Peter emerged from the lab and lumbered toward the elevator. He felt the outline of the metal tube in the pocket of his lab coat.
He didn't intend to steal the Healeon Balm at first, at least not when he was assigned to the project years ago. His discovery changed that.
Peter pressed his thumb on the elevator sensor. A pale light scanned and the sensor turned green. He glanced around at the security cameras trained his way. He was tired of being watched.
Peter recalled when the project began. The local media discovered a brown liquid no bigger than an ant mound near the impact crater. The oasis that radiated around it for miles garnered the military's attention and the press stories soon died. Nothing so lush had grown on the salt flats before or since.
The elevator doors opened with a whoosh and he shuffled inside. Anchored with his thoughts and a weariness of life, he doubted it would actually lift him.
He looked at the man reflected on the polished walls and didn't recognize him: frumpy appearance, grey hair, jowls that pulled a sullen face into a mask of despair.
Peter was hung over when he discovered the real significance of the Healeon Balm. Under an electron microscope he observed what looked like miniature soldiers arranged in endless rows of precision. Life and intelligence, albeit on a nano scale. If only he could communicate with them.
A deep voice prompted Peter to insert his security card to activate the elevator. He thought of game show announcers and almost smiled. He pulled a card from his vest pocket and put it into the gray slot. It turned yellow and a holographic military police officer appeared before him. He narrowed his glowing eyes at Peter.
"Look into my eyes, Doctor Fallon."
Peter did so, feeling a bit silly as if it were a romantic request from the burly image. However, he understood an eye scan was required to operate the elevator. It was a redundant security measure and the military was built on redundancies. The slot turned green and the guard nodded. Peter winked at him and blew a kiss from his heavy lips. The guard did not reciprocate.
"Have a good evening, Doctor Fallon." The image dissolved, the metal doors shut, and the elevator began a rapid ascent from the bowels of the underground complex.
Regardless of Peter's scientific interest, the government controlled his paycheck and his life. They wanted to use the balm to empower soldiers with resilience to injury and fatigue.
One irony remained throughout Peter's research: only by their death could the Healeon release a brown-like substance -- their balm -- with an exponential power to heal. In his rigorous tests, Peter kept silent on how the balm cured cancer in lab mice and regenerated severed limbs in capuchin monkeys. In order to leverage their incredible ability to heal, many Healeon would have to die.
The elevator continued its ascent.
Forty-two, forty-one, forty ...
The floor numbers appeared in sequence on a luminal sphere that orbited around his head.
"Another late night, Petey?" Sally's voice asked.
Peter felt a chill. It was the voice of his dead wife. His eyes made a furtive sweep over his bifocals and around the empty elevator. Nothing. Just tired, he thought. No, he was exhausted.
He would end his military research, save the Healeon, and learn how to communicate with them. Then he would share his discovery with the global scientific community.
Thirty-three, thirty-two, thirty-one. The floor numbers swirled around in succession.
"You'll miss dinner again." Her voice sounded tired, flat.
He fumbled to loosen his tie, hoping to free folds of fat held prisoner beneath his collar. His skin turned clammy. Focusing on the sphere of numbers, he tried to breathe.
Twenty-one, twenty, nineteen ...
"Talk to me, sweetie." Sally's voice drew him toward the elevator's emergency call pod. A sign above read: Emergency Use Only. He reached for the pod. Stabbing pains serrated his arm without warning. He dropped to his knees and grabbed his chest. His long hours at work always bothered Sally and he could not talk about his work to her because of military protocol. Their marriage died long before cancer wasted her into a mass of shadows. She met death with her eyes open, waiting for him to come home. If he had only known about the balm he might have saved her and their marriage.
Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen ...The luminous sphere begin to spin the floor numbers faster above his head.
Ten, nine, eight ...
"I'm waiting for you." Sally's voice echoed in his head.
Nausea overcame him and he crumpled to the floor.
He pulled the metal tube from his lab coat pocket, flipped open the airlock and poured the Healeon down his throat. The liquid burned like molten metal.
Three, two, one ...
His heart stopped and his body slumped forward. The elevator doors opened and Peter remained still.
"Please exit the elevator, Doctor Fallon," the voice of the MP said. A few moments passed and Peter's eyes opened. Instead of gathering any remaining strength to rise, he leapt to his feet. He never felt so strong or youthful. He felt as if he had shed thirty years and could run a marathon. But the figure reflected across the elevator walls was no longer Peter inside. It was the organized army of remaining Healeon who had migrated to his brain, which they now controlled.
The man who was once Peter would complete his military research, but the Healeon would guide him.