This was a mistake, thought Christina, as she watched Paul rifle through paperwork and move laptops and gel scans around the office. An office that Christina had helped Paul break into, no less.
Paul, meanwhile, was too busy perusing files and going through desk drawers to pay much attention to his student. He had asked Christina to bring him here for a very specific purpose. And he refused to leave until he achieved that purpose.
Christina looked at her watch, then back at Paul. “The cleaning crew get here at eight,” she announced.
Paul looked up at her, then at his phone. “Shit.” It was 7:45 pm.
“Chris, you gotta help me here. Take a look through that file cabinet there- I haven’t had a chance yet...”
Christina looked at Paul. She stood still and for a moment and Paul wondered if she had heard his request. He was about to repeat himself when he saw her look over to the file cabinet he had pointed to. She went to it and opened a drawer.
“I appreciate you doing this for me,” Paul said. “I didn’t want to drag you into this mess, but I’m fresh out of alternatives. Sophia’s been comatose for days.”
“I know. I just wish I’d been able to talk with her before. It would have saved us this trip.”
“True. And who’s to say it’s even here, in her office? Could be back at her house for all we know. Or in a library. Or in another country.”
Christina wasn’t listening to Paul at the moment, however. She had been distracted by something unusual sitting inside one of the manila folders of the file cabinet’s drawers. An old piece of paper, or something, with strange foreign writing spanning left to right. Christina had never seen this type of lettering before.
She reached to touch the ragged top portion of the document and realized that it had been torn there. A few small, hieroglyph-like symbols appeared where the paper tore upwards. Then blank space, followed by an entire section of different foreign writing.
“Find something interesting?” Paul asked.
“Eh...more paperwork. Pubs.”
“Yeah, Sophia was certainly prolific,” noted Paul. The woman had authored or co-authored at least 500 journal publications on various aspects of neurology and neurodegeneration. It seemed like life’s little joke that she herself was now lying in a hospice, dying of neuroblastoma.
Paul stopped his search for a second. Yeah, a joke, he thought. I’m the biggest joke of all. I’m dying too. At 45.
He stood up and nearly bumped his head on a small shelf right above him. Why in hell would a contractor install this shelf right above a desk, where anyone taller than five feet can bump it? And the shelf itself was useless for holding anything heavier than a pocket novel.
Paul peered at the contents lying on this shelf and saw a small booklet. His hand, trembling slightly, reached for the item. It appeared to be handbound.
“Maybe the stone is in the lab?” Christina pondered. “She may be storing it in one of the freezers.”
“Yes, it’s possible,” Paul replied.
To Paul, who had viewed “the stone” and even felt its effects, it was so much more than that. It was the cure for his illness. At least, that’s what he believed.
And if Sophia doesn’t buy into that idea, too bad for her, Paul noted. She can die quietly.
“Pandora’s Box” had been Sophia’s preferred reference for the stone, something she and Paul had dug up in the ruins of Delphi back when they were younger and in love. Sophia owned a house nearby the dig site and gotten herself “recruited” by the archaeologists during that summer. Paul, being both her sidekick and lover, naturally tagged along.
Inside an underground chamber of the Oracle, Paul had spotted a gray-white object lodged within a fissure of the floor. Time and possibly an earthquake or two had widened the fissure until it was a giant crack. The stone would’ve fallen through the expanse if not for centuries of debris acting as a web.
Sophia snatched the stone and put it in her pocket. The two of them didn’t say a word about their find to the team- but honestly, who cared about some oddball rock? There were rocks, pebbles, and boulders aplenty at this dig.
It wasn’t until the two of them returned to the States that the stone resurfaced. While sorting her clothes for the washer, Sophia shook out her pants and the stone fell to the floor. Because she was thinking about one of her research projects, Sophia absentmindedly kicked the stone across the floor as she started another load of laundry.
Paul heard the odd sound and walked into the laundry room of the small house they shared. He had been eating lunch, but the odd thud distracted him.
