Wrong, wrong, wrong.
How could this be happening? Every single reading Jerrie took didn’t make sense. Yesterday, the readings were spot on, perfectly in range. Today… today was just wrong. Most scientists felt a thrill when readings turned uncharacteristic, hoping for a breakthrough discovery, but Jerrie knew that her readings were not uncharacteristic. They were just wrong. She also knew the reason.
For the last two months, she had been living in a tiny research capsule just outside the edge of the Milky Way measuring light waves in the interstellar medium. Her goal was to take up-close-and-personal readings to confirm the current scientific theories about PAH molecules. All of the measurements, even at close proximity, barely registered on Jerrie’s expensive equipment. It was like catching every word of a whisper from across a table in a crowded room.
But today… today the measurements maxed out all her dials. The whisper was screaming. Today, Jerrie could see the light brightening with her vastly inferior human eyes. With her eyes for crying out loud!
Something was creating interference, which was very rare in the interstellar medium. Out here it was dark, cold and empty. Empty except for Jerrie and Charlie.
Seriously, Jerrie thought. There are only four compartments in this capsule. She knew that Charlie could hear her, and she knew it only took about two seconds to cross them all and join her. Jerrie drummed her fingers on her keyboard and closing her eyes slowly counted to ten.
Finally, Charlie’s hair floated around the corner. Charlie’s long hair preceded her everywhere she went. To keep it somewhat contained, Charlie kept it pulled back in about a dozen long braids, but in zero gravity, the braids wriggled all over like a clutch of very excited snakes. It totally creeped Jerrie out and created a horrible distraction.
“I thought we agreed you were going to pin back all your braids from now on,” Jerrie said grimacing.
Charlie just shrugged and chugged the last of the soda in her hand, tossing the empty container back towards the supply room. Jerrie cringed again. Charlie drank soda like it was her lifeblood. She went through at least a dozen packets a day of the syrupy drink.
“Charlie, the container,” Jerrie said.
“What?” Charlie said with a shrug. “I’ll get it later. What do you want?”
“You can’t just toss things all over the capsule,” Jerrie complained. “This isn’t your childhood bedroom.”
“Or my college dorm room, or a bachelor pad, or a trash yard. I know,” Charlie replied rolling her eyes. “Just tell me what you want already. I’m not in the mood for another lecture on cleanliness being next to godliness.”
Jerrie took a deep breath and centered herself. “My readings are unusual today,” she said calmly, pulling them up on the screen.
“Uh, huh,” Charlie said looking at the monitor while scratching her tummy vigorously. “In what way?”
“In what way?” Jerrie wanted to scream even louder than the readings. “Charlie, you just don’t understand my work at all.”
“Then what did you call me in here for?” Charlie complained. “My job is not to interpret your results. I’m your pilot. Now, if you want me to move the capsule, I would LOVE to do it for you. Can I, can I, please?”
“No,” Jerrie groaned, rubbing her eyes.
“Just a few feet?” Charlie tried sweetly, rubbing the back of Jerrie’s shoulders. “Maybe I’ll just do a few donuts and bring us right back to the exact same spot. Churn up the space matter a little. Maybe that will fix your readings.”
Jerrie just sighed, tired of arguing.
A timer started quietly beeping. “I’ll get the lights,” Charlie said, pushing off Jerrie’s shoulders towards the opposite wall.
“Give me two seconds, to prep the sensors and save the previous measurements.” Jerrie’s hands flew across the computer.
“Is it hot in here?” she heard Charlie ask. Jerrie just ignored her until Charlie’s shirt floated in front of her face.
“Charlie, what are you…” She turned around to find Charlie almost completely undressed. Her black bra, “Wednesday” day-of-the-week underpants and Velcro shoes her only attire. “Seriously! Can you put your clothes back on? It makes me uncomfortable.”
“Yeah, well, being hot makes me more uncomfortable,” Charlie said, continuing to scratch her bare chest. “Besides, I’m in the best shape of my life, someone should enjoy the view.”
“I think I may be running a fever,” Charlie complained. “My eyes feel hot.”
“Don’t you dare take off any more clothes,” Jerrie warned keeping her eyes permanently fixed on her monitor. “Alright, I’m ready. Shut off the lights in three, two, one.”
The capsule went dark and Jerrie hit the button to begin the image and measurement captures. Then Jerrie noticed a reflection on her monitor.
“Darn it, Charlie, turn off that flashlight.” Jerrie turned around ready to jettison Charlie out the nearest porthole, but then jerked herself back towards the console in fright. “What did you do?”
