Aphelion Issue 281, Volume 27
March 2023
 
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Doctor’s Pet

by David Smith




        The ship landed safely on the surface of Mars. There was a thud, but it was manageable. Dr. Campbell had much experience, even if that didn't comfort his family, a wife and a little boy, whenever he would go on one of these missions. Understandable. Anything could go wrong. Things went wrong before. One time he lost communication with NASA, which funded his expeditions, though things worked out.

 

He was smart, though many people were weary of the risks his expeditions posed. Still, they gave him the benefit of the doubt when he became bent on a mission. This was not something he decided on lightly.

 

         Dr. Campbell was doing research into alien life. All his career he was interested in life on other planets, whether that life was a microbe smaller than what a microscope could pick up, or a vast, ancient civilization so technologically advanced that it looked upon humanity the way the average person looked at an ant. The concept obsessed him as a kid and what drove him to go into science and aeronautics. Sure, they discovered aliens when he was a kid, but he wanted to know more.

 

He was an accomplished astronaut who had made hundreds of voyages outside of the Earth's atmosphere, but it wasn't his comfort zone. Tinkering with specimens under a microscope in the safety of his little office was what he enjoyed. This was different, though.   There was suspicion that there could be something on Mars worth studying.

 

           He thought he might really be onto something here.

 

          He needed to know.

 

          He needed to know.

          "How you doing, Mark?" a voice over the comm in the helmet of his suit asked.

        "So far so good, my friend," Dr. Campbell replied. He peered out the window of the small spaceship they had provided him. As he expected, all he saw at first was barren, orange-tinted land. No sign of life as far as the eye could see. Again, this he expected this. It would not deter him that easily.

        He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. This was it, the moment he had been waiting for a long time. He opened his eyes. "You okay, Mark?"
Dr. Campbell paused. "I'm going out."

        "Whenever you're ready, bud."

        He floated through the ship over to a control panel that unlocked the door to the ship. He pressed the buttons, and a green light flashed at the top of the panel. The door was unlocked. He floated to the door and stood in front of it. The sensors in the floor detecting his presence, the door began to open with a hiss. Dr. Campbell stood in patient anticipation in front of the exit to the ship as the door ascended.
 

       The door finished opening. He didn't see much more than he had gazing out the window as he gazed across the terrain of the Red Planet. He took that one small step for a man, followed by one giant leap for mankind out of the ship, landing on the sand-like powder that covered what seemed to be most of the surface of Mars.

 

        He began exploring.

 

                                                               ******

 

        It took a long time. Hours of searching. He had found a cave, almost impossible to find his way through. He did consider going back, but he had gone too far now. Small creatures dwelled, not like anything he had seen in his life in aeronautics. He powered his way through. And then, using his specially designed spacelight, he found a furry creature shaking in a corner. He was tempted to let it be, but he was more tempted to grab it. At first, according to his research, they weren’t dangerous. He took it, knowing it could kill him.

 

The organism he was looking for--he had found it! It looked like nothing the doctor had seen before. He had trapped it in a cage designed for being in outer space and on other planets. It was made of reinforced, unbreakable glass, packed with coating that dealt with any toxins, diseases, or otherwise otherworldly, undesirable parts of the creature, having made "safe rooms" obsolete. Astronauts still had to go through decontamination.

 

The creature caught inside had a black fur coating. No legs or easily identifiable physical features, at least none by Earth standards. He couldn't articulate what it looked like when he notified Houston of his discovery. It wasn't first contact, so it wasn't something that would shake up humanity, but it frustrated him not to be able to make a decent description of the creature. It was so foreign. Despite his inability to describe the creature, besides its small size, he marveled at it within the cage once he made it back to the ship.

                                                                         ******

 

        The day was overcast, but bright and cheery enough.

        As was his preference, Dr. Mark Campbell studied intensively in his little, isolated office and laboratory within the University of Illinois. He kept his creature in his office, in the glass case, which had also gone through decontamination, and studied it as much as he could. He had a new obsession. He spent most days looking the alien over.

       The room was crowded, and no one liked to come in if they didn't have to. The only person who ever came in, and then only rarely, was the head of the university, the only person one would consider the doctor's "boss."

        His office was a mess, just the way Dr. Campbell liked it, always had. He had his own little ways of keeping track of things he needed. A scholar from a young age, he had two big bookcases. They stood side-by-side along the far wall of his office, across from him, and were overloaded with scholarly textbooks.

        Different bottles of chemicals took up the rest of the rectangular room. His flat-screen computer monitor sat on a brown wooden desk on top of which sat a large hutch cramped with even more books packed in the worst helter-skelter manner possible.

