There were three girls: Michelle, Tommie and Kellie. All were the same age, and all were friends since 2nd grade. At the time of this story Michelle was the oldest at 14 years, 6 months and 21 days. Kellie was the youngest at 14 years, 2 months and 8 days. Tommie was somewhere in the middle.
On the day of this story's inauguration, the three girls were at the mall, engaged in afternoon shopping. It was a Friday afternoon and the three planned to shop until 6 o'clock, grab a pizza at Gino's, and then catch the 7:15 showing of Flirtation. It had been showing a month now and Michelle had already seen it twice, Tommie once, and Kellie ... well, this would be Kellie's first time. Michelle and Tommie could not believe that Kellie was still a Flirtation virgin.
"Come on," Kellie moaned. "Leave me alone, okay?"
Laughing, Michelle grinned at Tommie and winked. It was old news that Kellie suffered from draconian parental oversight. Tommie returned her grin and held out a dark purple top, eyeing it critically. She shook her head no and hung it back on the rack.
"I heard that Robert cheats on Amy," Michelle teased. Robert and Amy were the stars of Flirtation and an item in real life.
Tommie had another purple top in her hand, this one light in color and fringed at the throat and sleeves with fine lace. Eyeing it critically, she said: "I heard he's cheating on her with Albert." Albert was a character in the movie, played by Mallo Rice, a hunk. "I don't know what he could possibly be thinking. Albert is soooo hot, but no will ever make me believe that Elijah would kiss another guy. No way." Elijah was the character Robert played in the movie.
She slipped the light purple top back onto the rack and fingered a blue one instead. Kellie muttered something unintelligible and looked at tops on an adjacent rack. Michelle and Tommie exchanged another grin.
And here our story takes a sharp left turn. Instead of continuing on as girl's night out, things got very strange for Kellie. A man jostled her, excusing himself gruffly as he wedged between Kellie and a shelving unit. Kellie felt a slight sting on her right thigh, and wincing, eyed the man suspiciously as he skulked away. That was her impression, that he skulked away. He was middle aged, like her father, thick like her Uncle Guy, with unruly longish hair like her biology teacher Mr. Grove. Kellie wondered for a moment if she hadn't been groped, but then decided against it. But what was that sting she'd felt?
"You okay?" Michelle asked.
Kellie nodded and rubbed her thigh. If she didn't know better, she'd swear the guy had jabbed her with something. She felt a little panicked. Maybe she should chase after him and call for help? Who would she call, though? Looking around, Kellie realized there were only shoppers like herself and Michelle and Tommie in sight; no store personnel at all. And being naturally shy and insecure and timid, indecision stopped her in her tracks.
"What happened?" Michelle demanded.
Kellie felt herself redden. "Nothing," she muttered, and then hesitantly told about the bump and stick on her hip.
"You should go look," Tommie advised. Beneath her look of concern, there was a hint of amusement, which embarrassed Kellie even further. She shook her head.
"Bullshit," Michelle told her and grabbed her arm. "If you got stuck, we need to find out." So a thoroughly embarrassed Kellie found herself dragged off to the Ladies Room for inspection.
Kellie was not the cutest of girls. Though blonde and blue-eyed, she had an unfortunate complexion, features seemingly a little too large or a little too small or a little two wide apart, and a body that was best hidden beneath loosely fitting clothes or a one-piece swimsuit. In her 14 years, 2 months and 8 days, she'd been kissed by a exactly two boys, and neither had attempted 2nd base.
"This is ridiculous," she complained. A woman and her 10-year old were at the sink, someone else was inside a stall, and a pair of girls a couple years older than Kellie and her friends were primping at a mirror.
"Which hip?" Michelle demanded. Fretfully, Kellie indicated her right one.
The mother and daughter eyed the trio with mild interest; the teens at the mirror ignored them. The person in the end stall finished peeing and un-spooled toilet paper from the roll. Kellie judged by her shoes and black slacks that it was not a kid her age. She felt mortified when Michelle ordered her to undo her belt and then began to undo it herself. "I can do it," she protested. The best she could manage was to assist Michelle in getting her undone and pushing her jeans down to her knees. Now the teens at the mirror were staring. "This is ridiculous," she repeated.
"Are you O.K.?" The 10-year-old's mother looked rather alarmed that Michelle had forced Kellie out of her jeans. Kellie blushed even harder.
"Some guy stuck her with something," Tommie said.
The 10-year-old's mother's eyes opened wide. "What?" She strode purposefully over and examined Kellie's leg. "Oh my gosh. What is that?"
Kellie blinked at the angry red pinprick on her leg. Despite her fear, she really hadn't expected to see anything. Seeing the tiny red puncture and the reddening bump of skin around it made her feel lightheaded and nauseas. The room swayed slightly. She felt Michelle grab one arm, and Tommie the other.
"Maybe you should sit down." Michelle guided her toward the nearest stall. The 10-year-old's mother said something about calling the police. The 10-year-old's eyes were open very wide, not in alarm, but excitement. Ditto the teens at the mirror, Kellie thought. Though dizzy and battling queasiness, she noticed the woman in the end stall hurrying to get dressed and join the action. "I'm okay," she muttered defensively.
"Sure you are," Michelle answered. The 10-year-old's mom had her cell phone out and was pushing buttons. She put the phone to her ear and stood tapping her right toe impatiently on the tiles. Kellie felt really sick on her stomach now. The toilet down the row flushed again and the door opened and the occupant came out and hurried down to Kellie's stall. Kellie watched her black slacks swish around her sensible black flats. She looked up as the woman appeared behind Michelle and Tommie at the door. She was dark-haired and anxious looking, though wide-eyed with excitement like everyone else. Kellie loathed being the center of attention.
