Insights: Germ Theory

By CritterKeeper



"Nothing is so easy as to deceive oneself; for what we wish, we readily believe." -Demosthenes


Claire sat on her couch, Pavlov snuggled by her side, a technical journal resting on her knees. She skimmed through the abstracts, searching for anything that might have application to her current project. Most issues, there would be half a dozen articles that caught her eye, some because they related to the quicksilver project in some way, others just because they piqued her curiosity or fired her imagination. Tonight, however, she found that she just couldn't concentrate on her reading.

Her mind kept going back to the events of the past few days. Darien's quicksilvered fingers, her own infection. The excitement of a new discovery, of being the first to explore a whole new area of science. Growing frustration, gradually turning to dread. Frantic experiments muddled by fever and madness. Failure, despair, and then suddenly triumph. It had all happened so fast, and she'd been too busy trying to survive it for any chance to stop and assimilate. Now, it was catching up to her.

"This is useless," she told Pavlov, who wagged and grinned at her hopefully. Claire slid off the couch and headed for her bedroom, the little Chinese Crested trailing along behind her, as always fascinated by her every move. "If I can't get my brain to behave, I might as well give my body a good work-out instead, right baby?" Pavlov yipped in agreement; he agreed enthusiastically with anything she said.

Changing into comfortable sweats and a T-shirt, she tied her hair back and stood in the center of the room. Her training was mostly scientific, but she'd always found that her mind worked better if her body was also exercised regularly. Sometimes, when she was working on a difficult problem, forgetting about it completely and working up a good sweat gave her the break she needed to come up with the solution. Her subconscious could do more without her getting in the way.

Pavlov, used to her habits, lay down at the edge of the room to watch her alertly. She started with Taeguk Il Jang, the simplest Tae Kwon Do exercise, and gradually worked her way up. Each poomsae was an imaginary battle, and Claire tried to imagine the attackers whose blows she blocked and countered. She went through each pattern as quickly as she could while still keeping her form intact.

Her moves became quicker, sharper, more energetic. Form began to slip as she was caught up in the adrenaline rush. A cold fury invaded her mind. It wasn't until she reached the end of the last exercise with a vicious shout, and Pavlov yelped and ran from the room, that Claire realized she was dripping with sweat, her breaths coming short and ragged.

She returned to ready position, then worked to slow her breathing and heart rate. She inhaled deeply, slowly, bringing her hands together and up, then exhaling as she opened them in a wide circle to bring them down to her sides. She tried to maintain the focus and energy of the exercise while bringing her body back to a calmer state, her emotions back under control. It wasn't working.

There had to be some psychological explanation, there always was for things like this. She had let her control slip, and slip badly. Exploring her feelings, her reactions, she realized that her outburst just now had felt most like her recent bouts of quicksilver madness. "Bloody Hell," she whispered. She tried again to focus her mind and calm her body with controlled breathing. This time, she found herself imagining the cool rush of counteragent wiping out the frenzy. It helped, but she was still restless and unfocussed.

Pavlov popped his head around the corner, whining pitifully. She spoke to him reassuringly, scooping him up so he could lick her face. He obliged, then squirmed out of her arms and bounded down the stairs towards the door. Claire followed and let him out, tail a blur, to go chase squirrels. "Go get 'em, Pavlov!" she called, knowing that he would never in a million years actually catch one.

Pacing the lower level, she found herself in the kitchen, opening cabinets and staring into them, wondering if this nagging emptiness was hunger. Nothing appealed to her, despite the fact that she hadn't eaten all evening. She opened the refrigerator, the need inside her telling her that what she wanted was something cold. Again, nothing seemed all that appetizing. She grabbed a bottle of water. "Probably dehydrated, after that workout. That's all."

She noticed she was out of her favorite flavor of yogurt. She knew she had some in her fridge at work, perhaps she should go there. Although going to the store made more sense. What was the matter with her tonight? But she felt more like going back to the Keep than staying here, despite how many long hours she'd been trapped there over the past few days. An interesting development. Maybe she needed to reclaim her personal space, reassure herself that she could be alone there again.

Stuffing some treats inside his hollow Kong toy, Claire called Pavlov in and tossed it across the living room, then slipped out the door while he was distracted trying to work them loose. She drove back to the Agency impatiently, exceeding the speed limit more than usual and switching lanes repeatedly. The radio changed stations a dozen times. Her fingers drummed at the steering wheel, out of synch with the music.

Her key card couldn't get her into the Keep fast enough. Once the door closed behind her, she took a deep breath, trying to figure out what had her in such a rush. She walked slowly around her basement lab, checking that nothing was out of place. And, she supposed, that no one was there. She was alone, and the Keep was her domain once again.

Turning to the refrigerator, she reached inside for her yogurt. Sitting next to it on the shelf was a row of vials, and she found her hand pulling out one of them, tilting it so that the clear blue liquid inside flowed from the bottom of the vial up to the stopper and back down again. It almost glistened, the pale green fluorescent lights somehow captured inside. She'd only completed the new batch of counteragent a few hours ago, Darien waiting impatiently. Once the bacteria died, the quicksilver they'd produced dissipated, but Darien still had his gland to deal with, and food poisoning hadn't slowed its basal secretions one bit.

This was the fastest, the best way to drive away insanity, wasn't it? Her loss of control, that was so much like quicksilver madness. Maybe there was some quicksilver lingering in her system. Maybe she needed one more dose of counteragent to get rid of this restless, distracted feeling, this edginess.

A mechanical whir broke into her reverie as the refrigerator motor switched on, trying to cool the shelves while the door hung open. She had no idea how long she'd been standing there, staring at the little vial of blue in her hand. It was ridiculous, really. She grabbed a cup of yogurt from the top shelf and closed the door firmly.

Only when she reached for a spoon did she realize she still clutched the counteragent in her other hand.

She looked to the syringe, nestled in its case waiting for Darien's next injection. But he'd just had a shot, he was off duty recovering from the food poisoning; he shouldn't need another shot for at least a couple of days.

Which meant that she'd be pretty much alone in the Keep. She could give herself a dose of counteragent, just to see whether the restlessness she was feeling was a symptom of stage one madness, an effect of residual quicksilver in her system. No one else needed to know, if it didn't work.

But why should she care if they knew? If there were aftereffects, there was nothing wrong with treating them. The Official might even be feeling them as well. He couldn't object to wasting counteragent if he needed a shot as well.

Maybe there was even a low-grade infection left in her system, sequestered in some protected site, its toxic quicksilver poisoning her by the hour. She couldn't find out for certain without running tests. The tests would tell her. But what if she reached madness before she finished them? She had to protect herself from that.

Ridiculous. The bacteria were dead, her system was free of quicksilver. She'd already confirmed that.

But still....what could it hurt? One shot of counteragent, and then run her tests. There's no harm done there, surely.

Claire hadn't even realized she was getting out the syringe and drawing up a dose. Suddenly she was just standing with the loaded syringe, searching for the rubber tubing she used as a tourniquet.

She rolled up her sleeve. Both arms bore track marks from all the injections she'd received in the last few days, but the lateral vein in her left elbow was still in good shape. She could use that. She sat in Darien's chair, the nearest convenient seat, and set the syringe in her lap while she wrapped the tourniquet around her upper arm, holding one end with her right hand and using her teeth to pull on the other end to tighten it. She felt the vein, marking its location and direction, then picked up the syringe again.

As she brought the needle towards her arm, a cold hand wrapped around her wrist. "You don't want to do that," a voice said right next to her ear. She nearly jumped out of her seat.

"Darien!" she exclaimed, a flush rising in her face. The syringe hovered in midair for an instant before her patient's form appeared coated in silver that flaked away to reveal his concerned face. She reached for the syringe, but he moved to put the back of the chair between them. "What do you think you're doing?" she asked angrily.

"I was about to ask you the same thing, Keep." He glanced down at the syringe, then up into her eyes. His own eyes were full of concern, of compassion. Of pity? What the hell for? What gave him the right to come barging in here, anyway?

"If you must know," she said angrily, tugging loose the rubber strap still fastened around her arm and balling it up in her fist, "I was--"

She paused, trying to put all her thoughts into words. It had all seemed so clear moments ago. Not necessarily the steps along the way, no, but the conclusion, that she needed a dose of counteragent, that had seemed so certain. But somehow, standing here facing Darien, the explanation seemed inadequate. She took a deep breath and tried to order her thoughts.

