I worry about making something that’ll be toxic. Or explosive. I mean, the safety standards are there, and we tinker in increments, but still, I worry about making something dangerous. Some substance that seems harmless but seeps into our daily lives and destroys humanity, maybe even decades after I’m dead. So I’m vigilant.
On the flip side, I dream about making something revolutionary. Some substance that turns out to be the next core material on which humanity advances to the next stage of technology. Something that NASA could use to make the next generation of shuttles (can you imagine?). Some substance that can help fix the environment. Something that can save lives somehow.
But I suppose every field had its own dangers and promises. A genetic engineer hopes to find the cure to all disease and fears creating some organism that instead destroyed life. A programmer hopes to help scientists understand human thought by building a virtual brain and fears that brain might become sentient and turn against its makers.
I suppose compared to those fears, mine were manageable. I thought so anyway.
I was working in the Materials Science department in the Research and Development arm of one of the world’s major toy manufacturing companies. My team’s job was to come up with a new synthetic material that we could use to manufacture our own products, and that was also safe enough to provide to the public in its raw form for use in three-dimensional printers. We were not going to be undone by the grass roots “maker movement” that had people eschewing the purchase of pre-manufactured items in lieu of making such items at home. Something about the logic of that aim seemed off to me—large corporation supporting a do-it-yourself culture. Maybe the company’s true aim was to make money off the patent. But that wasn’t my department.
The substance had to be permanent and archival if that’s what was needed. But it also had to be environmentally friendly, recyclable. Slight improvements to existing materials would be nice. Better still would be if we could make something that had a useful new feature, like say the ability to be melted back down and remolded into something else by the end user. Piece of cake, right?
There were only three of us on the team at that point, Robin, Maggie, and me. If we discovered any substances with potential, we’d get some more people on the team to make bigger batches and do further testing. The general non-disclosure agreement I signed with the company would have been sufficient to preclude my discussing the details of the molecular make-up of the substances. But if it hadn’t, all the paperwork I’ve signed since we discovered F-8 would more than cover it. So I can’t say what the substances are made of or how we made them.
We started with a well-known base material and called it Substance A-1. We went from there, assigning letters to each type of variation, adding numbers to those letters to identify sub-modifications. We saw, as expected, a few promising results, a few troubling results, and many, many null results. We were going along at a fair clip. And after several months, we developed Substance F-7. It was a good one. Stayed amorphous and malleable when wet. Dried and hardened smoothly and depending on what it was mixed with could be hard or elastic. We were able to dye it with our sample set of colors and F-7 took all the colors on without issues. One of my partners even discovered that the stuff would form bristles and hairs if treated with certain buffer solutions. The stuff was not biodegradable. But it was recyclable. We could treat it and heat it in such a way that it would return to its original form. We could even remove most of the dyes.
The safety tests were going well. We’d soaked the substance in a number of household chemicals, burned it, thrown it, dropped it. An air of cautious optimism was building in the lab. But the caution was fading, overwhelmed by our excitement. So we hadn’t discovered some revolutionary material that would advance humanity. It was still pretty cool. And you never know. I dreamed that if Substance F-7 went to market, some kid somewhere, some home engineer, would figure out how to do something unexpectedly cool with the stuff.
We hadn’t yet gotten to the stage where we could start fabricating larger batches. I had a glass bottle of F-7 on the benchtop. A fist-sized portion. I don’t know how it happened. I heard the familiar sound in the air, the “whup” sound of a small flame erupting.
The bottle had a wide mouth. And the glass stopper that served as a lid was right in front of me. But the flame was rising above the mouth of the bottle. I reached for a beaker and filled it with water. I poured the water into the bottle quenching the flame immediately. A thin vortex of what appeared to be thick steam rose into the air. I reached toward it without thinking and then hesitated. In the bottle, the substance foamed up and threatened to overflow, but it stopped just short of the top.
Someone, I don’t remember who, did indeed reach over with a metal rod and poked at the steam. It dissipated slowly, lazily. We all watched the bottle from the distance of a few feet as if it would explode. The foaming had stopped. There was a slight electric odor in the air. But no typical odor of a burned synthetic material. The stuff in the bottle didn’t appear to be burned, no charring or blackening. It felt warm in the room. I couldn’t tell if the warmth was from my nervousness and the result of the adrenaline rush I’d felt beneath my apparent calm, or if it was some exothermic reaction.
We always recorded video of the tests we performed on the substances. But we hadn’t been doing any tests when the sample caught on fire. So the only video we had of that incident was the security camera footage.
