Fanfic Friday – “Lobster”

18 May

Junior FBI Agent Astrid Farnsworth stopped as she put the key in the lock, and inhaled slowly. She liked to take these moments, whenever she could, to centre herself. She found it was more and more important as the weeks wore on. Saying that her line of work was “weird” was no longer adequate; her mom would ask her on the phone how her day went and she’d reply by throwing back her head and laughing, too long and too hard. Maybe she was finally losing it. If that was the case, she reflected idly, it wasn’t exactly surprising. Every time she opened this door she invited a bit more crazy into her life.

Then, as she turned the key, she smiled, and realized she liked it that way.

Astrid strode into the laboratory, her small frame bowed under the weight of the sealed metal container she was carrying. “Good morning, Walter,” she called, but her voice caught in her throat as she noticed the hazy cloud of red mist hanging over the room.

She looked through it over the banks of lab equipment – flasks, tubes, burners, and phials bubbling and smoking merrily at the chemistry bar; stacks of seismographs, spectrometers, Gauss counters, optimal coherence holographs, and a multitude of devices whose function she still couldn’t imagine, beeping and buzzing and flashing; the FBI-spec forensics table, with its NASA microscopes and dedicated blood transfusion unit, currently attached to what appeared to be a decomposing corpse; and the offset niche barred with a gate and filled with hay, out of which Gene’s bovine head poked and looked at her placidly.

The lab was humming with activity, but Walter was nowhere to be seen. Astrid squinted at the cloud and wrinkled her nose – something smelled bad, but she couldn’t put her finger on what it was. Strange smells were becoming something of an unintentional specialty of hers, but this one was a stumper.

Gene suddenly vocalized, her bellowing moo making Astrid jump. Walter’s head popped out from behind Gene’s speckled back, and he shouted, “Astro! Excellent, they’ve arrived!”

As he wiped his hands on his lab coat and hurried over to her, Astrid ignored his typical mispronunciation of her name and warily asked, “Walter, what’s going on? What is that?”

Dr. Walter Bishop looked grave, his lined face deeply serious as he raised an eyebrow and took the huge rectangular case from her. “It’s a free-floating particulate cloud, dear, don’t be simple,” he said, no longer looking at her, but inspecting the metal box carefully. “I do hope you didn’t jostle them, they’re extremely delicate.”

She watched as he brought the case over to a desk, which he began to clear of various books, binders, and pieces of equipment. She followed slowly, and – knowing that, as with all questions posed to Walter, this was a dangerous one – asked him, “Walter, what’s in the case?”

When he didn’t answer, she prodded. “The last time you asked me to pick something up at the front desk for you, you didn’t tell me what it was. It turned out to be an ebola strain.”

Walter’s head snapped up. “And?” he demanded. “You seem to be in perfectly good health today, Aphid. That vial was perfectly safe to handle, though admittedly if you’d dropped it we would have been in some peril. But you didn’t, and here we are.” Then he finished clearing the desk, and placed the case in the centre.

Astrid’s exasperated expression must have annoyed him, because he slowed his speech considerably – a tactic he used when he wanted to condescend. “We are not in any danger. This case is considerably less hazardous than the last one. All it contains, besides the means to finally conclude this little experiment,” he said, opening the container with a hiss of escaping air, “are these.”

He reached in and brought out a frozen mass, flourishing it proudly. Astrid saw reddish-brown colouration and a rigid shape she immediately recognized. “Lobster?”

Homarus americanus, to be precise,” said Walter, eyeing it carefully. “One of nature’s hardiest creatures.”

It was Astrid’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Didn’t you say they were delicate?”

Walter didn’t look at her, but began busily removing more of the frozen crustaceans and transferring them to a basin. “They are. When they’re swimming about, they’re a force to be reckoned with. Frozen, their exoskeletons are still strong, but can easily be shattered by careless knocking about.”

Astrid ignored this dig, and sat down on a stool to watch Walter work. Exceptional intellects like his often came packaged with emotional side effects, which could manifest in unpredictable mood swings. When Walter was in such a state, Astrid knew it was better to sit back, and see how things played out.

She watched him take his basin full of frozen lobsters to a vat near the chemistry table, which was filled with a broiling chemical liquid. Without pausing, he unceremoniously dumped the lot, listening to the prolonged hiss as bright red steam filled the air. Astrid stared in amazement and was slapped in the face by the same foul smell she’d detected before. Walter remained unperturbed.

“I’ve been thinking too linearly,” he said, watching the red cloud settle above him. “Deductive. Restrictive. I knew I must expand my thinking.” Then he began a flurry of activity. He adjusted a valve on the vat, and watched as a tube flowing up to the table flowed with a crimson liquid, and emptied into a beaker. He plopped a thermometer into it. Frowning, satisfied, he brought it over to the forensic bank, where he poured it into a waiting funnel attached to an intravenous bag. Astrid noticed with some concern that the IV drip was being fed into the corpse, flat and putrefying on the slab. Before she could comment, Walter reached below the body and grabbed a glass container, which held a very small amount of horrid-looking pale red ooze. Then he brought this over to his bank of medical equipment, and inserted it carefully into a waiting receptacle. A light shone from the device, and Walter sighed contentedly.

Then he strode over to Astrid, and began explaining. “You see, Asterix, the mind is a muscle. I must exercise it, in order to keep fit.” Then he kept moving, walking back to Gene’s enclosure and hefting the bucket of milk he had been filling. “As…stimulating as our regular work is, I need to find diversions. Distractions.” He brought the milk over to the flashing device, opened a flap on the top, and poured it in. “Ways to keep occupied. I need to find special problems, and solve them. You understand – if I don’t, I’m quite liable to go mad.”

Astrid, sitting silently on her stool, regarded the curly-haired man speaking to her, the noxious cloud hanging over their heads, the foul odour clinging to them both – and laughed. “Walter, I’m not sure anything can stop that now.”

Walter’s irritation vanished. He suddenly looked years younger, as a ludicrous grin spread across his face. There was a ding! and his eyes widened. He leapt toward the device, and Astrid couldn’t see what he was doing – but in a moment he was standing before her, thrusting a bowl into her hands. She hesitated before accepting it.

Walter, inviting Astrid to imitate him, plunged his spoon into his bowl and took a huge gulp of the reddish-white paste within, closing his eyes and convulsing in childlike delight. After a very long pause, with Walter smiling broadly at her, Astrid took a bite.

It was surprisingly good. “Walter…” she began, before he held up a hand to stop her.

“Ice cream, my dear. Lobster ice cream. Fermented in a decomposing human stomach. Delicious, isn’t it?”

Walter threw back his head and laughed uproariously as Astrid hacked and spit.

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