Disruption: An Experiment in Science Fiction Collaboration

Welcome to the series opener for Disruption, a science fiction collaborative project featuring, well, you. We’re going to post the first story in this project. Then you — yes, you right there — will write the next chapter. At least we hope you’ll give it a try. We’ll choose the best submissions each week — maybe offer a bit of coaching to tweak the story. Then we’ll copy edit it and publish it on the site. One piece a week, we hope.

If at the end of this project we have a book, we’ll sign the chapters that make the final cut and publish it. Right now it’s just an experiment, but we hope it will become something more. We did something similar a few years ago. It was great fun working in a hivemind. We hope you’ll make some great, new friends with this process.

Now put your reading hats on and get ready to read the first chapter of Disruption. [More information about submissions can be found here.]


Episode 1: Cat-tastrophe by Salomé Jones (©2016 Salomé Jones All Rights Reserved)

She stood facing out into her back yard, just inside the open side door of her garage. From behind her an electrical crack sounded, ending in a hiss. A brilliant blue light flashed, illuminating the interior walls and leaving behind the smell of ozone. It had been four years almost to the day since the dream had left its otherworldly design burned into her mind.  She swallowed hard, and goosebumps prickled on the backs of her arms. Outside, an innocuous-looking metal tool shed concealed the second machine. Another crack—this one from the shed. The same blue light flashed through the cracks around the door and under the eaves. It left bright spots in her vision when she blinked. A moment later, she was running out to see what had happened.

She would not hold her breath, she’d told herself earlier. She was a scientist and she would act like one, not some giddy teenager breaking school rules. But now, as she threw open the shed door, she found herself dizzy with the lack of air. She breathed in, and at that moment, she saw it—a rock about the size of her fist. It appeared all at once, seemingly from nowhere, to sit solidly on the flat pad beneath the transparent column. It was unmistakeable even before she opened the hatch, because of the red X she’d painted on it. Even the paint seemed to have come through unscathed.

She opened the door panel slowly and put out a finger to touch the rock, expecting—fearing—it would be hot. It felt cool as the autumn earth beneath her feet. That boded well for the future. Heat could’ve caused huge problems. She picked the rock up and stepped to the shed door to study the high wooden fence, stare at the knotholes in the wood, looking for prying eyes. The neighbors were usually at work during the day, their house empty, but she couldn’t afford to be too cavalier.

Already some part of her mind was considering what the next steps would be. Transporting a rock was one thing. Transporting a living being was completely different. In a lab, they would have used mice or rats first. That was one reason she’d stopped working in labs. One animal reassembled in some agonized form would have been enough to put a halt to her experiments.

A grin kept erupting on her face as she carried the rock back inside to her makeshift lab. The lab had started out as nothing but a sturdy folding banquet table, some racks for equipment—mostly empty—and a name plate lifted from her old lab job. Now it was filled with equipment gathered over the past four years. Six photos of the rock taken before transport were arranged neatly on the surface of her work table. Four 90 degree views of the rock’s sides were arranged in a square, with a photo from the top above and from the bottom below. A tracing she’d made of the rock on a white sheet of paper lay off to the side with various measurements scribbled on it. She placed the piece of stone on the digital scale. Two hundred twenty-seven grams. Exactly the same as before the transport. She fitted the rock into the tracing. Again, a perfect fit. If anything had changed about this rock, it was on a molecular level.

She chipped a tiny shard off using a sculptor’s hammer and chisel, put it on a slide, added a drop of water, crossed her fingers, and slid it into the large scanning microscope at the side of the work table. The crystalline structures were identical. She stilled the desire to let out a celebratory whoop.

She recorded her results and cleared the lab of all traces of her work. So what next? She needed to make a decision. She did her best thinking on walks. Her conscious mind occupied itself with keeping her on the road, avoiding potholes, not getting run over, while her subconscious meandered through ideas, unhindered.