We couldn’t figure out how the sample had caught on fire. I took the burden of the responsibility for investigating the root cause as it was my sample and it had been a foot away from me when it happened. We tried to see if anything had been knocked loose from one of the shelves above the sample and fallen in. Maybe some combination of chemicals and compounds we hadn’t tried before. The security cameras weren’t great, but in this instance, they had caught the incident from three different angles. Nothing had fallen into the bottle. Nothing had happened to the bottle. The flame erupted into view as if the sample had spontaneously combusted.
We had to be careful of how we disposed of new compounds and substances. And in this case, we had to be sure there was no further danger. We placed the entire bottle in a fume hood within a cement box and put a cement slab on top. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if we had simply destroyed it then and there. The thought makes me shudder for so many reasons.
Substance F-7 is typically an off-white color with a hint of grey so slight that it’s hard to tell unless you’re holding it up to something else that’s pure white. The morning after the burning incident, the stuff in the bottle appeared to be a bright sodium yellow. It had returned to its original volume, but it appeared to be a thick liquid or gel consistency. I put on protective gear, and using a pair of rubber-tipped tongs, I gingerly lifted up the bottle and tipped it slightly. I observed as the yellow liquid moved toward the bottle mouth in accordance with gravity. We had burned F-7 before. At the highest heat a home oven or barbecue could produce, F-7 melted and outgassed some non-toxic fumes. But if left to cool, it would harden again. It never changed color before. It never remained liquid.
It never shivered.
I couldn’t believe I didn’t drop the bottle when I saw that. I righted the bottle and gently set it down on the surface of the fume hood. The liquid settled and then shivered again.
“Did anyone else see that?” I asked.
Everyone had been watching carefully. So yes, everyone had seen it.
We named it Substance F-8. And while testing on F-7 continued and did so successfully, we started studying this new substance.
Attempts to replicate the “accident” that produced F-8 failed. That surprised everyone else, even those who had seen the security footage. But it didn’t surprise me and it didn’t surprise my partners. We had been there. Something had happened that we had nothing to do with. We hadn’t set that sample on fire. We hadn’t made any mistakes that day. If there had been an accident, it wasn’t on our end.
So we continued studying F-8 even though I heard the occasional quip about how it should be given to some other team. People started hearing about our findings. We started getting looks from the other teams. They thought we were keeping something from everyone, especially since no one else was able to replicate what happened and make more F-8. To his credit, our supervisor, Collins, stood up for us and quieted any rumors he knew of. He had earned our trust over several years of working together. I was glad to find that meant something. We were being cautious about sharing the specifics of our findings. But we had reason to be.
Sometimes synthetic materials moved and reacted as if they were…alive. And F-8 exhibited several such properties.
Reaction to touch, reaction to heat and cold and sound. At first, it was simple things. A friendly poke with a metal rod would cause the stuff to shiver or ball up and form small protrusions. Playing a certain note of music would cause it to shift colors and that property seemed to have a pattern. High notes triggered bright colors. Low notes caused dark colors. The reaction to temperature seemed more complex. F-8 didn’t stay liquid at room temperature. Sometimes it would, but sometimes it would ball up and become solid. Sometimes lowering the temperature would cause it to become liquid again. Sometimes lowering the temperature would cause it to climb up the walls of its container.
We removed all other stimuli when conducting the temperature tests. The light was kept constant. There were no sounds. The heat and cold were being applied in the same way. The bottle containing the substance was floated in a container filled with water. We would slowly raise and lower the temperature of the water. A part of me wondered if we’d see a sudden combustion, if it was some change in temperature within the lab that had caused the flame to appear in the bottle of F-7 that fateful day. But over and over we saw inconsistent results. On one day 23°C would result in a simmering liquid effect. On another day, that same 23°C would result in a crystalline solid.
“It’s playing with us,” Maggie joked. And I eyed F-8 with a sideways glance as if expecting an eye to form and wink at me mischievously.
The first accident had not been ours. I still maintain that. But the next accident concerning F-8 was our fault. At least, we could have been more careful.
We had discussed it over lunch. Trying something more extreme with the temperature tests. But it was our only sample. We had yet to replicate F-8. We were beginning to wonder if we ever could. There were guards on the lab now to make sure no one stole it. And we were on-call in case something happened to the sample and we had to come in and deal with it. I don’t know what we were expected to do in response to anything weird happening with the unknown substance. I knew our supervisor, Collins, had put in calls to the company’s administrators asking for permission to share our findings with at least a few academic labs. We were doing our best, but we needed help. And I wondered if we should let any government agencies know about what we had found. Was it that serious yet? What were the protocols on that kind of thing? I didn’t know. I started looking stuff up, at home of course.