Charlie, her eyes bulging, floated in front of Jerrie, running her fingers all over her brightly lit torso. Vibrant green veins crisscrossed Charlie’s entire body. They glowed with a bioluminescence that Jerrie had never seen on a human before. It reminded her of the small deep-water fish she had visited at the aquarium in her childhood.
Recovering from her initial shock, Jerrie floated closer and traced one of the lines with her finger. “How are you glowing like that?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Charlie responded, flicking Jerrie’s cold hand of her belly and shivering.
“Well, you did something,” Jerrie told her.
“Why, do you always assume everything is my fault?” Charlie complained, reaching for her pants and pouting her lip.
“Because, I don’t look like that!” Jerrie said pointing.
“How do you know?” Charlie said wriggling her pants up over her bottom. “Prove it.”
Unable to resist proving Charlie wrong, Jerry quickly pulled up her own shirt. Then she smugly smiled at Charlie. “See.”
“That still doesn’t prove it’s my fault,” Charlie said reaching for her shirt.
“Just let me think for a minute,” Jerrie said, rubbing her temples and staring at the green glow emanating from Charlie’s chest. She reached forward to touch it again, but Charlie twitched away. “I’ll be gentle,” Jerrie told her and leaned in even closer. Jerrie could have sworn the veins moved across Charlie like worms in a mud puddle.
Pulling back, Jerrie took a deep breath and pulled at her lip as Charlie put her shirt back on. Then something caught her eye in the eerie glow. Charlie’s soda floated nearby. Jerrie wanted to mention again why it was important to not throw trash helter-skelter in the capsule when she noticed a drop float out of the neck of the container. It also glowed a luminescent green. Jerrie looked at Charlie and noticed that she had seen the droplet as well.
“You don’t think…” Charlie began.
“This was caused by your soda,” Jerrie finished. “The evidence points that way.”
“But you drink the soda too.”
“No, actually, I don’t,” Jerrie said turning back to her monitor and cancelling the contaminated readings.
“What do I do?” Charlie asked beginning to panic.
“Stop drinking the soda,” Jerrie said, deleting the files and making notes in her journal.
“Jerrie, focus here for just a second, please,” Charlie pleaded. “I look like a glow bug!”
“You’ll be fine,” Jerrie threw over her shoulder, bending her head down and trying not to laugh.
“I’m not fine,” Charlie complained. “I itch. I feel like my skin is going to burn off me, and I’m lit like a neon sign.”
Jerrie shook of her giggles and turned around attempting to be solemn. Charlie was scratching all over now and writhing like she had ants in her pants. It was more than Jerrie could take. She burst out laughing.
“Stop it,” Charlie complained. “it’s not funny.”
Eventually, Jerrie calmed down enough to help Charlie rub olive oil lotion on her itchy skin and got her some cold compresses to help with the heat. With Charlie’s permission, she took pictures of the “rash” as they started calling it, though Charlie wanted to call it the infestation.
“Nothing is living inside you,” Jerrie reassured her.
“Then I’ve been poisoned. You’ve poisoned me!” Charlie cried, thrusting out an accusatory finger.
“You poisoned yourself,” Jerrie said with a snicker. “I told you not to drink so much of that candy-water.”
“Hey, it keeps me awake,” Charlie said petulantly. “Otherwise, I’d spend all day sleeping.”
“Would that be so bad?” Jerrie whispered to herself.
“I heard that,” Charlie said glowering. “I wish I could go into cryo sleep while you did your work, but someone has to keep you company.” Charlie made air quotes with her fingers on the word company.
Jerrie sighed. She knew she wasn’t very good company for Charlie. Her entire focus was on her research. She had one shot to gather meaningful data before they traveled back to the main station. She wanted to make her time in the interstellar medium count for something.
“I’m sorry,” Jerrie said. “I tried to teach you about my work.”
“It is as interesting as watching paint dry,” Charlie grumbled.
Jerrie felt hurt, but she knew to most people Charlie was right on target. “You could read a book, watch a movie, exercise,” she offered.
“This is my sixteenth mission,” Charlie told her. “I exhausted my interest in all those things long ago.”
Jerrie had never really thought about Charlie’s past experience before. “Sixteen, really?”
“Lucky number sixteen,” Charlie said, rummaging through the snack box. “And no one ever lets me move the ship,” she grumbled while shoving a granola bar in her mouth.
“Never?” Jerrie asked feeling guilty.
“Never,” Charlie replied emphatically.
The two floated in the galley in silence. Charlie chewed on her granola bar and read the wrapper and Jerrie twisted her ring while biting her lip. She felt horrible. To be honest, there wasn’t any solid reason why they couldn’t move the ship. Sure, it would be more consistent to take all the readings from the same spot to minimize any undesired variables. However, she already had two months of solid data without one single deviation in readings. Not one deviation until this morning.