*

About twenty minutes later, she found herself on an empty stretch of road a mile from her house. She was debating the pros and cons of sending plant cuttings through the transporter. It might not reveal anything helpful, but perhaps it could rule out obvious problems. She wanted to try the DNA sequencer she’d built in as a safeguard, but she had never sequenced plant DNA before. One of the drawbacks of not having colleagues to discuss experiments with. Of course, having colleagues had its own share of drawbacks. The internet was more likely to give her false information, but less likely to nose into her business and then spill her secrets to competitors or the government.

She felt uncomfortably guilty whenever she thought about the sequencer. Unlike most of the other equipment she’d pilfered from her old lab, the sequencer was new. It had required planning and quite a scam to get hold of it. She calmed her conscience by thinking about all the other equipment she’d “acquired” by hook or by crook. What was one DNA sequencer compared to the lead box of radioactive material, the scanning microscope, the computers and everything else in her lab?

She started back toward home and moved on to less pragmatic thoughts—about how her invention would change the face of the planet, help solve the fossil fuel problem, and make it possible to have lunch in Paris and be back to the office in time for the afternoon work shift. She was so involved in the fantasy, she almost tripped over the small body lying sprawled on the shoulder of the road. The cat was silvery gray with a white belly and leopard-like black spots over its back and flanks. It was wearing a blue collar with a bell on it. She crouched down next to it. Hit by a car, she assumed. The breeze ruffled its fur. With some hesitation she put a hand on top of its head. It was very faintly warm, though she couldn’t tell whether this was residual life warmth or heat absorbed from the asphalt beneath it. Whichever it was, rigor mortis hadn’t set in yet.

Without thinking, she slipped her cardigan off and, after looking up and down the street for observers, wrapped the cat in it, silently asking its permission as she did so. She got no answer, but then she’d expected none. Except for its stillness, she would have sworn the cat was still alive as she held it. It felt like a sleeping child in her arms. She set off down the road the way she’d come, hugging the small bundle to her chest. She was home in under ten minutes. The neighbors’ Skoda was parked in their driveway, and she purposefully kept her eyes on the front door of her house so that if they noticed her, they’d see she was in a hurry to get inside.

She took the door through the kitchen, out to the lab. Unfolding the cardigan from around the cat’s body, she laid it on the work table. The cardigan she took inside and deposited in the washing machine, with soap and a bit of bleach.

On her return to the lab, she washed her hands thoroughly, put on a clean lab coat and latex gloves, and set about the process of preparing a DNA sample. She turned on the hot plate for the water bath and set it to 50° C. After setting out the equipment she would need – a resin cutting board, a test tube, a scalpel, forceps, and a small bottle of lysis buffer – she studied the small body, looking for the best place to take a sample.

She knew the cat couldn’t feel anything now, but she still murmured, “Sorry, buddy,” as she snipped off a small, v-shaped portion of its ear. With the scalpel and forceps, she chopped the sample up into fine pieces on the cutting board. After measuring out a portion of the sample, she put it into the test tube with 500µl of buffer. The sealed tube she placed into the water bath. It would have to stay there overnight before she could finish the process.

She wrapped the cat’s body in cling film, slid it into a large, plastic freezer bag, and put it into the refrigerator until the DNA sample was ready.

As she was tidying up the work table, the sound of the front doorbell startled her. It was rare that anyone came by, rarer still in the middle of a week day. Her pulse tapped nervously in her throat. Had someone seen the flash and gotten concerned? She peeled off her latex gloves and tossed her lab coat onto a chair. Running a hand over her hair, she hurried out of the garage into the living room of her house.

She opened the door to find two kids standing on her front porch. Though they were facing toward the street, she recognized them. She saw them riding their bikes together down the street from time to time.

There was a little pause as they turned to her. The smaller girl looked up at the taller one, who spoke.

“Hi, Mrs. Reddy. Our cat got out. We were wondering if you’d seen him.”

She was answering before she had even considered what she would say. “Oh, no. When did this happen?” How had they known her name?