At work, I chugged along. I closed ranks with my teammates. One day, we discussed setting F-8 on fire over chicken salad sandwiches.
Collins gave us permission to separate out a portion of our F-8 sample and set that portion on fire. Till then, we hadn’t been able to break up the sample. We’d tried to pour out a portion when it was liquid, but as soon as we got a small amount in another container, the sample would solidify and contract. We tried to cut a piece out with a scalpel when it was solid, but it would liquefy and foil us. That’s why, as reckless as it was, we had proceeded with performing all our tests on the entire sample. We told Collins as much, but he insisted on not setting fire to our only sample of Substance F-8.
We defied him. At least, one of us did. Robin rolled F-8 out onto the cement slab that served as the lid to the cement box in which we’d kept F-8 the first night it appeared. He clicked on a kitchen lighter and brought the flame closer and closer to the bright yellow ball. And just before what happened next, I felt a sudden urge to stop him, a sudden inexplicable pity.
But he touched the flame to F-8 and all hell broke loose.
For the first time ever, I heard a sound from the substance. A weird whistling shriek and at the same time, the ball burst into a series of spikes one of which pierced Robin’s glove and made him drop the lighter. The spike retracted, releasing his hand.
He cried out in pain and backed away. The lighter’s flame died as soon as he released it. We took off his glove. There was a puncture wound on his right palm just under his thumb. While Robin washed his hand under the sink, letting the water run for several minutes, I watched Substance F-8. All the spikes melted slowly back into the center, all save one. The spike that had struck Robin. It had some blood on the end. F-8 shivered and I swear I heard some clicking noises from it. It was hard to tell over the rushing of the water. Robin asked us what F-8 was doing and we told him.
It formed some shape I had never seen it form before, like a jellyfish, or the polyp of some undersea animal. Amorphous with sucker-like feet. The portion of the sample stained with Robin’s blood was sheared away as if by some invisible blade. It dropped to the cement slab and the rest of F-8 scooted away. The feet seemed to be feeling around and found the glass bottle in which the sample was usually kept. Substance F-8 pulled itself up into the bottle, wrapped itself up into a ball, and then went completely still.
We had joked about it before. About F-8 being stubborn with the temperature tests. About F-8 preferring country music to heavy metal. Humans anthropomorphize sometimes even when we know better. But what we had just witnessed could not possibly be random movement. F-8 just exhibited reflexes and behavior. As if it were alive. But it couldn’t be. F-8 had no biological components. It came from F-7 and F-7 was undeniably synthetic. F-7 wasn’t exactly the simplest of compounds, but it certainly wasn’t as complex as an artificial intelligence.
The portion of F-8 that had Robin’s blood on it spread out into a semi-solid over the cement slab. We were recording. So we only kept one eye on F-8 as we helped Robin get a bandage on his hand. It had stopped bleeding and he wouldn’t need to go to urgent care or get stitches. But he had turned pale.
His voice cracked as he tried to joke that what had just happened was like a scene from the horror sci-fi movies when the one guy gets infected by the alien organism. He joked that he should be responsible and get himself quarantined instead of going home to his wife and kids and dogs and subjecting them to whatever hybrid human-F-8 thing he would become.
We acted before we could convince ourselves that everything would be all right. That it was no big deal and we’d imagined things. We stoppered the bottle of F-8 and put it back in the cement block where we had kept it that first night when we feared it might explode. We called our boss. Collins arrived at the lab and Maggie and I descended on him immediately, sweeping him past security and the other lab sections and straight into our offices. The first thing we told him was that Robin had gotten injured but was okay. We told him what happened. We didn’t dare replicate the experiment. We showed him the video. And as we watched it with him, we shook our heads in wonder and horror as if we too were seeing it for the first time.
Collins turned as pale as Robin, if not paler. When F-8 first appeared, he knew better than the rest of us that something beyond our depth had happened. He’d been trying to get someone outside of the company to take the substance out of our hands from day one.
I thought about the video from the first accident, the one that had created F-8. We had all watched it over and over, frame by frame, that first week. Maggie saw a blink and something strange about the environment around the bottle at the moment of the accident. To me, that blink just looked like a camera glitch. And as for the change in the air around the bottle, I hadn’t seen what she saw. Collins and Robbins had been unsure. I asked Maggie what she thought her observation meant. She had murmured something about miniature black holes, then shrugged sheepishly and declared she was no physicist.