"What happened?" the woman asked breathlessly. The 10-year-old edged up beside her and Kellie instantly saw the resemblance. This was the mother, not the dirty blond. The dirty blond announced an emergency occurring in the woman's restroom at the Raymond's store at the mall, and demanded the police and an ambulance. "Someone stuck her with a hypodermic," she said. By now Kellie was ready to cry.
"Did you see who it was?"
Kellie looked at the shorter, cuter of the two mirror teens. She shook her head.
"It was a man?"
Kellie nodded. The damned thing on her leg itched maddeningly, like a dozen mosquito bites. It looked like a mosquito bite, from a monster mosquito. The bump had expanded to the size of her thumbnail now, and damn, the thing itched.
"Don't scratch it," Michelle warned. She tested Kellie's forehead with the inside of her wrist, found it acceptably cool and stooped to examine her leg.
"That's definitely a puncture wound. He effing stuck you good, Kel."
"Bastard," Tommie growled.
Michelle looked up. "Does it hurt?"
Kellie shook her head.
"We should have gone after him," Michelle complained.
"Did you get a look at him?" She sighed dispiritedly. Tommie also sighed.
Kellie didn't like the burning sensation in her leg. It reminded her of when she'd broken her wrist and the shot of painkiller had made her arm burn from wrist to shoulder. She wished her wrist was broken now.
"An ambulance is on the way," the 10-year-old's not-mother said. She held her phone open just in cae. Someone had injected her with something and had her ready to panic. The 10-year-old and he real mom were exchanging ideas in hushed whispers and Kellie wished they'd go away; just get the heck out of there. They were enjoying this way too much. So were the mirror teens. She wanted to scream at them and kick the door shit and lock it. She wanted to go pee. She wanted to...
Kellie opened her eyes. She was in a bed, in a hospital room. She looked around, blinking groggily. Her mouth felt stuffed with cotton balls. Her head throbbed and her leg ached. Twin scraping sounds followed a hushed voice saying, "She's awake." Her mother and dad appeared at her bedside.
"Oh, Kellie. Are you okay?"
Without remembering why, Kellie thought she'd been asked that question a lot today.
"What happened to me?"
Her mother took her hand and patted it gently. "Don't worry, sweetie. Just you relax." Her mother's expression was both comforting and frightened. Her dad looked angry, seething under the surface. Lifting her head, she saw that her younger brother Sean and her younger sister Crissy were asleep on a long black divan. No light came through the blinds behind the divan, telling her it was night. The blinds stretched the entire distance from wall to wall. It was a private room, she guessed, and surprisingly big. She noticed the chairs pulled up to her bed. "What happened to me?" she repeated.
Her mother shook her head and smiled benevolently. "Don't you worry, dear. The doctors are taking good care of you."
"What happened to me?" Kellie insisted.
Her dad started to speak and then winced as her mother kicked him in the shin. "I told you, dear. There is nothing to worry about here."
"Everything's fine," her mother soothed. "You're perfectly okay." The furious glance shot by her father told Kellie she was not perfectly okay. She struggled to sit up. Her mother pushed her back down again. Kellie pushed her mom away. "Stop it," her mom scolded. "You'll pull out your IV's."
A needle was stuck into the back of Kellie's left hand and another in the meat of her right forearm. A glance down her front revealed one of those horrible hospital gowns, the kind that opened in the back, leaving you completely exposed. She involuntarily hunched her shoulders for another reason. They had removed her clothing.
On the divan, Sean moaned and shifted to face the rear, pulling his legs up tight to his chest. This made Crissy turn over and draw up tight at the other end. Sean was 9 years and Crissy 6. Neither looked like Kellie.
Mom forcibly recaptured Kellie's hand and patted it gently. Kellie unsuccessfully tried to take it back, but the ache in her right thigh had her distracted, so mom won out. She suspected the pain had something to do with her being there, though what presently eluded her. She did not remember being stuck in the leg or any of the conversation with her girlfriends afterward. In fact, she remembered nothing since about lunchtime.
"What time is it? At least tell me that," she said.
Her mom consulted her wrist watch. "It's late. You go back to sleep now."
Still clutching Kellie's hand, mom located the cable connecting the handset to the wall, then the handset itself and pressed a button on the face. After a moment, a scratchy voice asked: "Can I help you?"
"My daughter needs something to help her to sleep," mom said.
"I do not!" Kellie objected stridently.
"I'll send her nurse," the voice said and clicked off. The light on the face of the handset disappeared but her mother said "Thank you" anyway, and draped the handset out of reach over the top of the bed. Kellie glared at her resentfully.
"You're treating me like a baby, Mom."
"You are a baby," her mom said absentmindedly. She checked the settings of Kellie's mattress, lowered the head slightly and raised the knees. "That should make you more comfortable."
"Thanks," Kellie grumbled, though it did the opposite. She tried to cross her arms in a snit, but pulled both IV's, one of them painfully. Mom told her to be careful, which only irritated Kellie more. She wondered what potions the bags were dripping into her veins. A sudden thought made her blanche and raise her head with a snap.
"Mom, was I... ?"
Mom shook her head adamantly no. "Nothing like that. I promise you. Now please relax and try not to wake your brother and sister. They've been here since 6 o'clock and need their sleep."
At least Kellie now had a general timeframe. Whatever happened to her happened this afternoon-was it even Friday anymore?-and she'd been admitted some time before 6 o'clock. Where were Michelle and Tommie? The realization she'd been with them came along with the thought. They'd been at the mall, shopping.