“What’s that?” he asked, peering at the bluish rock. Sophia reached down and picked it up. “Must be part of that rubble we picked up back at Delphi. I thought it was white in color, though.”
“Yeah, me too. It’s not white now.”
But there was more going on with this stone than just its color change- it was also giving off some kind of aroma. At the very least, the stone had its own unique smell.
Sophia didn’t care much for the scent, declaring that it reminded her of the drunk old men of Greece. It smells like bad booze, she had said. Paul detected something else. He smelled sweetness, like the scent of ripening fruit.
Paul proposed that the two of them scrape off a bit of the rock and analyze it. They could borrow a mass spectrometer for a day in his mentor’s lab. The two of them took a weekend trip to the National Institutes of Health to investigate their strange acquisition.
And that weekend NIH trip became a lifelong pursuit.
Over time, Sophia and Paul butted heads on what to do with their discovery. Sophia wanted to close the book on what Paul had come to call the “Blue Phoenix,” along with the strange ether it exuded. Paul had other plans.
For starters, when mixed in with the rat neurons they kept in Sophia’s lab, the ether enabled these cells to live incredibly long lifespans. Typically, such cells died after three weeks following their isolation and culture on cell plates. In Sophia’s lab, there were some neurons even celebrating their hundredth day in culture.
Obviously, work on this ether needed to continue. Paul saw incredible potential in their discovery and the promise it held for others. He envisions treatments and cures. And he also saw commercialization.
But Sophia had opposed these ideas, pointing out that the compound had varied effects. In some cases, neurons survived and thrived thanks to their contact with the ether. In other cases, those same neurons transformed into masses of undifferentiated cells that suspiciously mimicked the look and feel of cancer cells.
Then there was the human side of their experimentation: Both Paul and Sophia had periodically inhaled the stone’s ether after letting the artifact sit inside of a stoppered glass flask for a day or two. While Paul experienced improved mental clarity for the better part of a day, Sophia vomited and felt miserable.
You can’t stop progress, Paul had told her. That doesn’t mean there won’t be a cost, but no one said human advancement was free.
Well, what you’re proposing is crazy, Sophia had replied. You’ll end up dead and so will everyone else!
During one particular argument, Paul tried snatching the stone away from Sophia. However, she was too quick for him. In a huff, she disappeared outside and, before Paul could run after her, drove away.
He didn’t see her again for years.
Christina looked at her mentor, who had his back to her and appeared absorbed in his own little world. Walking towards him, Christina eventually saw that Paul was holding a small book in his hands. It made her think of the small prayer books her parents had used, with their pages crinkled and smudged from years of soulful introspection.
“Oh, sorry,” Paul said, finally looking at her. He closed the booklet quickly. “What’s the time?” he asked, then quickly peeked at his cell before Christina could even answer.
“Yeah, we need to get out of here, now.”
“You still have the keys, right?”
Christina fished through her jacket and heard a jingle. She pulled out a ring of keys that Sophia had given to her several years back, back when she was still working in her lab and Paul was still several years away from coming along and dazzling her with promises of big publications and fast graduation.
“I’m going to head out then. See ya tomorrow?”
Christina watched him exit and wondered again if breaking into this office was a hot idea. It’s doubtful that someone from Sophia’s lab would walk in here and notice that the place had been searched; her students and postdocs had scattered once Sophia’s prognosis turned terminal. More than likely, the next person in this office would be a family member collecting Sophia’s things after her death.
“Ugh...” Christina sighed, shutting down Sophia’s laptop and trying to turn off the desk lamp. The damn light bulb flickered for a few seconds and then actually popped, causing Christina to yelp.
“Well, it’s turned off now,” she said to herself. Her heart was already racing; she certainly didn’t need this surprise.
Unfortunately, there was another unexpected development awaiting Christina down below in the lab parking lot: Sitting outside in the cooling evening was a squad car.