Monday, June 1, 2020

Doors Opening on the Left by Raima Larter

Jason is a chemist specialising in racemization, a technique vital to defeat the lethal virus spreading across South America, but there are mysterious side-effects; by Raima Larter.

Jason boarded the train at the Medical Center Station, took a seat about halfway back from the door, and looked around. The usual morning crowd. Later, he would wonder why everything had seemed so normal that day, when it was anything but.

He stifled a yawn and glanced at his phone. Nearly ten a.m. He'd been awake for over twenty-four hours. A melodic bonging came over the speaker and the train doors slid shut as a robotic female voice announced, "Doors closing."

The train lurched into motion and Jason yawned again. He wanted, desperately, to be home, tucked into his own bed. Yes, his own empty bed, but that's the way it had been since he got this job, and how it was bound to stay. Who had time for dating? He hadn't even had friends over yet, despite having lived there for almost a year. For one thing, he had only the one chair, a pathetic frayed lawn chair he'd found discarded on a curb. No time for furniture-shopping, either. The chair sat next to his one other piece of furniture, a battered card table where he slurped down Cup o' Noodles every evening while streaming late-night talk shows on his laptop.

Jason rubbed absent-mindedly at his bandaged left index finger. He'd cut it on a broken centrifuge tube a few hours before. No big deal, just a small amount of lost sample. After leaning his head against the window, he gazed at his reflection in the fogged-over glass. He looked tired, which made sense: he was tired after pulling another all-nighter, racing to get his part of the project finished before Dr. Murphy lost it.

"The Director needs that data," she'd said as he'd left the lab that morning. She gave him her usual tight-lipped smile, but he knew what was behind it. "I'm sorry about the rush." He'd nodded and forced himself to smile politely (despite her lying). She wasn't sorry.

Jason's team at the National Institute of Health was trying to develop a drug protocol to combat the Janusid virus. Janusid was spreading rapidly across South America, killing everything in its path. Like most viruses, Janusid attacked by injecting its DNA, coiled inside a hard protein shell, into an unwitting host. It had swept across the southern continent in less than a month, killing every person and animal it infected. So far, nothing had been found that could stop it.

He'd already worked a string of ten-hour days, with a few eleven- or twelve-hour ones thrown in, and he almost had enough of the agent made. If the centrifuge tube hadn't broken, he might have even finished today. Now, the last test would have to wait until later, when his current batch had finished processing.

The train jostled, picked up speed, and was soon soaring out of the tunnel and onto the above-ground section of the track. Morning sun slanted through the far window and across the car, producing a reflection of the passengers in the glass.

In the reflection, a guy was seated up front in the handicapped-only seat. Jason hadn't noticed the man when he'd boarded the train. The man had a newspaper opened up, obscuring his face, and seemed intent on reading something.

Jason scanned the backward print on the newspaper reflection, trying to decipher the headline. The letters were almost too small to read from where he sat, plus they were backward, of course. His gaze flitted back and forth, untangling first the word "Congress," and then a word that looked like "Legislation." That was when he noticed the girl.

He hadn't seen her before either, but there she suddenly was, seated next to the guy with the newspaper. She caught his eye and smiled. He looked toward her, planning to nod good morning, but the handicapped seat was empty.

No girl. No guy with a newspaper.

Jason looked quickly back toward the window, trembling now. The reflection hadn't changed: the attractive girl was still there, next to the newspaper guy.

The girl grinned at him again, and nudged her elbow into the man. The newspaper guy folded down a corner of his paper and peered around it at Jason. The man nodded at the girl, then folded the newspaper into a small rectangle, tucked it into a briefcase and stood, grabbing hold of a silvery metal pole. He swayed as the train rumbled down the tracks. The girl scooted forward on her seat, as if preparing to stand. All the while, Jason's heart beat faster and faster.

After a couple of minutes, the train slowed, brakes squealing, rocking side to side as they pulled into the next station. A bong came over the intercom. "Doors opening on the left."