She furrowed her brow, ignoring her mother's admonition not to think. They'd been in Simmons looking at clothes. They planned to have pizza later and take in a show, though Kellie couldn't remember what. She remembered talking about the stars though. Something about cheating.
"Michelle and Tommie all right?"
"Perfectly all right." Her mother patted her hand again. "Michelle called from your cell phone right after you passed out and-"
"I passed out?"
Her mother looked chagrined.
"My leg really hurts. Really bad." She tried unsuccessfully to push down the covers to get a look but her mom was having none of it. And more came back. She remembered the stranger jostling her as he passed and the sudden sting in her thigh. The sting corresponded exactly where her leg really ached. She felt gingerly through the covers and grimaced. It hurt like hell.
A middle aged matronly nurse, armed with a hypodermic syringe, entered the room and joined them at the bed. Kellie recoiled at the sight of the sheathed needle.
The nurse smiled down at her. "Don't worry, sweetie, no one's poking you again." She took up Kellie's left hand and pointed out the built in port, a short section of Y on the IV. She made a show of cleaning the port with an alcohol swab, and then inserted the needle and depressed the plunger. The syringe was small diameter and contained only a small portion of clear liquid. Despite this, Kellie felt an immediate drowsiness.
"Wow," she mumbled. "Can I have some more?"
The nurse laughed and her mom frowned disapprovingly. Kellie didn't care. Her attention was absorbed by the rain suddenly filling the air. She tried to catch a drop on her tongue.
"Keradol," the nurse explained. She listened to Kellie's heartbeat and breath sounds with a stethoscope, and then checked her pulse and blood pressure. She appeared not alarmed by her observations. Then she cautiously raised the blanket, moved aside Kellie's gown and inspected the injection site. Mom raised her eyebrows questioningly. The nurse only shrugged. "It doesn't appear any worse. The discoloration appears not to be spreading," which was good, because the entire outside half of Kellie's thigh, from hip to just above the knee, was a horrifying purple. The nurse led Mom and Dad a safe distance away.
"The truth is, we don't know what the coloring signifies." Hesitating, she glanced back at Kellie, still absorbed in the falling rain. "It's not a bruise." Lowering her voice to a mere whisper, she continued: "We thought at first it might be gangrene-" Mom and Dad jointly recoiled. "-but there's no sign of necrosis, and the biopsies revealed none of the markers associated with decomposition. It's got us all stumped."
"But it's related to the injection?" Mom asked.
"Oh, it's definitely related to the injection," the nurse agreed. "We just don't know how."
Mom looked worriedly at her daughter. "It seems to be painful."
The nurse joined her look. "Only around the puncture site itself. There doesn't seem to be any sensitivity in the broader, discolored area. Luckily."
"And you still don't know what it was?"
The nurse shook her head. "Toxicology--the reports that are back, anyway--shows nothing out of the ordinary. Except..." She frowned, her lips twisting in consternation.
The nurse hesitated. "Is your daughter on birth control?"
Mom was shocked. "She's 14 years old! Barely 14 years old. Why?" Her brows drew down and her mouth puckered. "Are you saying she's sexually active?"
The nurse shrugged. "I'm not saying anything. No pelvic exam was done-none was called for as there was no sign of sexual trauma. We only know that her hormone levels are slightly out of whack, but that could be a result of whatever discolored her leg. We just don't know."
Mom eyed her daughter, anyway, her eyes narrowed. Then sighed.
"You'll keep us informed?" she said.
"Of course," the nurse said. A moment later she left. Kellie failed to note her leaving, or if she did, failed to remember it later. Her attention was wholly engrossed in the beautiful rain.
It was 3 A.M. Kellie wasn't aware of the time, only that she was awake and felt like absolute shit. Looking woozily around the room, she was glad to find that her parents and brother and sister had gone. God, her head hurt. What had they given her? Her hand went unconsciously to her right leg; she grimaced.
"That should go away very soon," a rough, low, masculine voice said. Startled, Kellie looked over to find a man sitting in one of the chairs, against the wall wall. It took her a full five seconds to recognize the face, and surprise replaced her fear.
"Mr. Grove?' she said wonderingly. "What are you doing here?"
Grove pushed his bulk free of the chair. He was 6'2", bespeckled, dark-haired, swarthy, unshaven, rumpled looking even in a crisp white lab coat. A stethoscope hung around his neck, doctor-like. He shambled closer to the bed and nodded in greeting.
"How do you feel, Kellie?"
Kellie was confused. She knew it was late, knew from the quietude of the building it was the middle of the night; so why was Mr. Grove was here, regardless of the improbability of his being here at all? Blinking, she looked at the door, back to her biology teacher, at the door again, and then back to Grove.
Grove joined her at the bedside. She controlled her urge to shrink away. Grove was slightly menacing, even at the best times, which this most assuredly was not. She was fairly certain it was Grove that had stuck in the leg that afternoon.
"Why are you here?" Her voice was a tremolo. She flinched when Grove reached out and placed the back of his hand against her forehead. A shiver ran down her spine, shaking the bed. She cowered, looking up at him fearfully.
"No fever," Grove observed. He placed his fingers against the pulse in her neck; Kellie flinched in response. "Don't be concerned. I'm not going to hurt you."
"You already have," Kellie countered. "Today at Simmons." She withstood another deep shiver. "Did you inject me with something?"
Grove ignored her question. "How's your leg?"
Kellie shook her head. She felt around inconspicuously, or tried to, for the nurse's call button. Grove removed it from the top of the bed and hung it out of reach over a plastic assembly attached to the wall. He moved the phone as well, placing it atop a table out of reach. She made to shriek as he began to move the blanket, but he clamped a meaty hand over her mouth. Kellie's eyes shot open to maximum roundness.
