore as Mason tried to gain his balance.
"Enough of this," a voice from the front of the car said, "Gene, just let him in. It's too late to keep him out of this now. He'll call the police if we leave him outside."
Mason found himself sharing the back of the car with Regan and the door nearly slammed on his ankle.
"What is this?" Mason shouted.
Gene got back in the car behind the wheel.
"There's no need to shout," the voice said. It belonged to a distinguished silver-haired man. He looked more like a doting father than an abductor.
Gene drove the car down Matthews Drive and away from the campus.
"I've never ridden in a limo," Mason said
"This is a Town Car," Gene said
"Sorry about the punch."
"Forget about it."
"I boxed. I always had a good punch," Mason said, "I knocked out five of my opponents."
"Were they all opening car doors?"
"Regan," the voice said, "You're not thinking of going public with your discovery?"
"You know about it," Mason said.
"There's very little we don't know," the voice said and then redirected his attention back on Regan, "It's a very simple question: a yes or no question. I need to know, Regan."
"Are you going to kill us?" Mason said.
This time Gene answered, "Kill you? You, maybe. Not her."
"I wasn't planning on making any announcements until I could substantiate my theories," Regan said.
"Good enough," the voice said, "We would like to give you a research grant to further investigate this phenomenon. The terms of the grant require strict confidentiality and a progress reporting schedule."
"What happens," Mason said, "if she doesn't adhere to the terms?'
"What happens to a scientist who doesn't prove his theories? Someone like you, because I know this young lady knows better, would be subjected to public and academic ridicule. You would be the crackpot in the street with a cardboard sign declaring the end of the world. Try spinning that on a resume, because you really will need to."
"Rog, other scientists will pick up the patterns from Cassini," Regan said.
"Don't worry about future transmissions."
"You'll adjust them like the MARS ROVER?"
"I don't know what you're talking about young lady," Rog said.
"Why," Mason said, "why would the government…"
"Government? Do you think we're government agents? I never said we are government agents," Rog said, "How did you get that idea?"
"Suits, haircuts, hush grant money."
"We are an independent non-profit group funded by a private individual," Rog said.
"Probably a rich uncle by the name of Sam," Mason said, "but why suppress the first time discovery of life beyond earth?"
"The first time," Gene said, "don't make me laugh. For a scientist you're not very bright. You'd be surprised how many people still hate Nicolaus Copernicus. Imagine if they heard the world was being invaded by aliens."
"I get it. Recant: Galileo. But it's hard to imagine the thinking molecules of Titan as alien invaders," Mason said, "If they can make it through our atmosphere unscathed, their arrival will probably go unnoticed by the general population."
Mason, Regan, Rog and Gene stood outside the car. Gene had taken them back to the campus.
"I'm glad we could come to an agreement," Rog said, "I'll have the grant funds wired into the university's account."
"Mason, did Saturn wink at you again," Regan said.
Mason was staring up at the sky again, no longer curious, just horrified.
High in the sky above them the moon turned its face away. It rotated completely around and exposed the once dark side. A shimmering curtain of light was drawn across the surface of the moon. It looked like countless fireflies swarming on the surface.
"It's coming this way," Mason said, unwilling to take his eyes off the sky, "Do we still get the grant?"
The thinking molecules of Titan rained down and swirled around everyone. They were bright and hot and complete.
Mason felt them enter his body, but he tried not to give in. He thrashed his arms and legs to shake them off. Then he found himself floating up in the air. Had the Earth lost gravity? He drifted up and grabbed onto a street lamp to stop himself. Through the swirling stream of molecules he saw Regan drift up into the sky. He extended an arm to her, but she was already out of reach.
Mason let go of the street lamp to follow her up. The molecules penetrated deeper inside him. This was it. Stop fighting, he told himself, let the alien consume him. He watched a woman with a dog on a leash float by him before feeling a searing pain in his head. He thought it would kill him, but when the pain subsided he felt an amazing moment of clarity that was impossible for him to process. Mason drifted into unconsciousness.
"They left as fast as they came," Regan said
"Just like a trip to the parents for the holiday", Mason said.
They'd woken up on the lawn of the campus.
The world had gotten a fifty-three hour nap with a nagging irretrievable memory of sharing knowledge beyond human comprehension.
Mason and Regan walked into the Capital. McHugh was wiping down the bar and nodded to them.
"They scanned us," Regan said.
"I believe you are right."
"They picked us up and studied us through and through and then left, "Regan said.
"I feel so cheap."
"Our world probably wasn't enough for them with the whole universe at their disposal."
"At least," Mason said, "They left it the way they found it."
"You know it's gravity that made the moon turn back to normal. The face side is denser and more drawn to the Earth."
"Yes. I know," Mason said and waved to McHugh for a beer, "but you have to admit it was very nice they way the put us back on the ground after playing with us."
"Experimenting with us."
"Nice is nice no matter what."
"Should we order a couple of pitchers," Regan said, "for the others before they get here?"
"Before the others get here I want to take another shot at asking you out."
"At least you're getting more direct," Regan said, "but the answer is still no."
"Is it because of my rugged good looks?"
"No. It's because I've tried relationships. They are a waste of time and emotional capital. Do I have to remind you how Einstein defined insanity?"
"Only if I was in fifth grade," Mason said, "Besides it doesn't apply. I think you would do better referring to Edison on perseverance."
"No matter how many times an attempt fails, it should be a learning experience until you get it right or in Edison's case: see the light."
"Let me think on that."
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