Hairs spiked to attention on the back of Jason's neck. He focused intently on the reflected image of the two people. He didn't want to look away, but quickly glanced toward the handicapped seat. Still nothing. No man grasping the strap, no girl getting up from her seat.

Jason leapt to his feet and leaned to peer at the reflection in the window. There they were, both of them, the man and the girl. Jason tried to keep the images in view, but the two mirror-image people were stepping off the train and onto the mirror-image platform. A bonging sound came over the intercom. "Doors closing."

Jason bolted for the door. He jumped out as the doors slid closed behind him. He looked around at the empty platform. No man. No girl. No sounds but for the hum of the idling train and the distant murmur of traffic.

He looked back toward the train. A woman in a torn knit hat stared at him through the glass, frowning. She was surrounded by empty seats, the only person in the car.

As the train pulled away, Jason became aware of pressure in his bandaged finger. He yanked the gauze and tape off, revealing what had once been a tiny cut. Now his entire finger was an angry, throbbing red.

He stared at the pulsating wound for a long moment, a strange tingly warmth creeping up his left arm. The sight of his hand mesmerized him and he was unable to look away. It didn't seem like his own hand. He saw it there, at the end of his arm, but it seemed the hand belonged to someone else. He was so focused on that weird hand that he startled and jumped back when the next train pulled into the station. Jason shook his head to clear his panicky thoughts, and boarded the train. This time, he checked the reflection in the glass first, to make sure no more odd people were there this time. Wherever "there" was.



The next day, after he'd slept a solid fifteen hours, Jason headed back to the lab. As he made his way to the building from the Metro station, he thought about the strange mirror-image people from the day before. Clearly a hallucination. Probably induced by sleep-deprivation or deep fatigue and overwork. His injured finger had stopped throbbing and seemed to be healing. He unwrapped the bandage and checked again. The cut was small, nothing at all really. Nevertheless, when he got in, he changed the dressing using the lab's first aid kit, just to be sure it kept healing.

He got to work, preparing what he hoped was his last batch of racemization agent. On his way to the cold room, he ran into David. "Hey," Jason said. "How's it going?"

David, another tech from the lab down the hall, wore his usual red bandana, tied around his head in an attempt to cover his thinning hair. He jammed his hands into the pockets of his somewhat grubby lab coat. "It's going," he said. "Get your magic stuff made?"

"Almost. I thought I'd have it last night, but the vial broke just as I was removing the sample from the centrifuge." He held up his bandaged left finger as he yanked the cold room door open with his other hand. "Lost a whole day."

David followed Jason into the refrigerated space. "Do you think Murphy will make you lead author this time?"

Jason snorted. "Hardly. You know a lab head would never make a tech lead author. I'll be lucky if she puts my name on the paper at all."

Jason had lost track of how many days he'd shuttled between the exhaust hood, the cold room, the centrifuge, and the mass spec, all the while trying to make enough racemization agent, the substance that would not only defeat Janusid but secure him at least co-authorship. Jason had never been lead author on any scientific paper, and he didn't want to believe it could happen this time - but, the truth was, it could happen this time.

Racemization was Jason's specialty, after all. Give him any polymeric substance, even a protein coating like that on a virus, and he could reverse its stereochemistry and crack the thing open like an egg. The trick was to create the right stereoisomer of a substance that could bind to the polymer and create its mirror-image - a molecule with the same formula but a mirror-reversed structure. If you could hold the result up to a tiny molecular-sized mirror, its reflection would be identical to the original.

That afternoon, when Jason found that the last batch of racemization agent was ready, he tested it, as he always did, on a sample of the virus. He was careful to use the clean-room protocols, necessary to prevent accidental infection. They weren't one-hundred percent effective, but they were the best the industry offered.

The results looked promising, so he hurried down the hallway to Murphy's office. She was seated at her desk, tapping rapidly at her keyboard. The desk was piled high with toppling stacks of paper. Her sleeves were rolled above her wrists as she frowned through her glasses at the computer screen.

He knocked on the doorjamb. "Dr. Murphy?"