“Last night, our dad thinks. But it might have been this morning.”

“We live right over there.” The younger girl pointed vaguely down the street.

The older girl nodded. Then, as if reading her mind, she added, “We saw your name on the mailbox.”

“I see. Well, I know it only says Reddy there, but you can call me Ajeetha. Do you have a picture of your cat?” The scientist found herself hoping they did and that the cat would be an orange tabby or a calico, anything but the silver spotted cat in her lab fridge.

“We have some pictures at home, but not with us,” the younger girl said.

“He’s gray with spots. He’s Egyptian.”

“Egyptian? That’s very exotic.” Ajeetha did her best not to let anything show in her face. It wasn’t as if she’d killed the cat. “I’m afraid I haven’t seen him. I’ll keep an eye out, though. What’s his name?”

“Wizard.” The younger girl looked proud as she said this.

It gave Ajeetha a twinge. “If you give me your phone number, I’ll call if I see him.”

*

After she closed the door, she wrote down the number they’d given her on a sticky note, along with their names, Liv and Mari Jensen, and ‘Wizard.’ She affixed it to her fridge, almost without thinking. She would never ring it, of course. Even if she decided to put the cat back where she’d found it—which she didn’t think she could do, for scientific reasons—she’d never want to be the person to tell two children that their beloved cat had met an untimely end.

*

She was already awake when dawn broke the next day. She had held herself in bed by the force of her will, feeling that she would need rest to be clear headed. But when pale yellow light began to glimmer through the shades, she gave up and went into the kitchen to make coffee. Perched on a stool at the bar, she stared into space while the coffee percolated. Today she would know if she was almost there, or if she had made a terrible mistake.

She warmed some milk in the microwave while the coffee finished, mixed them half and half, and gulped the mixture down as quickly as she could without burning herself. Then she was off to the lab, slipping her lab coat on, thrusting her hands into a pair of disposable gloves. She added salt to the samples, put them into an ice bath to cool for four minutes. While she waited, she walked out into the back yard to double check that the receiving machine was ready. In theory, the DNA sequencer on the machine in the lab would record the pattern of the DNA sample and send it via network connection to the sequencer on this machine. The information should prevent any extraneous material from being mixed up in the subject being transported. She’d seen The Fly one too many times as a kid.

As she looked at the outside machine, she decided it made sense to send the DNA sequence first, to make sure the two were properly connected. Once she had compared them and confirmed that they were a match, she could go forward with the transport. As she was returning to the lab, a voice came from behind the fence.

“What do you have going on in there?” said the voice, sounding overly bright and male.

She stopped where she was and her gaze darted to the knotted wood. Her neighbor’s head appeared to float above the fence. What was his name again? He’d introduced himself to her from across their front lawns months ago, but she couldn’t remember. Was it Harley?

She took a breath and said, “I’m testing the internet connection. I think it’s working, but I’ll need to do a few more tests.” She’d planned this response weeks ago. It wasn’t exactly a lie, and it was a safe enough truth.

“In a white coat and gloves?”

“I just got in from work.” She would never leave work wearing latex gloves, but she hoped he wouldn’t realize that. “I’m afraid I’ve forgotten your name. Mr. Harley, is it?”

“Just Harley. Do you need any help with it?”

“Help with what? Oh, the internet? No, no. I’m pretty good at DIY computing. Thank you, though.” God above, the last thing she needed right now was a ‘helpful’ neighbor.

“Well, just let me know if you need anything. I’ve got the week off work, so I’m around.” He waved and was gone.

Great. She’d have to be more careful. If she hadn’t already had the cat, if she wasn’t itching to do the test run, she would put it off until he was back at work. But she did have the cat. What she didn’t have was patience.

She returned to the lab, and put the samples in the centrifuge for four minutes, during which time she prepared clean test tubes, a pipette and some isopropyl alcohol. She was in the middle of measuring the alcohol into the test tube when someone knocked at the front door.