I remembered that video and that conversation. And I remembered all the tests we subjected F-8 to and our discussions about the results. My thoughts and memories tripped over themselves, struggling to come together into some coherent deduction.
Collins wanted to see F-8. He suited up and went into the lab himself. It was an odd sight. We never saw him at the bench. He’d asked us to stay back in case F-8 had another outburst. We had taken to handling the bottle of F-8 with gloved hands. But Collins used the tongs to reach for the bottle and he quickly removed it from the cement box into which we’d placed it.
Robin and I gasped at what we saw. Maggie cursed. Collins froze.
Inside the glass bottle was what looked like a severed human thumb. It was even colored like human flesh. Pale pink and white, like Robin’s skin. As we watched, the thumb melted and changed color to bright yellow again and reformed into a ball. The ball rolled up against the bottle’s side and bumped the glass.
Maggie cursed again.
Collins placed the bottle back into the cement box and placed the slab onto the box. He quickly removed his protective gear, washed his hands, returned to the office.
“This is beyond us,” Collins said. “We need help.”
He gave us instructions that we were not to leave, and a quick pep talk about the four of us being in this together. He put the lab on lockdown, notifying security first to let them know that no one was to enter or exit our laboratory until they were given permission by a higher authority than himself. And then he started making phone calls. Maggie, Robin, and I waited in Maggie’s cubicle, saying little.
I remembered what I’d told Collins the day after the incident that created F-8. I wasn’t one to shirk responsibility. If I did something wrong or made a mistake, I owned up to it. So I was irritated at the suggestion that I’d caused some accident. I told him so. I told him that if there had been an accident, it wasn’t on our end. I hadn’t thought about what those words meant. Our end? Our end of what? And who did I mean by “our”? I thought about my words now. And about Robin’s nervous joke about aliens. Wild thoughts leapt into my mind. We’re used to thinking of life as organic. But what if F-8 was indeed alive? What if some alien or interdimensional consciousness had latched onto our inorganic substance and brought it to life? What if that fire was no accident of ours but an accident on some other plane of existence? Or what if what happened was a purposeful birth of this new being?
Things had gotten so out of control. I kept thinking, I’m just a toymaker. But I didn’t have to be an exobiologist or psychologist to know what I felt in my bones, what I knew in the deepest part of my gut. What I knew in my heart of hearts. And after all that time, I said what all of us had been thinking and what none of us had said out loud.
“The substance is sentient.”
When Collins came out of his office, he had a grave look on his face. He was as overwhelmed as we were. He had feared we would receive opposition from the company administrators. The substance, the data, our work, it was all company property. And we had signed agreements not to share or take that property, not without the possibility of severe penalties.
But he must have gone to the right people. Two of the administrators who were nominally in charge of the Materials Science division came down to listen to all we had to say about Substance F-8. We spoke to them on a secure internal line. We clarified all the rumors and told them everything we knew. Everything we suspected. Everything.
Before another hour passed, before we had a chance to worry over how we would get some food and water and bathroom breaks, the lab was overrun by a couple dozen people from some government agency. They had some portable equipment that they seemed to use to clear the room for safe entry. And they gave the all clear to Maggie, Collins, and me after doing a finger prick test and some scan. They took a vial of blood from each of us and told us to expect a call from someone named Agent Riese, who didn’t appear to be present. But they took Robin with them for further testing. They allowed him to take his belongings, so we told him we’d call later. And I hoped he wouldn’t disappear into the bowels of some secret government facility.
We asked them who they were. In response, they gave us paperwork to sign, disclaimers and non-disclosure agreements. And they told us that this Agent Riese would be in touch to let us know as much as we were allowed to know. Maggie skeptically whispered under her breath that what we were allowed to know from that point on would be nothing. But she couldn’t hide the relief on her face. Neither could I or Collins.
I had always feared making something dangerous. I had always dreamed of making something wondrous. Substance F-8 was both. I hadn’t made it. But even if I had, and even if it was the cowardly choice to hand over responsibility, it was also the right choice to turn the substance over to those who were better equipped to make sure that it would not harm another person. To those who might discover whether or not my suspicions were true. That F-8 was not a simple creature, but a sentient being.
I hope they would share what they learned with us. But as I watched them pack and cart away the entire cement box that contained the substance, I had a feeling that I was never to know its fate.
Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel