It was a well-read book, its cover creased and veined, the pages brown and dog-eared. On the front, there was a photograph of a man, wreathed in smoke - wearing a trench coat, his face and hands wrapped in white bandages. Above this, in bold script was: "The Invisible Man, by H.G. Wells".
Doctor Gary McQueen looked at the cover for a moment. A buzzing sensation electrified his body, making his nerves jangle. It might be the amphetamines - fuel for another twenty-hour workday - but he strongly suspected it was just old-fashioned excitement.
He placed the paperback back on the shelf. It looked conspicuous and vagrant, perched between the rows of leather tomes. But this ratty book, slowly disintegrating with time and use, had been more profound, more of an influence on his work, than any of the scientific texts that bracketed it. If he was honest with himself - during those moments he had time to think - then, he had to admit that if it wasn't for Wells he would never have became a scientist and would never have had the opportunity he had now.
He looked at his watch. It was half past five in the morning. Outside, the sun would be up, warming the morning air, the birds busy with their dawn chorus. Suddenly, more than anything he wanted a breath of that air, to feel the sun on his face. Here, in the laboratory, there were no windows, only cruel florescence and sterile, conditioned air. First man kills God and now he wants to replace nature, he thought. His head felt fuzzy and blurred, and he could feel his excitement ebbing away.
He had been working nineteen hours solid, the time swallowed, made insignificant as his work progressed. The closer he had come to a breakthrough the more urgent it had become. The demands on his powers of concentration were immense, the pressure enormous. He could feel a breakdown looming in the periphery like an actor waiting to come on stage. But, just as he thought he could take no more; when the force of his hopes and expectations had built to such a level that he believed he would snap he discovered that he had done it. He had found the solution to invisibility. Perfect stealth.
He went to the workbench and lifted the beaker of solution, holding it up to the light. It was watery and unimpressive, like a bottle of urine perhaps. A by-product, not the result of such exhausting work.
"PS-4439", he said aloud to the empty room. He immediately bit his lip. He would have to watch, the laboratory was almost certainly bugged, and Professor Proctor would no doubt personally go through the tapes. Still, he allowed himself a smile of satisfaction. By the time Proctor had figured out what had happened, he would be gone, living in luxury somewhere, working for people who knew how to reward effort.
He pushed a rubber stopper into the neck of the beaker and took it to the wall safe. He punched the eight-digit combination and the door eased open with a hiss. McQueen was reluctant to leave the solution, but there was no way he could get past security with it. He would just have to trust that the safe was good enough. He had personally changed the combination two-nights ago, conveniently forgetting to notify Proctor.
He shut the safe door and turned to survey the room. He had already cleaned and cleared his equipment, making sure that no trace of PS-4439 remained. Now the only loose end was Maximillian.
To one side of the workbench, set on top of a steel trolley, was a cage. And within, resting on a bed of shavings was a wheel. An empty wheel, and yet steadily turning.
McQueen went to the cage, making kissy noises as he went. The wheel stopped abruptly, the shavings shifting and flattening at a particular spot below the lid. There was a scrabbling sound and then the squeak of a rodent.
"You hungry Maxy?" McQueen reached into the pocket of his lab-coat and took out a chocolate drop. "I've a treat for you, little fella." He dropped the chocolate through the wire on top of the shavings and watched in fascination. To the uninitiated observer, it looked as though the sweet had risen an inch into the air only to be ripped apart by some unknown force. But McQueen knew better. Inside the cage was Maximillian, latest in a long line of lab rats to have the dubious honour of testing his solution.
He watched as the chocolate drop was swallowed; peristalsis squeezing, pulling the food down into the rodent's belly. From long observation, he knew that the food would remain visible for the next half-hour until the body had assimilated it. Only then would it be absorbed and, like the rat, become completely invisible to the naked eye.
"Did you enjoy that, fella?" he asked, opening the lid of the cage. He could see the contents of its stomach, hovering in the air like a blur. He reached in and stroked the rat, wondering at the novelty of the sensation. The feel of fur under his hand. It was bizarre, his hand tracing air and yet feeling the warmth of the rodent's body.
He cupped his hand and lifted Maximillian up and out of the cage. Claws scratched his palm and he could feel the hairless tail snake over his wrist.
"I'm sorry little fella, but I just can't allow them to see you like this." McQueen squeezed, using all his strength to crush the creature's neck. There was a sickening crunch and then a pain in the webbing between his thumb and index finger. Little bastard had bit him! There were two small crescents appearing on his skin, filling with blood.
But at least the job was done, Maximillian had died almost instantly, he could feel the animal limp in his hand.
He took the body to the incinerator and threw it down the chute. Then, ran his hand under cold water, before applying a squirt of antiseptic ointment. Thank God his tetanus was up to date.