“Good lord,” she muttered. She forced herself to not lose focus and shouted, “Just a minute!” She resealed the test tube she was working on, and set it in the rack. Peeling off her gloves and lab coat, she went to the front door. This time she peered through the peep hole first. Harley stood outside.

She opened the door, but not the screen door. “Harley.”

“Hey, Ajeetha. Sorry to bother you again, but you took off so fast I didn’t get a chance to tell you we got a piece of your mail.” He held out a letter sized envelope. She could see the familiar insignia in the corner. NPL, the National Physical Laboratory. She took it out of his hand and flipped it over. It was open.

Harley looked a bit embarrassed. “Sorry. My wife opened it without looking at the front.”

“Oh, no worries. Thanks for bringing it over.” Could it be anything incriminating? She didn’t think so. Just a certification letter, probably.

She continued standing there, not wanting to close the door in his face.

He thrust his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “My offer to help still stands.”

She noticed him peering past her. “Well, that’s lovely of you, but I’m pretty much all set now. I was just starting to make lunch, so I’d better get back to it. Thanks for bringing this over.” She waved the envelope at him.

“No problem.”

“Take care now.” She smiled, a half-forced, half-embarrassed smirk. Once the door was closed she wondered if he wasn’t just trying to hit on her. She dismissed it immediately. Wife, he’d said. It was almost too bad. He was very good looking, in a complete goofball sort of way.

*

It took about four hours for her to complete the remaining steps and let the sequencer finish the gel. Once the machine had the full sequence stored in memory, she opened the back door an inch and scoped out the yard, hoping Harley was not there.

The lawn on the other side of the tall wooden fence was still and empty. She walked swiftly out to the shed, turned on the machine, and validated the transmitted data. She called up the barcode for the cat’s DNA. This was it. She was about to do something extraordinary. After this, she could go back to the lab where she’d once worked with her discovery. Barring unexpected complications, she would be the inventor of teleportation.The woman who changed everything.

“Houston, we have lift off,” she whispered, grinning to herself. She shut the shed door behind her and ran back to the garage.

The cat had been sitting on the table top for two hours, coming to room temperature. She unwrapped the little body and carried it over to the transparent column. Opening the hatch with one hand, she placed the cat in the center of the transmission pad on the floor.

She pressed a gloved hand gently to the top of its head. “You’re doing this for science,” she whispered.

She shut the hatch. Heard the hiss of the door sealing, and pushed a sequence of buttons on the control panel on the machine’s side.

A humming noise erupted from the machine, followed by a flash of blue light and an electrical crack. The now familiar smell of ozone flooded her nostrils. The cat’s body disappeared.

She squeezed her eyes shut for a few seconds. The product of years of work, and it still seemed completely unreal. She forced her feet to move forward at normal walking speed. She wanted to run, but she knew it would look suspicious. She picked up a bag of top soil she’d been saving for the front garden and carried it with her. She wasn’t sure what condition the cat’s body would be in when she opened the receiving machine. She’d need a way to carry it back that concealed what it was.

Her neighbor seemed to have driven off somewhere. There were no cars in the driveway, and the house on the other side of the fence showed no signs of life. She stepped into the shed and pulled the door to behind her.

A noise almost like a baby crying startled her. And then she saw the cat’s upturned face behind the glass of the machine. Its eyes rested on hers. Its mouth was moving.

She dropped the bag of top soil. “Oh my god.” The words came out of her mouth unbidden. “What-?”

She didn’t know how to react. She’d never expected this to happen. Perhaps someone was playing a trick on her. That must be it. She laughed, sounding slightly hysterical to her own ears.

She felt almost frightened of the cat, now recalling some hideous Stephen King film she’d once watched. She looked around the shed, wondering if someone had hidden cameras inside it. But everything looked exactly as she always left it. The cat’s mouth continued to open and close, its voice muted inside the column. It suddenly occurred to her that most of the air might have been removed during the process. She reached for the hatch and popped the handle open. She opened it enough to let air in, but keep the cat inside.

