Yes, I did, said the misshapen creature, smiling his hideous smile. Knew him, aided him, abetted him and you look quite like him that nose, the mouth though Ill wager those eyes are your mothers.
I I dont understand, said Caitlyn. How do you know him? I mean, he wasnt anyone important.
Was he now? said Ji-Cheng, and waited patiently for her to answer.
But he was just a math teacher! she said. He taught at a community college!
Did he now? said Ji-Cheng.
Alright, then where did he teach?
Oh, he taught one class at Belleville, thats true. Had to keep up appearances. Same reason I taught Chinese at Langstry High.
Well, okay, so if thats true, then what did he really do?
Math and physics are such similar subjects, he said.
So, what, he taught physics?
After a fashion.
Caitlyn growled, reached across the table, and grabbed the monsters upper-right shoulder. Listen, Im sick of playing twenty questions with you! What the hell is going on here? Talk to me, you stupid freak!
Freak, yes, stupid, no, said Ji-Cheng calmly. Unwise, certainly, but not stupid. Could you please let go of my protoplasm now?
Caitlyn loosed him, and as she did, her hand came away from his shoulder with a sticky yellow ooze dripping from it. The edge of Ji-Chengs shoulder had a handprint-shaped dent that was slowly filling with the same yellow liquid.
My God, said Caitlyn, staring at her hand, feeling almost ready to vomit. What... what are you?
Im dying, said Ji-Cheng. Perhaps a fitting end for one with my crimes, yes? Melting into this tub, you see, as my cellular structure breaks down, ever so slowly. Im looking forward to the point when I finally lose my consciousness; I havent slept in years, and that can be rather grating. Of course, I may not be so lucky as to lose consciousness: That goop down there is still me, and I can even manipulate it, so its rather likely that in a year or two, when Im just a sentient, faceless, human-colored amoeba, Ill have to endure the indignity of spending the next few centuries as a museum curiosity in a large glass bowl.
Thats... horrible, said Caitlyn.
Yes, isnt it? he replied cheerfully.
How can you be so blasé? she asked. Its horrible!
Well, Ive had some years to get used to it, and I very much deserve it.
Caitlyn walked over to the sink and wiped her hand off on a paper towel. Nobody deserves this, she said. I dont care what youve done.
She startled as the yellow goop slid down the paper towel, formed into a ball, and weakly rolled and oozed its way across the floor to climb up Ji-Chengs fingertips and disappear into his arm.
I thought you wanted to know how I knew your father, he said, grinning his horrible, ugly, terrifying spiked-tooth grin again.
I I mean yes, I do, she said, and walked back over to him, staring at her hand in disbelief. She sat her hindquarters down, took a deep breath, and spoke. Im done speaking. Im ready to listen, she said, and he nodded.
When I was a boy, I was smart, and I knew it humility was never my strong suit, Miss Camberley, so youll have to forgive me, but Im not lying: I graduated high school by the time I was ten, and I had my first doctorate by the time I was fifteen.
I remember well meeting your father for the first time. I was a brash, newly-minted genius at twenty, and he was twenty-five, all suave and cool standing there in his white lab coat with that haircut that wouldve made Hollywood jealous anyway, he was interviewing me for a research position at Denly University, and
What? You never heard of Denly? Were Ivy League, girl! Founded in 1837! The Fighting Badgers? Tennis champions last year? Ah, nevermind; the schools on the map, but it tends to keep a low profile, and that suited our work just fine. Less bother if people forget you exist, you see.
Your father was well, in a word, he was brilliant: Makes me look like a spot in the shade. Ive never met a mind like his, and I doubt I ever will again. He had a talent for keeping a low profile, too, a lot lower than mine: Hed gone through high school and college at a normal rate, and had been careful to collect an mix of As and Bs to avoid suspicion but its still hard to believe that nobody noticed his As and Bs spelled out his name in Morse Code. And I laughed when I saw his SAT score: He took the test on Columbus Day, so he gave himself a 1492. Eh? Eh?