She flinched back, her hands still hovering over the keyboard. When she saw him, her eyes widened and one hand flew to her chest. "Jason!" She laughed nervously. "I didn't hear you come in. What can I do for you?"

He waved the printout from his final test toward her. "That last batch seemed to do the trick. Results look perfect."

She brought her hands to her face and leaned back in the chair. "Thank God," she said, then laughed. "Or thank you, I guess." She walked around the desk and peered at his printout. "This looks fantastic. I was just about to go to the All Hands meeting - the director is going to be thrilled." She plucked her lab coat from a hook on the wall and headed for the door, then turned back to him. "Coming?"

Jason grinned and followed her through the hallways, down an elevator and into the large auditorium. Several hundred scientists, most clad in white lab coats, were already there. Dr. Murphy took a seat next to another lab head, but Jason went to the row of chairs pushed up against the wall. Every chair along the wall was occupied by techs and low-level staff. He knew the protocol. He knew where the peons sat and he also knew that no one who sat in a wall chair had ever had lead authorship on a paper. If you reached that level of accomplishment, you'd not only get first authorship, you'd get your own lab. You'd be someone like Dr. Murphy, not someone like Jason.

David was already there and lifted his eyebrows as Jason sat down next to him. "So? Did you do it?"

Jason tried to suppress his smile, but it didn't work. "Yep," he said, pulling out a small notebook and a pen.

David broke into a huge grin. "Awesome. If this doesn't get you first authorship, nothing will."

Jason shook his head as he flipped to a blank page in the notebook. "Well, nothing will then. You know as well as I she's not going to do it." He scribbled the date at the top of the page, followed by "All Hands Mtg," and prepared to take notes.

Dr. Murphy turned toward Jason and David and smiled, waving the printout he'd given her in the air. Jason knew she would, as she always did, claim that "her lab" had achieved the desired outcome. She would claim his results as hers. She might name him, or even thank him when she got a turn to speak, but that was all the acknowledgment he was likely to get. After all, Murphy knew the protocol, too.

Jason tried to squash the flare of jealousy. Without Dr. Murphy, he would not even be here. She had been the one to come up with the idea, and she had been the one to persuade the scientific board, the big-wigs who sat at the table at the front of the auditorium, that her lab should be allowed to try this approach.

The Director himself sat at the table at the front. He wore a suit, unlike most of the people in the room. Next to him sat his Deputy, tapping a pen nervously on the table and glancing repeatedly at his cell phone. At the table were several other people Jason knew only by their photos on the agency website. Every one of them had a title with at least four words in it: Assistant Director of Something-Or-Other. After the Director called the meeting to order, he asked Murphy to come forward. She approached the microphone that had been set up in the aisle next to the wall chairs.

"As I explained in our last All Hands meeting," Dr. Murphy said into the mic, "changing the stereochemistry of the virus coating should make it vulnerable to attack by a standard anti-viral." She turned to look at the auditorium full of scientists. "Many people in this room could help with that second step." She smiled, and held up the sheaf of papers Jason had given her. "I'm happy to report that my group has succeeded in developing a racemization reagent that will crack open the protein coating on Janusid." She waved the papers and smiled more broadly. "Our results are very promising. Preliminary tests show that we've done it. It works!"

Jason gripped the pen so hard his hand ached. He scribbled furiously. "My group," and "our results," and "we've done it."

David nudged him with an elbow. "Hey man," he whispered. "Since when did you become left-handed?"

Jason stared at the pen, gripped tightly in his left hand. He'd been right-handed his entire life, so why - and how - was he now writing with his left? His bandaged finger began to throb and that tingly warmth crept up his arm again. He clenched his fist so hard his fingernails bit into his palm. He wanted to jump up and shout that he was the one who had succeeded, not some nebulous "we" that Murphy gave all the credit to, but he shoved both his hands beneath his thighs and clamped his teeth together. David kept giving him odd looks, but Jason refused to meet his gaze.

The Director leaned back in his chair, index fingers steepled together. He was silent for a moment, swiveling back and forth, one toe pressed to the floor. It took only a few seconds for him to swivel to his Deputy and say, "Let's do it." Only then did Dr. Murphy turn toward Jason, smiling.