The cat seemed calm, though its pupils were enormous, circles instead of slits. She wasn’t sure what that meant. She suddenly remembered that he was called Wizard.

“Wizard?” she whispered.

He meowed in response.

She filled a cup with water and slid it inside the machine. The cat lapped at it thirstily. She noticed then that he was shivering.

“Oh god, it is you.” She opened the hatch and crouched down. “Come here, boy.” She held out her arms to him. He didn’t make any attempt to get away. She scooped him up and pulled her lab coat around him.

“I’m going to take you to the vet, love.” She carried him in through the garage side door. Inside, she found a cardboard box and used the lap rug she kept for cool nights in the lab to make a nest for the cat.

Her phone’s browser told her the 24 hour emergency veterinary clinic’s phone number.

She dialed. “I’ve got an emergency. I found—my cat appears to have been hit by a car. He seems okay now, but I’d like to bring him in for an exam, maybe some x-rays.”

The girl on the phone told her they could see him if she could get there in fifteen minutes.

“The cat’s name?” She looked at the cat. I can’t call him Wizard. “Uh, it’s—Diss. That’s right. Short for Disruption.” No kidding.

 *

The visit to the vet’s office was brief. The diagnosis: no broken bones, no internal injuries. Ajeetha noticed that even his ear had healed to a perfect triangle again where she had clipped it. The doctor, Dr. Kaufman, gave him some fluids under the skin for mild dehydration, leaving a strange bubble of fluid on the cat’s side that would be absorbed over a few hours. The enlarged pupils were probably a sign of shock. She recommended a heating pad on low tucked into his bedding for the hypothermia. Reddy listened with half her mind while the other half raced to come up with a plan in light of what had happened.

She left the vet’s office with the cat in the box, resigned to keep him for observation until she could be certain there were no lingering effects. She drove home in a daze. What had she invented? How could the twin machines possibly have resurrected something? The cat had certainly been dead. Even if he had somehow been alive when she found him, he had spent the night in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator.

At a red light, she leaned over to peer into the box she’d fastened into the passenger seat with the safety belt. The cat looked up at her. His pupils had resolved to cat-like slits again.

A few minutes later, she pulled over to Pet Supplies Plus to pick up a litter box, some litter and a few days’ supply of cat food. When she got back to the car the cat was curled up in the box. She watched until she confirmed his chest was moving before she headed for home.

She pulled her Prius into her driveway and sat scanning the street for a minute before getting out and going to the passenger side to take the box out. The cat—Diss, she reminded herself—woke up when she opened the door, but made no attempt to stand up.

With the box under one arm, she fished her keys out of her bag and unlocked the front door. She took the cat to the kitchen, then ran back out to the car for the supplies she’d bought. She gave him some food and a small bowl of water. Then she went to look for her heating pad.

While she was rooting through the bedroom closet, the door bell rang.

“Crap,” she murmured. Anxiety flooded through her. It was probably Harley again. Three times in one day? She just wouldn’t answer.

Someone knocked loudly on the door.

She sighed. “Just a minute,” she called. She closed the kitchen door, praying the cat would be quiet while she talked to whoever it was.

The knocking came again.

She opened the door to find a woman in her thirties, with long, blond hair and skinny jeans. “Oh hello. I’m looking for Harley.”

“Harley? I… Oh, right. I saw him earlier over the fence in his back yard.” She decided not to mention his second visit.

“I’m Julie, his wife. He said he was coming over here about something.” The woman peered past her into the living room. Clearly she didn’t believe Harley wasn’t here.

“Nice to meet you, Julie. I’m sorry, I haven’t been home. I… had to take my cat to the vet for an emergency visit. I just got back.”

“Wow, that’s really weird. I would’ve sworn I saw him coming over here. He said you were installing internet in your shed.” The woman looked a bit more like she believed Ajeetha now.

