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The postdoc

A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Chapter Four

Richard P. Grant 26 July 2019

www.lablit.com/article/966

Maybe that had even been the moment it happened, the moment of creation that had made everything unravel

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Chapter Four: The Postdoc

if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you

– Revelation 3:3

Brad stared at the printout in front of him. There it was again, that damned high molecular weight peak he had seen on both previous runs. Everything else was normal, or as close to normal as to be normal, as his PhD advisor had often repeated. But, once again that damned peak. What the hell was it? It had no place being in the sample he’d got from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who in turn had cultured it from a pathologist’s sample.

“First time it’s an accident; second time it’s a fluke; third time it’s data,” he muttered.

“I guess I got data.”

What was he going to tell that cute lady cop when she came to his lab in the morning though?

“Well, Ms Cute Lady Cop,” what the hell was her name again? “I have analysed and re-analysed the sample from your victim,” that had a nice professional ring to it: “either your pathologist is a dolt and has contaminated it with something or – ”

– or what? “The virus has been engineered to – ”

“Don’t even go there, Bradley!” he snapped out loud. Don’t even think crap like that. Not nowadays. That’ll get you fired in a heartbeat. Damn, that could even get you sent back home.

Sighing with frustration and exhaustion, Brad rubbed his tired eyes, digging his fingers in hard, until flashing lights filled his skull. He blinked his vision clear, reached out and pressed send on the automated form that would submit his purified sample to be sequenced the following day. He probably wouldn’t get a whole sequence, but even a fragment of the unknown protein might help. By searching the online databases he should be able to identify whatever the idiots in London had contaminated it with.

He turned off his desk light and headed towards the exit. Time to pay his last respects at the wake. He knew the freak Dutchman wouldn’t be there, and he hoped that old asshole Slater had gone by now. If not he could cover himself by claiming he thought the rugby club was meeting there tonight – even though he knew they were meeting at The Wetherspoons further up the road.

He’d head there afterwards and get nice and pissed, as his English friends said. They had a game this weekend; he grinned as the thought of the imminent and bloody aggression cleared his head. “Just like college game day.” He was so preoccupied with his thoughts that he didn’t notice the lights suddenly snap on in Slater’s office window.

**********

Toni sighed. It was going to be one of those nights. She really liked Max, but anyone could see that the French girl was playing him, hopelessly in love as he was. This had been the story of their friendship since Uni. When she first met Max she thought that they might hit it off, but after one night of talking, several pints into it, she realized that Max didn’t have the things she was looking for in a man she planned to stay with. He had always been a romantic – but no matter how sweet it might seem, she didn’t think he was realistic about things – and especially not girls. On the other hand, he didn’t deserve this sort of treatment just because he loved Sabine.

“Ah Max, she probably went to the wake. She knew Charlotte, didn’t she? The whole lab went.”

“I don’t know, she never tells me anything,” Max repeated, with an uncanny resemblance to Eeyore.

This just wouldn’t do. Max needed something to take his mind off things.

“Well, just look at it this way,” Toni said, brightening. “You can always help me poke around.”

“Poke around?”

“Are you sure Sabine never told you anything interesting about Slater? I mean, apart from the strange things we already know about. He seems to have a bit of a story underneath all that tweed. He’s here in the lab, exploring viruses and their diseases and she dies from one. Come on, Max, one peek in the office wouldn’t hurt, would it?”

Max looked like she’d smacked him in the face.

“It’s his private office, Toni. Come off it. Plus, it’s ludicrous to suggest that Slater’s viruses have anything to do with the dead girl.”

Toni tried another tack. “Well, I thought you wanted to know if there was anything going on between him and Sabine. You know, you said something about that last Tuesday at the bar.” She waited, not sure how far to push it. “You said they’d spent a lot of time talking recently.” Toni let her voice drift into silent waiting.

They were alone in the lab. Somewhere in here there had to be something juicy, something that could help her with the article. She didn’t believe for a second that a woman like Sabine would sleep with Slater, but letting Max think he was looking for dirt on a possible affair, while she focused on the really interesting stuff in the office, was a promising approach.

Max gave her that stubborn look of his, the one she knew signalled he was about to give in.

“I am not going snooping in Sabine’s desk!”

“I am not asking you to, silly. I just thought we could look around Slater’s office again. Who knows, we might find a photo or something.”

Max let his breath out and got up from his chair.

“OK. I guess it wouldn’t hurt if I stood at the door, kept watch.” He leaned against the wall. “Do you really think you’re going to find anything useful in there? Honestly, all these scientists seem to do is collect boring scientific papers. Heaps and heaps of them, stacked and gathering dust.”

**********

Slater smiled at Sabine, took another sip of his drink.

“I’m hardly alone, my dear.” He jutted a thumb behind him. “Most of the lab and half of the institute are behind me, slowly getting slaughtered. But unlike them, I prefer to mourn the dead in dignity. And peace.”

Slater watched her face go through a visible regroup at the gentle brush-off, complex expressions passing over like clouds on a stormy day.

“That wasn’t a hint,” he said. “Sit for a while, if you like.”

“So how do you mourn?” she finally asked, crossing her long legs theatrically. “Generally… or specifically?”

From nowhere, a packet of cigarettes appeared in Sabine’s hand. He closed his eyes, waved them away. Damn it.

After her lighter flared, he said, “Generally, of course. She was in my lab for three years, but I didn’t know her well.”

Sabine smiled primly, and Slater knew she knew he was lying. Unbidden, a memory returned: Charlotte lying beneath him on his office desk back in the old condemned building, reprints and grant applications scattered everywhere. Maybe that had even been the moment it happened, the moment of creation that had made everything unravel.