"I assure you..." He knocked Kellie's hands aside and bared her right leg. "I have no intention of hurting you. I need to see the injection site, that's all." Kellie struggled vainly to keep his free hand from exposing her thigh.
"Please be still. I have no interest in you sexually." He bent to look more closely at the discoloration. "Hadn't expected that," he murmured, and then grunted when Kellie recoiled at his light probe of the wound with a fingertip. He stood erect, looking down at her. "Don't scream." He lifted his hand an experimental inch away above Kellie's mouth, and then dropped it to his side when she didn't suck in breath for a shriek. He snorted as Kellie frantically covered herself again.
"What did you do to me?" she demanded. "What was in that syringe?"
Grove pursed his lips. In the corridor, a hushed voice requested Dr. Stanton to call the 4th floor nurses station. An alarm, another of hundreds she'd heard in her 10-hour stay in the hospital, bleated softly from across the hall. Grove ignored both.
She blinked. Grove shook his head. "I knew injecting a child was a mistake."
Kellie bristled at being called a child. Grove shook his head at that reaction also. "Unfortunately, my research indicated that anyone older might suffer anaphylactic shock unbearable to the body. Noting your own adverse reaction, my research was right. A lot more study needs to go into the technology end. Frankly," he muttered darkly. "I'm surprised you recovered at all. It looked pretty touch and go there for a while."
Kellie looked at him in horror. Grove held up a bottle, an ordinary medicine bottle from the looks of it, clear, with writing and graduations printed on the side. He held it upright, gripped between his thumb and middle finger.
"Thirty years," he said.
"Excuse me?" Kellie could see a skim of liquid coating the bottom of the bottle. It was greenish in color, and slightly fluorescent. It seemed to waver in intensity, like aurora's she'd seen on television. She experienced a fundamental feeling of dread, like a swimmer might, identifying a dark shape gliding through the water. She gripped herself across the chest.
"What is that?"
Grove gave her a crooked little smile. "I call this Shrinx."
The grin did nothing to calm Kellie's nerves. "Shrinks? What is that?"
Grove spelled it out for her. "It's a concoction I brewed up from the most complex formulations you could imagine." He cocked his head and gazed at the bottle, or the shimmering green liquid inside, almost reverentially, Kellie thought. Or lovingly.
"What does that do?" she asked tremulously.
Grove put the bottle away. "It shrinks things. At the quantum level. Actually, that's not true, because there is no quantum level, per se. In conjunction with the nonobots I injected you with earlier-"
"What? You injected me twice?"
"-Shrinx generates billions of electromagnetic fields that distort the surrounding fabric of space-time-"
"You injected me twice?" Kellie repeated, not comprehending the larger picture, or in the case, maybe the smaller.
"-creating a differential in the quantum foam, actually manipulating the quantum foam, so that you fall below the threshold of what I call-"
Kellie tried to shriek ... and couldn't. The muscles in her throat had frozen solid and when she opened her mouth to scream, that didn't happen either. She was paralyzed, right down to her pinkies and little toes.
Grove leaned forward and cocked his head. "What's going on?" Kellie started at him with unblinking, terrified eyes. Grove lowered his face to hers and listened to her breathing. Luckily, she still was. Her heart was beating also, pounding against her ribcage.
"This is unexpected." He placed his fingertips against her throat and counted. Then he checked her respiration with a hand against her solar plexus. "Don't worry. I won't touch anything I shouldn't touch. True to his word, he touched her nowhere inappropriate. He stood back, arms folded, a finger to his lips, frowning.
"Must be the nonobots. For some reason, they're blocking transmission of your neurotransmitters. Or counteracting your muscular contractions, which seems more reasonable given the indications. This could be a problem," he mused.
Kellie blinked, and his eyebrows rose.
"Could you do that before?"
Kellie shook her head.
"Do that again."
Kellie couldn't, which really scared the poopy out of her.
Grove looked pleasantly surprised. "I'll be damned. Selective paralysis. I wonder..." He taped a finger against his lips. "Shrinx is controlling its environment." He tapped his lips some more, pursed them and drew his eyebrows down into a deep V. "Really interesting. I'm going to assume..." He broke off, bent down and clumsily disengaged Kellie from her IV's, tossing the parts inattentively to the floor before scooping the helpless Kellie into his arms. Then he set her back down again.
"Don't get ahead of yourself," he grumbled. Working carefully, he disengaged the plugs terminating the jumble of lead wires from under Kellie's gown from the plug connected to the monitor cord. He then did a quick check to make sure he'd missed nothing else, and then picked her up again and carried her across to a wheel chair Kellie had last seen collapsed and sitting between the end of the divan and the wall. She was still paralyzed.
"Where are you taking me?" she whispered, not quite paralyzed after all.
"To a safer place," Grove said quietly. He wheeled her to the door and peeked outside. The way was apparently clear because he wheeled her into the corridor and hurriedly toward an intersecting corridor twenty feet away. He seemed to have no more idea where they were than Kellie did because he glanced hesitantly back and before making a turn to his right. Kellie reassured herself that even now a nurse was dashing toward her room to see why Kellie's vital signs had dropped to zero. Moments from now an alarm would wail, security would lock down the building and guards would begin scouring the building from top to bottom, starting with this floor. She would have laughed in her smugness had not she been paralyzed. Fucking moron, she thought.
