Phenol-faerie by Jay Werkheiser [sci-fi]

Imprint - SciFi Imprint Logo 200wPhenol-faerie by Jay Werkheiser

“What are you doing in the lab so late, Duncan?”

I swiveled my head around to see Gwen standing in the doorway. “Uh, just working on my dissertation research.” I shifted my body to hide the vial on the workbench from her view.

She grinned and walked over to me. “Doesn’t look like a polyamine synthesis.”

I tried to slide the vial from view nonchalantly. “Yeah, uh, it’s a side project.”

“Ooh, nice crystals. Sparkly. You recrystallize it yourself?”

Busted. I held up the vial, letting her look at the iridescent powder inside. “Promise you won’t tell anyone about this?”

She took the vial from my hand, intrigued. “It flows, almost like a liquid.” She turned the vial from side to side, staring at the sparkling dust as it flowed back and forth. “What is it?”

“Promise you’ll keep your mouth shut.”

“You know me, Duncan. My lips are sealed.”

“It’s faerie dust.”

She gave me a hurt look. “You don’t want to tell me, just say so.” She opened the vial and peered inside.

“No, I’m serious. Careful!”

“And where would you get faerie dust? The stockroom have a mythical substances shelf I don’t know about?”

“A, uh, troll gave it to me.”

She burst into laughter. Her hand shook, just a bit, but enough to slosh some of the dust onto her thumb and forefinger. “I suppose it lives under a Wheatstone bridge in the physics lab.”

“You better wash that off.” I pointed to the shimmering powder smeared on her hand.

“Oh! It’s tingly, all up my arm. What is this stuff?”

“I told you.”

“Dammit, Duncan, chemical exposure is serious—oh!” She wobbled, like she was dizzy and about to fall over, then lifted off her feet and floated gently toward the ceiling. I stepped back to avoid her thrashing legs. She screeched like a banshee who’d overshot her titration endpoint.

“Quiet! Someone will hear you!”

To her credit, she stopped screaming and thrashing. “Fine. How do I get back to the ground?” She bobbed gently against the ceiling, arms folded like an angry parade balloon.

“I have no idea. I only just started analyzing what it’s made of.”

She glared heat at me. “Well, what’s it made of?”

“Near as I can tell, it’s low-density nanoparticles of some sort. I’d love to get some time on the electron microscope, but—”

“Heh. Just try getting that proposal past the department chair.”

“Exactly. It has a very low solubility in water, so I imagine the bonding is nonpolar.”

“Not helping.”

“But the sparkling seems to indicate banding of electron states, like metallic bonds.”

Not helping.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“I don’t know. Run a sample through the GCMS, maybe. If we can find out what it’s made of…”

“Good idea.” I took the vial from her carefully and injected a few microliters into the GCMS. While I waited for its results, I prepared a Nujol mull to run through IR. “Hey, Gwen, looks like the GCMS is ready. Can you reach down far enough to check out the results? I’m going to run an IR spec.”

She glared at me, but pushed herself along the ceiling until she was over the GCMS readout. “Weird. It’s picking up quite a few phenolamine compounds, including dimers and trimers. But there are several unidentifiable components.”

“IR agrees,” I said. “A lot of amine and phenol peaks. Fingerprint region is really strange, though.”

“You’re the polyamine expert. How does that make me float?”

“It doesn’t.”

She looked at her levitating body pointedly.

“Well, it shouldn’t. Polyphenolamines tend to be good antimicrobial agents, for whatever good that does. Regardless, the molecules are too big to absorb through your skin.”

“But what about the smaller units, like dimers?”

“Well, yeah, they could diffuse into your bloodstream, especially when dispersed in nanoparticles.”

“What do they do in there?”

“They’re good a promoting cell growth. They enhance the activity of some neurotransmitter receptors. Some of them make the blood-brain barrier more permeable.”

“Wait. They can go through my bloodstream, get into my brain, and mess with neuroreceptors?” Her eyes went wide.

I fidgeted with the vial. “I don’t see how that would make you float. Maybe make you believe you can float, but—”

“That’s not very helpful, Duncan.”

“No wait, I think that’s it!”

She looked at me like I had just told her I liked the smell of ninhydrin. “You’re saying I’m floating because I think I’m floating?”

“Why not? There are quite a few unknown compounds in the dust. Some could be highly psychotropic, and the polyamines could make you susceptible to their effects.”

“So all I have to do is stop believing that I can float.”

“Uh uh. Not that easy. You’ve seen yourself float; how are you going to not believe it?”

“What, then?”

“It just has to run its course. Shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours to pass through your body.”

She sighed. “I don’t know. It just doesn’t seem very scientific.”

“Of course it is. We’ve made empirical observations, drawn conclusions, formulated a hypothesis. Can’t get much more scientific.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Science is all about discovering new phenomena.”

“Okay, fine. Just tell me you’re done playing with new phenomena.”

I glanced sheepishly at the witch’s brew in the stoppered Erlenmeyer flask on my lab bench. “Well…”

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