Not impressed? Well, nevermind, then: His talents were in theoretical physics, mostly high-energy quantum with a dash of relativity and a garnish of grand unification for flavor. I learned more from him in six months than Id learned in ten years of schooling.
And it may seem odd, but he was far better at people than I was, too, and I daresay Id never have met my wife without him. No matter how pressing our work, he was done at five on the dot, and home to his loving wife and two little girls. Thatd be you alright, alright, just making sure you were paying
What do you mean, what was our work? It was noble enough. We werent making weapons of mass destruction or anything. But the road to hell, they say, is paved with such nobility. Now give this withering blob a chance to tell his story, girl, and youll see my meaning.
Our work was good stuff, decades ahead of most theoretical physics, and too good to be ignored for long. Unfortunately, on a drizzly rainy day in November about fourteen years ago, a bunch of men in dark suits walked into our labs and confiscated every paper, every disc, every member of our team, and we were being relocated, they said, for our work had been deemed important to our nation. Im sure one or two of them even believed that.
We ended up in the basement of a sports complex two hundred miles away yes, in Philadelphia, and you know now what our project turned out to be.
Dont look at me like that! We didnt intend to make this mess! Our project was to try to poke a pinprick hole in the laws of physics just to see if a hole could be poked, to see whether Newton and Einstein were absolute or whether they could be pushed out of the way when they got inconvenient. And we had our work under control. Or, I should say, your father did he was paranoid about safety, and every test had to work right the first time, because he wasnt risking his little girls for anything.
I know, I know, it went wrong. It wasnt his fault. Or maybe it was, a little. It was all our faults, really. We played gods and we were punished, and in my next life Ill atone for my mistakes in this one, you mark my words.
Now, I dont know who they were, so dont ask. We werent ready to start up any of the machines wed built, but they came rushing in, firing their guns, and making demands... Lisa Markie died in my hands, girl, blood gushing out of her belly; have you ever had anyone die in your hands? Dont judge me until youve seen what Ive seen.
We had no defenses. The government men had given us one low-level Army guard, and he was out getting coffee when they came. We had no choice but to give in. They didnt want information; they were there for the power of our work hah, you dont understand, do you? When you can break the laws of physics, you can do anything. Teleport around the planet. Kill a guarded man from ten thousand miles away. Turn sunlight into gold. Theres not a magic trick in the book that wouldnt be childs play. We were too naïve to realize what people would do for our work until it was too late.
We had no choice. We started up our primary test equipment. Jeremy he tried to play hero, and he took out one of them, and they fired back and their goddamn guns blew open one of the fuel storage tanks, killing Jeremy and Reeny and Miko
Nobody played hero after that, nobody except your father, girl, and he wasnt stupid. They didnt understand the equipment, you see, and they needed him, they needed us to make it work. He did, oh, how he did, and I helped him do it, and youre living proof of the rest of that story. Hah, well, I am too, sort of. Everybody in that room was destroyed better than that, really, because a lot of it was erased from existence, past and present, like itd never been, along with every single paper, hard drive, and anything else that could reproduce what we did. Its gone, its all gone, and good damn riddance.
Except it didnt quite work the way your father planned. It was experimental, of course, and we didnt have much time to program it, so only most of them disappeared. A few of us were left alive, but that close to the blast, not much of what we were survived. I was turned into half a lizard and Ive been melting, slowly, ever since that day. Leah, Naomi, I watched them burn, girl. Kim thankfully, poor guy didnt live long enough to know what had happened to him.
I know, I know, what about the people outside? How many people have you met who were living in Philadelphia before the Change, girl? You want to know what happened to the other third of that city, well, ask your government. Im no longer interested in any of it. Im done playing with Thors hammer and Zeuss bolts, and I intend to take my punishment quietly.
He paused after he finished speaking, and Caitlyn swallowed hard. So she began, choking, what happened to my father?
That Id like to know, said Ji-Cheng. Because until you crawled in here, there was no doubt in my mind that I was the last wretched soul to survive that day and now Im not so sure.