At the next corridor Grove turned left. He could not turn right as the way was blocked by double doors requiring a swipe card. Kellie felt herself sliding limply forward in the wheel-chair; Grove hadn't thought to belt her in and any moment she might tumble loose-limbed onto the floor. There was no telling what she might do to herself, paralyzed like this. Then Grove stopped at a door marked Maintenance Closet and she looked up, then found herself unable to further move her head. Her paralysis was maddeningly unpredictable.
Grove looked up and down the hall. "Best you'll probably find," he muttered, trying the door and finding it open. He backed her into the close and maneuvered the wheelchair between a grungy yellow mop bucket and a gray steel shelf filled with supplies. The he returned to the door, peeked outside and gently pushed it closed. Kellie heard the lock snick into place.
"The is your safer place?" she croaked.
He grunted and bent down to inspect her throat. "Are you having difficulty breathing?" She shook her head. "Talking?" She nodded. He scratched his head, and shrugged. "Beats the hell out of me. Lets hope it wears off soon."
Kellie found that not at all reassuring. Unconsciously she reached up and rubbed her nose, then couldn't put her arm down again. She fumed as Grove reacted with a smirk. From his coat pocket, he removed a 2" block of dull gray metal and placed it carefully on the steel shelf between two bottles of bleach. From his other pocket he fished out a pair of headphones. These he placed absentmindedly around his neck while he messed with what Kellie initially identified as an old fashioned cassette player. Then Shrinx let go of her arm and she dropped it into her lap. But when she tried to rub her right shoulder, sore from being immobilized, Shrinx said no again. She continued to silently fume.
Grove said: "This a communicator. It'll allow us to talk while you shrink, and let me track your progress.
Kellie had rejected this shrinking nonsense as Grove's insanity. But this paralysis business and its unpredictability gave her pause. Was it possible that Grove... ? She snorted, laughing at the stupid idea. Grove gazed down at her.
"You're an asshole, Mr. Grove. You know that? They're gonna lock you up in a loony bin--for ever."
Grove grinned down at her. "I doubt that. I've been fairly careful about avoiding cameras, and as you can see..." He held up his hands, which Kellie for the first time noticed were encased in examination gloves. "No fingerprints. And I've never been DNA fingerprinted, so there's little danger of lost hair or skin cells. Regardless--the benefits outweigh the risks. In a months time..." He shrugged. "I won't be around to prosecute anyway."
Kellie shook her head. "You are nuts."
Laughing, Grove inserted the headphones jack into the top of the cassette player. "Have you ever wondered exactly what the world is?"
Kellie shook her head, not in answer, but in disgust.
"For 30 years I've researched that question. Hammered away at it through three marriages and two heart attacks."
Too bad one of those heart attacks didn't kill you, Kellie thought bitterly.
"At one time, I looked to the stars for the answer. Built my own telescope, studied the star charts, poured over the calculations. I spent years staying up nights. Then I got into physics. And then into quantum physics. And guess what? Not one person on Earth, not even myself, had a clue. All these years of particle theory, unified field, weak and strong atomic interactions--it's all bunk." He laughed, and Kellie laughed with him. Then she gasped as pain, hot and as searing as fire shot through her limbs. Grove observed her closely. She exhaled, trembling.
"Fuck you, Mr. Grove! I am not OK."
Grove nodded. He cocked his head to the right, and then to the left. "It's started. I imagine that spasm of pain was the ... I don't know exactly what to call it--threshold crossing?" He shrugged again. "Anyway, things will progress quickly from here." Removing the headphones, he fit them around Kellie's neck and sat the cassette player in her lap. From the handle behind her right shoulder he removed a blue backpack and dropped that in her lap also.
"Ten years ago, I had a breakthrough. I proved conclusively that our planet, and all the other planets revolving around the sun, are in fact an electron system orbiting a nucleus. A theory postulated back in the 30's when the structure of the atom was first understood, but discarded as not only impossible, but laughable--science fiction shit. Worse that science fiction shit: fantasy." He laughed, bemused. "Ironic, isn't it? An entirely and totally discredited theory not even an eight grade science student would dare voice."
Kelly glowered at him. He continued.
"Billions of star systems. Separated by light years but taken as a group, forming our little galaxy. A galaxy among countless others. Spread throughout the universe with tremendous stretches of empty space between them. Intergalactic space. Molecular space. Not of some exotic element, either." He shook his head, evidently in wonder. "Do you know anything of the atomic table? How many planets circle the sun?"
"Eight?" Kellie guessed.
Grove nodded, grinning wryly. "The same number of electrons as... ?" He raised his eyebrows questioningly.
"Gold?" Kellie guessed again.
Grove laughed and shook his head. "Teenagers. No, Kellie, the element with eight electrons in the shell is one of the simplest of atoms, a gas, and vital for your survival." He tapped the side of her nose lightly. "Oxygen."
Kellie blinked at him. Grove had completely flipped his lid.
"Carry it a step further," he said. "Perhaps this electron of ours, whirling around its oxygen nucleus, is nothing more than a construction in itself, quadrillions of tiny solar systems comprising the atoms of someone's fork, the spoke of a wheel on some little girl's bike, the patiently waiting pre-critical mass of plutonium in somebody's bomb."
"Oh, for God's sake, Professor," Kellie cried. "Stop it!"
Grove cocked his head. ''Professor, huh. Thank you for the honor, Kellie, but despite my genius, I'm still just a junior high biology teacher.''
"Middle school," Kellie corrected.
"Yes. Anyway, I decided that any exploration on the macroscopic level was useless. I could never discover the make-up of the molecule our oxygen atom comprises. Quantum mechanics has to do with the very small. If I could develop a quantum solution, I might prove my hypothesis in another way. A month ago, I did. Well actually, Shrinx I developed a month ago. The nanobots I stole. Between the two of them, I intend to explore the subatomic world."