"I've been experiencing some symptoms which *might* be consistent with stage one madness. Maybe some residual quicksilver in my system. I thought a therapeutic trial might clarify whether that's the case." There, she sounded reasonable enough, her rationalizations translated into proper scientific jargon. "Now, will you please give me back my syringe?"

"Symptoms, huh?" He made no move to return the counteragent to her. "What, you mean restlessness, lack of concentration, irritability?" He moved towards the aquariums her lab specimens were housed in, watching the fish swimming, apparently nonchalant.

"Yes. Classic stage one."

"You feel like something's wrong, but you can't quite pin it down? You're missing something. You're in a hurry for something but you don't know what. You're craving something, but nothing to eat interests you, nothing to drink feels like it's what you're thirsting for."

Claire nodded, frozen in place as she listened to Darien's recitation, her mouth suddenly dry.

"You think about the madness, and it scares you, and you want that safety, that certainty that you're not going there again." He held up the syringe, the light from the fish tank reflecting off the barrel. "You know, your brain knows, that you can't possibly need another shot so soon, but your gut just won't listen. Every little thing seems like it points towards the madness coming back. To your needing another shot of this."

"....yes."

His face suddenly grim, Darien looked for a moment like he was ready to hurl the syringe at the wall. "Damn Arnaud!" And yet, in his face, Claire could see an echo of the craving she was feeling, a reluctance to part with the precious blue liquid now that he was faced with it.

"How could I have been so stupid? So blind?" Claire sank onto the chair, head in her hands. "It's not stage one madness, is it? It's withdrawal."

"I always wondered how much of what I felt was the madness creeping up on me, and how much was the...the addiction." Darien leaned against a counter, rolling the syringe idly in his hand. "It only took one shot, you know. Back in Kevin's lab. I had the one bout of madness, and Arnaud gave me the counteragent, and then all hell broke loose. And when I went after Arnaud, to try to get Casey back, he waved this crap at me, and I almost went for it. Jesus. I *wanted* it so badly, I wanted to find excuses to take the deal, to join up with him, just so I could get my fix."

"But you didn't. You got away, and blew up his base."

"Yeah, but not without grabbing the syringe from him first. I thought I'd get my fix and my revenge both."

Claire licked her lips, her eyes still drawn to the counteragent. "Does it...does it ever go away? This craving?"

"Sometimes. 'Course, it probably will for you, since you don't have to keep taking it every week. I just had to learn to live with it." He looked up at Claire again, their eyes meeting in a new understanding. "I was lucky. I had someone looking out for me, keeping me from taking it just because I wanted it. Saving me from myself."

He set the syringe in the refrigerator and took Claire's hand.

"Come on, I'll drive you home. We can stop at the video store and rent chick flicks."

Pulled reluctantly out of the Keep, Claire's eyes lingered on the syringe, still visible through the glass door of the fridge, until the wall cut off her view.

"You were waiting for me, weren't you?" she asked as they headed for the elevator. "You knew this was going to happen."

"Nah. I just guessed, I mean, I hoped I was wrong, but I figured I'd better be there, just in case....."

"Oh, bloody hell, what about the Official?" Claire asked, stopping dead in the middle of the hallway. "He got almost as many counteragent injections as I did."

Darien, pulled up short by the hand he still held, turned toward her and grinned.

"Eberts is keeping an eye on him."

"Eberts?"

"Yeah, I gave him a heads up. I don't think the 'fish will do anything rash with Eberts hovering by."

"Would the Official know one end of a syringe from another?" Claire mused.

"Doesn't matter....Eberts arranged a little 'computer glitch' that'll ensure neither of their code cards will get them into the Keep for the next day or two. And hey, if you want to play along with that, complain to him tomorrow that yours doesn't work either, and you can get a nice little vacation!"

"Ooh, sounds lovely. Did you mention renting some chick flicks?"

Claire pulled Darien on towards the elevator. He grinned behind her, glad that her mind was off the counteragent for now. Hopefully an extra day or two would get her past the worst of it. He wished fleetingly that he could rid himself of the addiction for good, but he was kind of used to it by now, and it felt good to at least be able to help someone else out of the hole he was stuck in.


***

"Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. "--Ecclesiastes