“I have heard she was trouble,” she said. A suggestive pause as she dragged on the cigarette, blew the smoke through her nostrils in an impossibly stereotypical French way. “I have heard she left your lab in disgrace.”

“Rumours,” Slater said, shrugging. “It really was very simple: she wanted an extension on her fellowship, but it was time to move on, make room for others. Not good for your career to linger too long in one place.”

“What about Michel, then? How long has it been, Professor? Five, six years now?”

She was persistent – Charlotte’s ghost, again.

“Seven,” Slater said unhesitatingly. “I’ve extended him twice – he’s indispensable to my work.”

“And Charlotte, no?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“You frighten me, Professor.” She smiled, and Slater saw that it was her turn to lie. “If I do not work hard, I will be out in the street, no?”

“Michel is an exception. That is how it is. I’m sure you’ll get your paper and fly away at the earliest possibility.”

“Perhaps with a good reference letter, this would be easier.”

Slater was almost disappointed at the simplicity of her ulterior motives – for a moment, he had almost thought she might be interesting. So young, this woman was. So young.

**********

Michel leaned his head against the glass of the cell hood and sighed, his eyes tightly closed.

The wrong mutant! Yet the virus was more infectious, not less. The plates under the microscope behind him, silently accusing, were proof of that. He would have to do the binding experiments with purified receptor to check, but he was sure the structure was right. That meant there were two possibilities, neither of which reflected well on him.

The first, and most obvious, was that they had got the wrong receptor. He could test that theory, of course, by seeing if he could fish it out with the ‘wrong’ mutant. And if he could, they would never hear the last of it from that strontkop Yank downstairs.

The second possibility was potentially more exciting, but how would Prof take the prospect of reassessing a decade’s work? A second binding site on the one receptor would turn the entire field around, send the textbook editors scurrying to their keyboards, and cause the research councils no end of grief.

But maybe that was it? A cryptic binding site, some evolutionary relic, waiting for the virus to mutate... evolution did not quite work like that, Michel knew, but the thought would not go away. And if it had happened once, then why not again?

He opened his eyes and stared at the plastic pipette still in his hand. Pink liquid balled and dripped onto the stainless steel surface. Carefully he slid the pipette into its wrapper and dropped it into the waste bin by his feet. Automatically he took the spray bottle of alcohol and swabbed the steel clean. The flasks of cells went into the incubator, the suction was turned off, the hood closed up and the blue-purple sterilizing light flickered on, all without conscious effort on his part.

Why not again?

Lab coat off, hands washed, lights off, door locked, two flights of stairs.

Could it happen again?

“I am not going snooping in Sabine’s desk!”

The voice shocked Michel from his reverie. His hand was already on the light switch, but he paused and listened. A woman’s voice, soft and murmuring. Then the man again, and this time he recognized it. That muppet-face accountant, moping around after Sabine. But Sabine was at the wake.

Michel smiled to himself, and with one fluid movement flipped on the fluorescent lights and picked up the telephone by the door.

“So, you give me a reason I should not call security, yes? Just one, okay?”

**********

The combination of late nights and missed meals, exacerbated by the problem with the contaminated protein sample, ensured Brad was in a bullish mood by the time he reached The Volunteer. Pushing open the heavy door, he glanced around the room. The majority of the customers were members of the Institute, in various stages of inebriation.

Time to play a little catch up, he muttered to himself.

Other customers grudgingly made way for him at the bar as he used his large, well-muscled frame to full advantage.

“Hey, buddy!” he called to the barman. His first attempt, however, was lost in a sudden burst of laughter that faded away as quickly as it started, the perpetrators’ sudden guilt reflected clearly on their faces. Their joviality returned quickly, perhaps forced by their acute social embarrassment. Well, at least we’re alive! Theres no need to compound matters by getting maudlin.

“Hey, buddy!” Brad yelled again, finally managing to attract the barman’s attention.

“Gimme a pint of lager and a Jamesons. Make it a double,” Brad said. The barman looked him up and down, as if he was some kind of vagrant, then turned to the optics mounted on the wall behind him.

Goddammit, Brad muttered. He had been coming here for a couple of months now, why did the old guy always give him that look? The barman returned, putting the drinks down in front of Brad and quickly snatched the tenner from his hand.

“You old prick,” said Brad, just softly enough that the bartender could pretend he hadn’t heard. “I’m gonna buy this entire fucking place and fire your sorry old ass.” He swallowed his whiskey in one large gulp, then, grimacing at the aftertaste, washed it down with a couple of mouthfuls of lager.

Turning, he surveyed the room over the heads of the other patrons. There were a few faces he recognized, a lot he didn’t. Tonight’s appearances notwithstanding, he was usually fairly social and sociable by nature, but the demands of his work forced long hours in the lab. Apart from the occasional Department Social he rarely got a chance to mingle with the other scientists and staff at the institute. He didn’t regret this. In fact, he rarely thought about it. It was the life of a postdoctoral scientist and that was just the way things were.

Spotting a group of young female technicians over by the large bay window that looked out onto the car park, he quickly finished his beer and ordered another.

Well, now’s a good time as any, he thought, and began to thread his way across the room towards them. As he made his way along the length of the bar, he suddenly paused and began to grin, all thoughts of young female technicians pushed from his mind. Sometimes life just hands you opportunities on a plate; there at the end of the bar, his back to him, was Slater. And who was that with him but that sexy French postdoc, Sabine.

Well, you dirty old freak, I wonder if the rest of the institute know you’re hitting on your staff at your ex-employee’s wake. His mind vaguely addled by the rapid intake of alcohol on a very empty stomach, Brad’s feet finally obeyed his commands and he meandered casually towards the far end of the bar.