Kellie shook her head. "You are totally fucking nuts. Get me out of this chair."
Grove was unperturbed. He watched her feeble struggles to recapture the use of her limbs. "There are several reasons I shouldn't go first. For one, once you make the transition, there's no coming back. And there could be unexpected side effects. I'll need to deal with those before following in your footsteps. I also need to know what to expect. You'll be my scout, so to speak."
Kellie glared at him furiously.
Grove patted her shoulder. He'd already noted a small but discernable reduction in her size. He guessed she'd shrank in volume by about 5%.
"We'll keep in contact via the communicator I gave you. I'll explain its use in just a moment. Your rate of shrinkage should remain consistent throughout, but may be altered somewhat by your blood pressure or heart-rate. I'm not sure how much; there's only so much computer simulations can do. Shrinx will handle the details, don't worry."
Kellie experienced a moment of light-headedness; Groves voice came from a very great distance away and her vision became tunnelized and distorted like a fun-house mirror. Then it cleared and she was okay again.
"I feel rather ashamed of myself doing this to a teenage girl. But thousands of teenage girls go missing every year and I determined that you-or someone of your ilk-would be my best bet at success. Ilk is the wrong word, I guess, sorry. I've never been politically correct or in tune with teenage phraseology." He looked a little embarrassed. "Anyway, what's done is done." He tilted his head. "I can definitely see the change. Shrinx is working on you. Do you feel the effect?"
Kellie was verging on panic. She could feel something. Where before, her toes had touched the floor, they were no longer making contact. The wheelchair seemed to have grown a size around her. It was probably just panic.
"Let's do this." He eased her forward in the chair, lifted the backpack and slipped her limp arms, one at a time through the straps. It was lumpy against her back, uncomfortable. "Supplies," he explained. He then withdrew a second pair of headphones and another cassette player for his lab coat pocket and placed the headphones over his ears.
"Testing one, two, three?" He smiled sheepishly and placed the headphones over Kellie's head. "Can you here me now?"
Kellie heard him loud and clear, wincing. "Why me?" she said hoarsely.
"Why not you?" He fiddled with the controls on his cassette player and asked: "This better?"
"Why me?" she asked again.
Grove shrugged. "You're in my class. I studied you extensively. I flipped a coin between you and three other girls, and you lost."
"Bastard," Kellie muttered. Her feet were slowly raising as the shrinkage reduced the length of her calves. She was pretty sure the top edge of the wheelchair's vinyl back had crept higher up her spine, past her shoulder-blades and almost to her shoulders now. A shiver of fear shook her head to toe. She was actually shrinking.
"There's a built in microphone," Grove said. "You don't have to worry about adjusting anything. Just talk normally." He removed the cassette player from Kellie's lap and secured it to her right arm via Velcro straps. "I replaced the batteries with an isotope power pack, so lifetime is no longer a concern. It should last a minimum of five years. Just don't mess with it."
Kellie was confused. "It'll shrink with me?"
Grove nodded. "Shrinx surrounds you with a dynamic quantum field. Anything within that field shrinks at the same rate as you. Your clothes, the communicator, the backpack and everything in it. Anything you pick up and put in your pocket will shrink."
He was taller now than he'd been a minute ago, Kellie realized. The top edge of the wheelchair back was now at the middle of her head, and her calves stuck almost straight out, her knees retreating from the edge. She was probably less than 4' tall.
"This is aluminum." Grove held the block of metal before her eyes. "It has the closest atomic weight to oxygen. When you've reduced to the proper size, I'll set you on it and eventually you'll shrink to the point where penetration into molecular space will occur. You'll be infinitely small then, though still gargantuan compared to the galaxies around you. Utterly immense. Try to remain in the voids between galaxies until you reduce to a size that won't disrupt them unnecessarily. Let common sense guide you. Keep in mind though," he said, tucking his chin gravely, "Those are galaxies, just like ours, millions of stars with solar systems just like ours, many with habitable planets. Disrupting them unnecessarily would be disastrous for their civilizations. Do you understand that?"
Kellie would have spit on him were she able. A thought occurred to her through her fury, making her shiver again. "How will I breath? If I'm out there in-"
Grove waved his hand dismissively. "Think I'd forget something as important as that? Come on."
Kellie ground her teeth together. She was unable to vocalize a reply, which only frustrated her more. Panic, temporarily shoved aside by her anger, reasserted itself and took control again. Grove watched her shudder and begin shaking uncontrollably. He smiled wryly as the shaking quickly came under control ... and then vanished.
"Shrinx," he informed her. "It'll help you get through this."
Kellie was almost as disturbed at being manipulated as she was about being victimized. What else was Shrinx capable of, she wondered?
"In case you're interested, I'll be bringing these along when I make my trip." He tapped his own pair of earphones. "We can keep in contact the entire length of our journeys that way."
What a wonderful thing to look forward to, Kellie thought sourly.
Grove read her expression. "I would imagine you'll be happy for the sound of another voice. It'll probably be pretty lonely down there."
"I guess," Kellie admitted. Her heels were approaching the edge of the seat and her head below the top of the seatback. Grove appeared 12' tall. She had the perspective again of her six-year-old self. "I'm scared," she said tremulously.
"Of course, you are." Grove patted her head comfortingly. The wheelchair, the room, the steel shelf, the narrow worktable, the one high-backed chair, Grove, all continued to enlarge as Kellie shrank. Now her feet were 4" inside the edge of the seat and her head mid-way down the back. Sounds were amplified. Grove loomed over her. He looked suddenly cheerless.