“Yes, that’s true. We spoke over the fence earlier. He offered to help, but I told him I could handle it. I haven’t seen him again since then. Though he did say he had the week off from work.” She stood there for another moment. “I’m sorry I can’t be of any more help.”

“That’s all right. I’m sure he’ll be back soon.” The woman folded her arms against the growing evening chill and turned in the direction of the house next door.

Ajeetha closed the door and took a deep breath. She needed to think. No, she needed to talk this over with someone. Where had she last had her cell phone?

First things first. She went back to the bedroom and found the heating pad, then she returned to the kitchen to check on Diss. He was sitting in front of the door between the living room and kitchen when she opened it. He looked up at her and gave a soft chirp.

“Yes, I’m back and I brought you something.” She plugged the heating pad in, turned it to its lowest setting and put it in the box, under the throw.

When the cat didn’t look immediately interested, she picked him up gently—he squirmed, which she saw as a sign he was feeling better—and deposited him in the box. For a moment, she thought he would just jump out again, but then he seemed to notice the warmth. He walked around in a little circle and settled himself in what must have been the warmest spot, looking up at her with what seemed to her to be a cat smile. She smiled back.

After patting her pockets, she mentally retraced her steps. She looked in her bag and in the bedroom. No sign of the cell phone. Which meant it was almost certainly in the lab, left there this morning in her rush. She left the sleeping cat in the kitchen and went out to the lab. The smell of ozone flooded her nostrils. She normally liked the scent, but now it only emphasized the unsettled feeling in her stomach. As expected, the phone was on her work table. She picked it up and opened the contacts. Who was the best person to talk to about this? She decided on Owen Durbin, at her old lab. He seemed the most likely to be helpful and the least likely to tell everyone he knew.

She dialed his number and waited, staring at the sprawling oddness of the transport machine while the number rang several times in her ear.

“Hello?” The familiar voice made her feel a bit better, but the smell in the lab was starting to make her queasy.

“Hi Owen, it’s Ajeetha. Ajeetha Reddy.” Like he knows so many Ajeethas.

“Oh, hey, Ajeetha. How’ve you been? Still working on that quantum entanglement problem?”

“Uh, yeah. Listen, that’s why I’m calling. I need to discuss an experiment.” She took a few steps toward the door to the outside as she spoke. She needed to let some air in. “I’ve had an unexpected result. It’s—it’s really a bit incred…”

The door to the yard wasn’t fully closed. It rested almost shut, not latched. Little pieces coalesced into one in her mind—Harley wondering what she was up to, that woman certain that he’d come over here, the smell of ozone that hadn’t dissipated.

“Owen, I’ll call you back.”

“What’s up? You sound—” She pressed END and dropped the phone on the table.

“Sorry,” she mumbled, threw open the door and ran flat out to the shed. She yanked on the door, but it was locked. With shaking hands, she fumbled in her pocket for her key chain. She finally got the shed door open. She prepared herself, tried to be ready for whatever she might see there.

Her neighbor, dead inside the chamber? Reduced to a splatter of blood and gore? A strangely altered version of himself? A mindless shell?

She stepped inside the shed, not daring to look until she heard the click of the door’s latch behind her. It was a little while before she realized she was standing there with her mouth open. From inside the chamber, sixteen pairs of green eyes observed her. She closed her mouth and took two shaky steps toward the machine. The cats opened and closed their mouths, almost as one, shifting around against the glass. Sixteen — yes, she counted again to be certain — sixteen cats, identical to each other and to the cat in her kitchen. There was something blue under them, some sort of fabric. When she got close enough to see a couple of buttons, she realized what it was. A man’s shirt. She moved to the side of the chamber, trying to see past the cats. God above, that’s a lot of cats.

There was something else there. Something she couldn’t at first identify. She tapped the machine’s front panel and the cats moved, again almost in unison, to press their faces to the glass, a mass of black-spotted grey fur and pink noses. She could see the thing now, a bony, elongated shape, covered in the same grey fur. Her stomach twisted as she realized its resemblance to a human finger.


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