David stood up quickly and reached to shake his hand. "Congratulations," he said. "I guess."

The tingly warmth surged up Jason's left arm and into his chest as David pumped his right hand up and down. The tingle squeezed Jason's heart as if it were caught in the grip of a giant python. He tried to say thanks to David, but all that came out was an unrecognizable growl.

Dr. Murphy fought her way through a crowd of people gathered around the Director's table. "Jason! There you are. We've just been given our marching orders. We'll need a large batch of your reagent asap." She gave him a sympathetic look. "The other labs are ready to move to Phase Two as soon as we can supply them with the racemization agent. I know you've been working really hard already, but we need to double our efforts now."

David stepped between Dr. Murphy and Jason. "I can help. Just show me how to make the stuff, and we can do it together."

Dr. Murphy smiled broadly. "Why thank you," she said, and turned to look around the room. "Let me just check with your boss to make sure it's okay -"

"Oh, it's okay," David said. "I'm not working on anything important at the moment."

She pressed her lips together and nodded. "Jason can show you the protocol, but if you don't mind, I'll just double-check with your boss. Don't want to step on any toes, you know." She gave him a tight smile.

Jason and David spent the rest of the week preparing a large batch of racemization agent. Late Thursday night, they put the last portion in the drying oven. "There," Jason said. "Now we just wait thirty minutes or so and we'll be done."

David yawned widely. "I'm beat. Want some coffee?"

Jason glanced at the clock on the wall. "I doubt the cafeteria is still open."

"There are those machines downstairs," David said, already heading for the door.

They pounded down the metal steps, round and round the stairwells, and made their way to the basement vending machine room. Soon, they were seated at a battered white table, sipping at paper cups of coffee.

"Gah," David said, making a face. "This stuff is awful."

Jason laughed and reached for his cup. "It was your suggestion."

David gestured at Jason's bandaged finger. "What did you do to your hand?"

Jason shook his head. "Nothing. Just a broken vial a few days ago."

David sipped, staring at Jason for a long moment. "Was that before or after you suddenly became left-handed?"

Jason sat back in his chair. "What -?"

"What's going on, dude? You've been doing everything in the lab with your left hand all week. I'm certain you were right-handed before."

Jason sighed. "Okay. Something happened. I don't know what it was, but it may have been related to this cut. I may have got some racemization agent in it." He gave him a weak smile. "Either that or I got infected by the virus."

David shook his head. "Not possible. You'd be dead by now."

"No kidding." He wanted to tell David about all of it - the mirror-image people on the train, the wave of energy he sometimes felt pulsing up his arm - but he didn't dare.

"Obviously it wasn't the virus," David said, sipping at the coffee again, "But if it was your reagent, that might explain some things."

"What do you mean?"

"You know - it racemizes things, right? Maybe you got some of it into your finger and it racemized the molecules in your hand."

"Oh come on - so that would make me left-handed instead of right-handed?"

David shrugged. "Maybe." He gazed silently at Jason for a full minute. "So, did you report it?"

"Report what?"

"The broken tube, the possible contamination - you know the rules."

Jason sighed. "I didn't have time. You know how long those reports take. Besides, it would slow everything down and we just don't have time for that kind of crap right now."

David downed the last of his coffee. "Did you ever see that show about the dude who started cooking meth? Heisenberg or something."

"Yeah. Wasn't he a high school chem teacher?"

"Yep. Lower than the low." David paused, not meeting Jason's gaze. "Do you think we all have it in us to go bad like that?"

"Sure, maybe. I - I don't know." What was David accusing him of?

"You know, like there's someone in you who's actually evil and something happens to spring it free."

"Like Dr. Jekyll? Or, wait - was it Mr. Hyde that was the bad guy?"

David laughed. "Dude, it's always the scientist that's mad."

By Friday afternoon, they were nearly finished, and Dr. Murphy told Jason he could leave early. "You and David have done a great job, Jason," she said. "Time to get some rest. You look tired."