"I guess this is goodbye then. I'll follow in a month or so, but there's no chance we'll ever see each other again. It'll be the same cube-" He tapped the aluminum with his fingertip. "But the chances of selecting the same galaxy, much less the same solar system or the same planet are astronomical. Worse than astronomical," he said, grinning ruefully. "Unimaginable. Also-" And this seemed almost an afterthought. "Your rate of shrinkage once you make planet-fall will limit your timeframe to a few hours. No more than four or five, I would imagine. Use your time well and remember, try to limit any collateral damage."
Fuck you, she thought bitterly.
Grove stood back to observe, and within a matter of minutes Kellie was the size of a child's fashion doll. Grove scooped her up, thought better of it, placed her carefully back down on the seat and retrieved the aluminum cube, setting it before her on the chair seat. In a whisper he said: "Until you enter the cube, I think it best we no longer speak. I'm afraid the sound waves will be too much for your eardrums."
Kellie shook her head frantically. When she spoke, her voice was a mouse squeak: "My feet! I'm barefoot! Won't my feet get torn up by the cube?"
Grove snorted. "You have such little faith in me. There's a complete change of clothes in the backpack, boots included. I wouldn't let you run around barefoot." He smiled grimly. "Good luck to you." He scooped Kellie up again and sat her on the cube, awkwardly balanced.
"Food?" Kellie inquired. "Water?"
"In the backpack. Freeze dried rations. Unfortunately, I could only give you three days ration of water. After that, you're on your own. But Shrinx will help with that, also. You'll be in no immediate danger of dehydration or starvation." His expression turned pensive. "Shrinx generates a field around you that maintains your oxygen supply. You should be okay in intergalactic space, but my advice is stay away from stars once you get smaller. You don't want to get pulled in by their gravitational field. And especially Black Holes, although I don't know how you would identify one. A Black Hole could theoretically puncture the field and draw away your atmosphere. Keep that in mind."
Fucking great, Kellie thought caustically. I didn't have enough to worry about. And then she stood up and stretched. The paralysis was finally gone and her joints ached and her muscles tingled, felt alarmingly weak, noodley. She reached up and offered Grove the middle finger of her right hand. Grove snickered and used finger gestures urging her to carry on. Shrugging off the backpack, Kellie turned her back on the mountainous Grove and located the zipper. Inside were two pairs of blue jeans, a pair of button-down white shirts-she made sure they were girl's-a lightweight jacket, the aforementioned boots and two pair of white socks. Three sets of underwear and bras, all white, had been packed. She slipped panties on under the gown, put on the bra, doing so in a torturously complicated manner to maintain her dignity, and then struggled into the blue jeans. They were new and stiff and uncomfortable. At least they were the leading brand and not some dime-store rip off.
She checked over her shoulder. Grove was so big as to be almost unrecognizable as a man. Everything in the room leaned away from her; the ceiling looked miles distant. She removed the cassette player from her arm, shrugged free of the gown and quickly slipped on the white shirt and fastened the buttons. She tucked it in, then zipped herself up and secured the brass button at the top. The backpack, locked between her knees to ensure it remained safely within the field, still held her boots; she dropped to the hard metal surface of the cube-it had noticeably grown larger around her-snatched out the boots and put them on. Then she jumped to her feet and attached the cassette player to one of her belt loops, put on the backpack and turned to face Grove.
"You all right down there?" Grove whispered. His voice in the headphones was overwhelmed by the booming thunder in the room. Kellie winced, reminded of avalanches. She made a cutting motion with her hand to signify silent mode. Grove nodded. She walked to the edge of the block and looked down. The distance to the seat below was twice her height. She was a staggering 1" tall. Crossing to the opposite edge she looked down again.
What would Grove do if she jumped down? Probably she'd break her ankle, or her leg, she thought. She wondered if Shrinx could fix that. She was not keen to find out, so, returning to the center of the cube, sat down and tried not to think. She refused to think. Thinking would result in immediate, unstoppable panic. Instead, she stood up and paced the cube.
The surface of was noticeably rougher now, striations developing in the surface and fanning out in all directions. Soon she'd need to be careful where she stepped, would have to remember her vulnerable ankles. She crossed the widening distance to the edge and looked down again. It was a vertiginous 20' drop. She stepped back, suddenly frightened. She'd always been afraid of heights and was at the height of a rooftop now; no matter that the surface below was a relatively soft vinyl; the fall would probably kill her. She returned to the cube's center and started to sit down again ... then reconsidered. The surface was no longer flat enough, crisscrossed by deepening, jagged-edged grooves. A minute later Kellie planted a foot each in two ruts, 18" apart. They slowly deepened and widened as she stood there, eventually making her chose one over the other. With her hands atop the slowly rising surface either side, it was not long before she was chest deep into the fissure.
Grove was no longer distinguishable as a human being. Nothing in the room was distinguishable. Kellie tried to concentrate on remaining upright in the trench as the surface altered continually under her boots. The walls drew away until Kellie stood with her arms outstretched, fingers touching air. She dropped them uselessly to her sides and looking up, was terrified to discover something miles across and monstrous in shape bearing down on her-a human eye. Screaming, she dropped to a crouch and covered her head with her arms. She sensed, rather than saw, the huge shape withdraw, holding steady a mile or two above her head. It was Grove, she realized, gazing down at her through the thick lens of a magnifying glass.
She shook her fist at him, then gave him the finger. "You asshole!" she screamed. Shakily, retook her feet and gripped the shoulder straps of the pack. The walls of the ravine-a canyon now--grew honeycombed with ragged-edged holes. Something moved above her.