“Maybe a change in location wouldn’t hurt,” Jerrie offered.
Charlie’s eyes lit up a bright as her bioluminescent belly. “You mean it?”
“Yeah,” Jerrie said with a shrug. “We could move the ship every day for the last thirty days and see if the readings from multiple locations are consistent with those we have already obtained. If they are, then it would mean…”
“You are the best!” Charlie squealed while bear hugging Jerrie until she couldn’t breathe.
Jerrie just patted her on the back. “I know.”
Charlie threw her granola bar wrapper over her shoulder and swam for the control center.
Jerrie grabbed the wrapper and shoved it into a trash receptacle. “But only on one condition,” she called out, following Charlie and settling into the passenger seat.
“Anything,” Charlie said.
“No more of that wickedly green soda,” Jerrie told her.
“Deal,” Charlie said quickly. “I guess they don’t call it Aberration for nothing!” she said with a wink.
“Do they really call it that?” Jerrie asked wide eyed.
Charlie just winked at her.
For the next week, Charlie moved the ship every morning, and Jerrie waited patiently while Charlie added a few flips and donuts to the maneuvers. Charlie’s fluorescent color had faded overnight with the administration of several large glasses of water. Jerrie’s readings returned to the predictable, and she cheerfully noted that the change in location was having zero effect on her results.
Until day five.
“Charlie!” Jerrie called from her lab.
Charlie’s snake-like hair proceeded her around the corner again, but this time Jerrie kept her commentary to herself. When the rest of Charlie appeared, she had a puzzle cube in hand, something Jerrie had dug out of her personal luggage.
“I’ve almost got it,” Charlie said focused on the cube with one eye closed and biting her lip.
“You’ve started drinking that Aberration stuff again, haven’t you,” Jerrie accused her.
“No, I haven’t,” Charlie said looking wounded.
“Charlie,” Jerrie said sternly. “It messes up my readings.”
“Honest, I haven’t. Look.” Charlie threw the light switch and tugged up her shirt. To her surprise, her belly glowed again with a bright red luminescence. Although startled by the color, Jerrie still gave Charlie her best I told-you-so-look.
“Oh, man,” Charlie said groaning and pulling her shirt back down. “It must be the Tongue of Fire.”
“What fire?” Jerrie asked scrambling back in fear. “Something caught fire!”
Charlie cringed guiltily. “You told me not to drink Aberration, but water is just so blah.”
“So, you drank something called Tongue of Fire!” Jerrie said astounded. “I take it that it is a red color.”
“I wonder what color I would turn if I drank Void?” Charlie wondered, tracing the bright red highways along her arms.
“Charlie!” Jerrie said shocked.
Jerrie was silently fuming. Her research was being messed with again, and Charlie did not even care. Just stab her with a needle and put her in cryo sleep, Jerrie thought to herself. She could feel every muscle in her body tightening.
“I also brought Everest,” Charlie mused. “Would that light me up white or have no effect, do you think?”
Jerrie’s eye began to twitch, and her hands fisted as she contemplated how to handle her reluctant companion.
“Hey,” Charlie said enthusiastically. “I just found something to do. I can study the effect that different sodas have on body chemistry in the interstellar medium. I mean, seriously, there is definitely something interesting going on here. I have never turned colors before back in the Milky Way, and I’ve been guzzling soda for years.”
At the word study, all of Jerrie’s tension melted away. Charlie was right. There was a seriously interesting phenomenon happening right in front of her eyes, and she was missing it. PAH molecules might help her understand the creation of the universe, but the implications from studying dietary consumption in the interstellar medium would be much more applicable to the progress of humankind in space.
“I bet we could get a huge grant to study it,” Jerrie said warming up to the idea.
“A grant, really?” Charlie asked.
“And, while we studied, you could move the ship anywhere you wanted and explore anywhere you wanted in the interstellar medium,” Jerrie said with a huge grin.
“There are plenty of other flavors like Fireball and Formidable,” Charlie said tossing the forgotten puzzle cube over her shoulder. “I could make a list. Ooooh, don’t forget Ebony. I wonder what that would do!”
“Only one way to find out,” Jerrie told her. As Charlie scrambled back into the supply room, Jerrie turned the lights back on and pulled up a clean notebook on her screen.
She’d contact the soda company first. It was a pretty good bet they’d love the publicity and increase in revenue a glow-soda would create. Proposal, she typed. Bioluminescence in the Interstellar. Who could resist a title like that?