Her words surprised him. He'd had plenty of sleep and he felt great. Better than he'd felt in years, actually. "I look tired?"

"You do." She clapped him on the left shoulder, which sent a jarring sensation down his arm and into his hand. His bandaged finger throbbed with a tingly warmth. "I wouldn't doubt," she said, "you'll need a few days to get caught up on your sleep."

"You're probably right." He knew he should talk to her about writing up their results, ask her what the chances were that he would get first authorship, but instead he grabbed his jacket and turned away. "See you Monday?" he asked, the flare of anger sweeping through his entire body.

"Sure thing," she said, her attention distracted again by the printout of his latest results. She didn't even seem to see him standing there, so he turned and left, nearly colliding with David on his way out.

"Leaving so soon?" David asked, holding a tray of centrifuge tubes.

"Murphy sent me home." He nodded at the tray. "I assume you can finish up?"

"Sure thing. See if you can get some sleep, man. You look awful."

Jason gave him a weak smile, left the building and was soon ascending the escalator to the Metro platform. As luck would have it, the train was pulling into the station. He boarded the nearly-empty train, which seemed as normal as it had all week. He slid into a window seat and turned to gaze at the glass. He could see himself reflected there again. He inspected his mirror-reversed self. He looked like he always looked in photos, but there seemed to be something new there - a darkness in his eyes. Maybe it was the fatigue Dr. Murphy had noticed, but it struck him as sinister.

He looked away. The train car was completely empty - it was only three o'clock, not yet rush hour. When he glanced back at the window, he saw them: the man with the newspaper and the girl seated beside him, both of them, again, in the handicapped-only seat.

Jason quickly swiveled his head, looking for the pair in the flesh, but they weren't there. Of course. He looked back at the glass. The girl smiled at him and lifted a hand in a little wave, then held her index finger upward. She looked at her own finger, lifted her eyebrows at him, and nudged her elbow into the man with the newspaper.

He lowered the paper and peered at Jason. A smile crossed the man's face and the two of them, the man and the girl, began to laugh. It was a silent laugh, no sound.

Jason's reflection, his doppelganger, lifted his hand. In the reflection, his previously-bandaged left finger had somehow become unbandaged - but only in the reflection. Jason stared at his hands lying in his lap, the bandage still in place. He looked at the window again. The doppelganger's angry-red finger pointed upward. Jason could almost see it throbbing, but he felt no pain in the hand that lay motionless in his lap.

The doppelganger made eye contact with Jason. It wasn't at all like Jason seeing himself in the mirror. It was another person there, a person who looked just like him, but reversed. The doppelganger stood and moved quickly toward the door. A great force pulled on Jason's chest, as if his heart was trying to escape from his ribcage. He realized what it was: this mirror-self, the one in the glass, was trying to pull him into the mirror-reversed world, and it seemed to be succeeding. Jason felt as if he was being torn in half.

The man in the handicapped seat folded the newspaper and held it out toward Jason. The headline was, as before, completely backward, but said something different this time. Jason struggled against the force tugging at him and tried to decipher the jumble of letters, "!SUOIROTCIV DISUNAJ :NOW ELTTAB TSRIF" This must be a clue about what was happening to him, but what in the world did it mean?

The girl stood up. Jason thought about his empty bed at home, that forlorn mattress on the floor. He thought about what he thought he'd wanted - first authorship on a paper - and it seemed, suddenly, to mean nothing at all to him. This place, these weird mirror people - they had something to do with the virus. Jason was sure of it. He didn't know how he was sure - he just was.

The man with the newspaper waved it at Jason, pointing to the headline. The girl smiled at Jason and, more than he'd ever wanted anything, he wanted to be with this girl.

Jason knew he didn't really want the girl; it was the doppelganger that wanted her. He knew that the small cut on his finger was, somehow, involved with this desire, but was it really like a Mr. Hyde inside him was taking over? Maybe David was right. Maybe the racemization agent had affected his body. The tingly warmth was seeping through his entire body and he'd never felt such pleasure.