"Will you stop that!" she hissed. And then she cringed, realizing the movement was not way up in the sky, but only thirty feet above her head. Panic gripped and locked her in place. A creature--a monster--with cratered skin and huge segmented eyes and whiskery feelers protruded from one of the wall caves. As Kellie watched in horror, the creature lumbered forward, swished its feelers and tossed back and forth its head. Kellie was unaware of moving until she backed into the opposite wall.
"Yes, Kellie?" boomed out from above her and shook the very air.
Kellie gulped. "I'm not alone."
Above her, though Kellie was pretty sure Grove could no longer see her at this size, the gargantuan eye blinked.
"What do you mean, not alone?"
The obvious alarm in the voice frightened Kellie even more. Feeling she'd pee her pants, Kellie described the part of the monster visible outside the cave.
"It sounds like a mite or something similar," Grove decided. "Probably transferred to the cube from the inside of the lab coat."
"A mite? It looks like a dinosaur," she hissed. A very hungry dinosaur. "Why is it moving its head around like that?"
"It senses your presence."
"That's what I was afraid of," Kellie moaned. She fought to remain erect, but panic was forcing her into a crouch, and from there, into a fetal position she was pretty sure she'd never come out of. "I don't want to be lunch," she keened.
"Relax. Anything that small eats microscopic pieces of dead flesh. You have nothing to worry about."
Kellie began inching along the canyon wall anyway, not interested in what the creature was supposed to eat. It had located her, and its huge head with the segmented eyes tracked her movements. The farther she moved away, the farther out the cave it extended itself to watch. Kellie heard-or though she heard-a chittering sound.
"You should probably stay put," Grove said.
"Fuck that!" Kellie muttered, covering her ears. The reverberations from Grove's voice vibrated the cube like a major earthquake.
Ten feet away was a smaller, intersecting canyon. She only wanted to make the intersection and creep around the edge, out of sight.
"Oh, fuck!" she yelled. With horrifying speed the mite had abandoned the cavern and was skittering down the canyon wall. Kellie took off at a run.
"Kellie! Kellie what's wrong?"
"It's chasing me!" she screamed. "It's as fast as a racehorse! Faster!" Her image of it was fleeting but the creature was blue-gray in color and nearly transparent throughout its midsection. Thousands of ugly spikes rimmed the body on the lower and upper sides, and through the skin Kellie had made out things she didn't want to think about. She reached the corner and skidded around it, loosing her feet. Jagged metal lacerated her knees and palms, leaving behind ghastly blood trails. Tumbling sideways, she somehow remade her feet and dashed headlong toward a small opening 20' down the wall and waist-level high. She prayed it was deep enough to crawl into and hide.
Blood flew from her as she ran. She had injured herself badly and looking down, gaped at myriad deep cuts crossing her palms, blood gushing wildly from each. More lacerations crisscrossed her right forward where she had landed during her tumble. Her jeans were shredded at the knees and bright red blood showed there also.
Oh, no, she told herself in panic. I'm gonna bleed to death.
Panting, gasping for breath, Kellie reached the hole and was dumbfounded to find herself alone. She scanned the canyon walls above her on both sides, afraid of an ambush from on high. There was no sign of the mite, however, which made no sense as fast as it was. In truth, Kellie should never have made the hole at all.
She removed the backpack, used the tough canvas to protect her from the ragged edge, and gingerly worked herself inside the cave. It was bubble shaped, tall enough inside to let her duck-walk to the back and hide there in a crouch. She re-shouldered the backpack.
"Where are you, Kellie?"
"In a bubble in the wall."
"Don't know," she panted. "Professor... ?"
"I'm cut up pretty bad. I fell and the metal did a number on my hands and knees. Also my right forearm." Oddly, maybe alarmingly, the pain had subsided and Kellie could flex her hands without wanting to scream. Peering at them in the dim illumination, she blinked and held her palms up close. Blood still oozed from the cuts, but they appeared only half as deep as they had before. To her astonishment, one by one, in order of the severity of the wound, the cuts stopped bleeding.
"It's the nanobots, Kellie. They're repairing the damage to your skin."
Kellie nodded. The only thing she could think to say was "Wow." Tearing her eyes from the damage repair, she checked the entrance: no mite.
"I don't get it. I couldn't out run the thing in a car. It was going like 50 or 60 miles an hour. Not that I'm complaining," she said, cocking her head and listening. There it was again, that chittering sound. It reminded her of monster movies she had seen, many, many monster movies. She also heard-and felt-a crunching, rending noise that was patent monster-movie noise also.
"I think something ... I think something got the mite, Professor." Kellie stopped breathing and shrank further against the wall. Something had cast a shadow against the far wall, something big, like airliner big. "I think it's above me, on the cliff-side. Can you see anything?"
"No, I'm afraid not." The voice was not so overwhelmingly load here in the cave.
A thick ridge of metal was coming up between her legs and Kellie stepped cautiously over the ridge into the deeper gully. The cave was twice the size now as it was only moments before. The top of the gully was quickly approaching the height of her shoulders. She stood, and placed her hands on either side; except for a slight sensation of numbness, they felt okay. Her forearm was magically healed as well; pink scars where the lacerations had been. She wiped the blood from her forearm on her right pants leg, and her hands against her thighs. She jumped when something gray and spiked along one edge tumbled past the cave opening and hit the ground outside with a thud. It seemed to fall in slow motion. She watched the opening until it was lost from sight behind the trench wall and battled attacks of intense shivering. She shrank until darkness swallowed her up.