u3a - u3a

Karen McCreedy - Third place

Bognor Regis u3a

South East region

TRIAL AND ERROR

When Benjamin Taylor strode through my office wall, I thought I’d been working too hard. It’s not every day that PhD students walk through bricks-and-mortar, and anyway Ben was the last person I’d have expected to pull such a stunt. He detested practical jokes, kept his head down, questioned, learned, stayed late at the laboratory; and pressed his supervisors for answers we didn’t always have.

Skinny, scruffy, and extremely bright, it was Ben’s drive to succeed that made him exceptional. I truly believed the lad was earmarked for greatness – until the morning he emerged from the plasterwork, as dynamic and apparently solid as a lab rat on amphetamines.

“Professor Brook,” he blurted, pacing about in front of my desk while I mopped up the coffee I’d spilled over the notes for my research paper, “Help me!”

The green tablets the doctor had prescribed for my hypertension were in my handbag in the bottom desk drawer. I dropped several pills on the carpet as I fumbled with the wrapping, but gulped a couple down with what remained of my coffee. They didn’t help. I could still see Ben pacing about.

“You’re not seeing things, Prof. I really did come through the wall.”  His unzipped hoodie hung open, revealing a yellow t-shirt that bore the legend: ‘One experiment away from a Nobel Prize’. Ben wiped a hand across it as though embarrassed, shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and looked down at his Reeboks. I sensed a confession in the offing. “I –er– I used some of that experimental serum. The one you gave up on.”

Still stunned by his unconventional entrance, I was slow to grasp his exact meaning. “The serum we gave to the mice?” I pulled a handkerchief from the sleeve of my blouse to polish my spectacles. Ben’s outline blurred, but came back into focus as I put the glasses back on. Focus, yes, that was what I needed. Specifics. After all, we used a lot of serum and a lot of mice. “Formula 33?”

He shrugged in what might have been an apology, and nodded.

“You used it… on yourself?” Incredible.  And incredibly reckless. Our research aimed to eradicate virus cells by attacking them at a sub-atomic level, but the technique was a long way from being perfected. Last week, Formula 33 had modified all the cells of the test mice, with the result that they had become capable of moving through solid objects — such as the bars of their cage. If Ben had used the same serum, no wonder he’d been able walk through my office wall. That explained the ‘how’. But… “Why, Ben? Why in the name of science would you want to do such a thing?”

His face reddened, and the scientist in me made a mental note that his blood flow seemed unaffected. “It wasn’t about science,” he said, shaking his head. “I was curious, yeah, but mainly it was just, well, greed I suppose.”

I felt like a third-grader at a lecture on quantum mechanics. What was he talking about? Gesturing toward the leather armchair beside my desk I begged him to sit down. “Your pacing is making me dizzy.”

He sat, but the chair remained unaffected — no dent in the cushion, no creaking as it adjusted to the occupant — and Ben began to sink through it. He stood up with a sigh and a shrug. “Sorry, Prof. I can’t sit, and if I stand still I’ll probably go through the floor.”

I lifted my specs to rub my eyes, still half-expecting to wake up and find the whole conversation had been a nightmare; but beyond the door footsteps, laughter and conversation washed by with a class of undergraduates. In front of me, Ben still paced. “Tell me what you meant about being greedy,” I prompted.

He pushed a hand through ungoverned twists of blond hair. “When the mice escaped, I wondered if the formula might have potential for some sort of human application.”

I nodded. Glimpsing opportunities where others saw failure was the sort of reasoning that occasionally led to remarkable discoveries. Though injecting the human body with an armful of untried vaccine hadn’t been much explored as a means of testing your idea since the days of Jenner and Pasteur. What on earth had Ben been thinking? Had he actually believed his own t-shirt?

“I thought maybe we could use it to get people out of buildings,” he went on, “like, you know, hostages, or people trapped in a fire. But then I started to think about getting into a building. And from there… well, it didn’t take long to realise that someone using the serum would have no problemo walking into a bank vault.”

I didn’t like the way this was going. The beginnings of a migraine began to pulse over my left eye, and I opened my top drawer to rummage for my purple pills. “Go on,” I said, slipping a tablet under my tongue and rubbing my temples, in a vain attempt to ease my stress levels.

“It was just an intellectual exercise at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to try it. Course fees go up next semester and – well, anyway… I thought about the gold in the Bank of England, but that would be heavy, yeah? I couldn’t have carried much. So instead I decided to check out the local bank vault.”

He spoke matter-of-factly, as though discussing an interesting new theorem rather than admitting a crime. Perhaps the university should start checking criminal records as well as examination results. We do have our reputation to think of.

Ben talked on. “I worked out the correct dosage, and spent yesterday producing it. I was so sure I could handle it! I came back to the lab when everyone else had gone, and it only took a minute to take my sample out of the fridge and inject it. Then I went back to my digs and waited for it to kick in.”

My scientific curiosity surfaced again. “Did it take long?”

“About three hours. When I walked to the bank it was raining and some of the drops went through me. It felt weird, but at least it confirmed that the formula worked.”

“And getting into the bank presented no problems?”  Why was he was telling me all this if he had carried out his plan? Even the local bank vault surely contained enough cash and jewellery to have given him a better balance in his account than I could dream of. What was he playing at?

“Getting into the bank was the easy part.”  He pulled his hands out of his pockets and scrutinised them, rather as Lady Macbeth might do on stage in the “out, damned spot” scene. “I pushed against the bricks and in I went, like a spoon through treacle. It was the same with the vault door. It was the same...” He choked to a halt and covered his eyes with his fingers. When he looked up his expression was more anguished than any I had seen in my years of telling students they had failed their finals.  “Don’t you see? It was the same with everything I moved through — and everything I tried to pick up. My fingers went straight through the money, right through the jewellery...  Professor… Helen. I can’t touch anything at all.”

My purple tablet had long since dissolved without noticeable effect, but my headache was trivial compared to Ben’s predicament.  I stared with horrified fascination as he attempted to grasp the edge of my desk, only to see his fingers disappear into the polished woodgrain; but it was Ben who shrieked.

“See? See! You have to help me! I can’t eat, can’t drink, can’t even lie down to sleep.  Professor, I know I did wrong and I wouldn’t blame you if you let me stew in my own stupidity for a while, but it’s driving me nuts! Please – could you give me the antidote?”

Well, that’s students for you – impulsive, brash and rarely inclined to think through the consequences of their actions.  Only when they have got themselves into a pickle do they consider asking for help – and by that time, alas, it may be too late.

“Ben,” I said, reaching to the back of the drawer for the blue capsules I only used in extremity, “the hope was that Formula 33 would be another penicillin, that it would provide a way to cure horrible diseases.” I waited to see if he had understood, but when I finally located the packet of pills, he eyed them as though they held the answer. I shook my head, popped a tablet from the packaging and bit down on it, grimacing at the bitter taste. “Don’t you see? The serum is supposed to be the cure. Why would we create an antidote?”

He was still screaming when he sank through the floor.

END