The man with the newspaper stood, folded his mirror-reversed paper into a small rectangle and tossed it onto the seat. The three - girl, newspaper man, and doppelganger - stepped to the door. It slid open and they exited the train. Jason, shaking, watched them go. His energy drained away, as if the doppelganger was stealing his life force. The three stood on the platform as the train began to move. In small jerking motions it accelerated, then entered the tunnel, blocking out the light that had created those images in the glass.

Jason twisted in his seat and looked toward the handicapped seat. Nothing. No people, and no newspaper. Jason felt the tingly warmth drain away, and he was left with only the usual despair of his life. His arms went limp, but as the train rumbled down the track, his energy began to return, as if he was somehow reeling in the tendrils of life energy the doppelganger had tried to steal from him.

When he got home and unlocked his door, the sight of that frayed lawn chair and his collection of empty Cup o' Noodles containers nearly deflated him again. But he sat down and began scribbling letters from memory, trying to figure out what the backward newspaper had said. It took him awhile to remember the jumbled headline, but when he did, he realized it was simply backward words: FIRST BATTLE WON: JANUSID VICTORIOUS! By the time he made it to bed, thoroughly exhausted, he knew what he had to do.

The next day, Saturday, he returned to the cold room and retrieved a vial of the racemization agent and a box of syringes. As he walked out into the hallway, there was David, who nodded at the things in Jason's hands. "What're you doing?"

Jason trembled, wanting to tell him everything, but how could he explain this? "Listen. I need you to help me with something."

David frowned. "Sure, man. Anything."

Jason hurried back into the lab, David on his heels, and rummaged through a drawer for a sticky note pad. He scribbled a phone number on it and shoved the pad toward David. "If something happens to me, I need you to call my parents. Tell them - well, that this was the only way I knew to beat Janusid. Tell them that." Jason grabbed the syringes and the racemization agent and sprinted toward the hallway.

"I don't understand," David yelled behind him. "What are you talking about?"

Jason ran to the Metro station and waited impatiently for the train. When it finally arrived, he boarded, the train took off, exited the tunnel and, soon, a beam of light slanted across the car. And then there they were as before, the man and the girl. Both of them gave him a curious look. They seemed almost frightened.

The man had a newspaper - as usual. He held it up toward Jason. Bold letters, all backward, stretched across the page. Jason laughed as he quickly deciphered it, not even needing pencil and paper this time: "ENEMY ENGAGED: MASSIVE CASUALTIES EXPECTED."

Jason might never get credit for what he was about to do, but so be it. Not getting credit seemed the least of his concerns now, considering he might not ever get back. He pulled out the first syringe and injected his left upper arm. A burst of energy surged into his shoulder and through his body. If his magic stuff, the racemization agent, could mirror-reverse a protein coating, what might it do to a whole body in the mirror image world? He could feel it working. He gazed at his reflection in the glass and then, as if merely taking a step forward, he was on the other side, looking back at himself.

Jason believed in the empirical approach, and the only thing left to do was try it. He had two more syringes in the bag, already prepared. Janusid might think it knew how to beat them, but it had never tangled with someone like Jason.

The robotic voice came over the intercom: Doors opening on the left. The girl and the man rushed out to the mirror-image platform. Jason and his doppelganger reached into the bag, pulled out the remaining syringes and, holding one in each hand, leaped through the doors, in hot pursuit of them.

5 comments:

  1. Very clever concept, and especially pertinent today. Good characters. One question I had: Although Jason could inject the man and girl, and reverse the virus in them, what about the thousands of other copies of Janusid that had already infected South America?

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  2. Entertaining story. I like the idea of the main character fighting his own ego. Not to mention his Mr Hyde doppelganger.

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  3. Quite the amusing twist on the pandemic theme. I found it interesting that the man and girl initially drew so much attention to themselves, all but provoking Jason to come after them...miscalculation on their part, or just a thirst for conflict and chaos?

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  4. Hands down beats any other chirality story I've ever read!

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  5. Very interesting tale. I got a little lost on the science, but still understood what was happening. Thanks for sharing your work with us.

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