        There was an experiment he had in mind that he had been designing ever since he had started research on one particular alien species. It being more of a matter of psychology than any applied science, he observed something fascinating. They had claustrophobic tendencies. Keep them in one space for too long, big or small, and bad things would happen.

        He took a break from looking at his microscope and sat back, hands folded in front on him. He took a big sip of his coffee, put it back down, and swerved his black leather chair toward one of two windows in his office. One right next to his desk, and one parallel to it.

 

        As he looked out the window and watched the cars go by, he thought about the creature he had captured. The one that was sitting in the container on a small glass table he had put there just for such purposes as specimens he collected both from our world and other worlds. Sizes with which they provided him varied, depending on his estimations of an organism's physique.

        The creature was exhibiting signs of agitation, not too bad, but a little restless. This was the major characteristic he wanted to study. He grabbed his phone and pressed RECORD.

        "I must say I am rather pleased with myself. I have managed not only to find an alien organism--still a rare accomplishment after a couple decades--but the exact one I had been researching for so long. It's characterized by a certain agitation when put in one area, without being able to leave, or escape, for long periods. It is already exhibiting such signs. I plan to keep the creature caged for as long as I can to see just how much pressure this little man can take."
He got up as he said the last part of that sentence and got close to the specimen. "This is a psychological test more than anything. A battle of the will. Just how long can he--it--take it? Like I said before, it's already getting mad. How long can it go? Just how long can it stand it before it goes. . .insaaaaane?"

        He chuckled before turning off the app on his phone and saving the voice file. He looked at the saved file and smiled. Chuckled again and put it in his coat pocket. He looked back at the specimen and was just now noticing what looked like shiny black eyes. He put his hands on the glass and leaned forward close to the part of the creature with the eyes, the part that passed for a face. "We're going to have ourselves a good time, aren't we?"

        The doctor flinched the slightest bit when the creature made a buzzing noise.

        "I'm glad you agree."

                                                                                 ******

        Dinner was never very conversational. Mark's wife, Jane, and their eight-year-old boy, Jeff, could not communicate well with their husband and father, respectively, because of his being a workaholic. He and Jane had met at a bar shortly after they graduated from their separate colleges, Mark's alma mater being where he worked. Mark often went to bars in his early career to get away from work.

        Jane was a pretty lady.

        What had attracted him at first was the long, brown hair that he imagined himself running his fingers through. He knew he would talk to her when he saw her shiny brown eyes.
He wasn't attractive. Unshaven with unkempt hair, also brown, which was how it still was. They got married a year after, and the boy came just over a year after that. They had talked about trying for another one for years, but never got around to it.

        Jeff was as close to his mother as any kid would be but was isolated from his dad. Dad was never alcoholic or abusive, and he was never violent. Still, his stand-offish behavior pushed Jeff away.

        They had heard about Mark's discovery. They were proud of him, in a way that they were silent about the entire thing.

        "So—" Jane said, trying to get something going about the alien, "anything new? With the alien, I mean?"

        No answer. He ate, oblivious.

        “Mark?"

 

        "Huh?"

        "The alien? Anything new about it?"

        "Well," he began, "I'm trying to test the effects a special cage will have on the specimen's. . .psyche. . . They don't like being in one place for a long time. Just sitting there. This one can move around, being tiny, but it's all the same, each and every day. That can drive a human mad, much less a species that has a hatred for it."

         Silence fell over the table.

        "I see." All that Jane had to say.

        Mark's phone vibrated. He answered. "Your little. . .whatever the hell it is. . .is going crazy. Making weird sounds. Will you come over here and—? I don't know. Calm it down or something?"

        "Be right there." He put his phone in his pocket without hesitation and left the table. "I gotta' go."

        "You just came back an hour ago!" Jeff exclaimed.

        "Two hours ago." He got his small jacket on and rushed out the door.

        "Dad!"

        He left.

                                                                                   ******

        "Amazing."

        Dr. Campbell looked at the specimen, with two of his colleagues next to him.

        The doctor stood, eyes wide, at what he had discovered. It was shaking all over and had grown exponentially from when he had first retrieved to where the cage was just barely able to contain it. It was making abhorrent noises. Screeching, screaming, and even what sounded like roaring.

        The colleagues put their hands over their ears after a while, with their teeth gritting. Luckily, no one else was at this building of the university at this time of the night, except these two others. They started to walk over to the door. Dr. Campbell didn't even notice; he was transfixed. Though he had cupped his ears, his face was as if this was the most natural thing in the world, the universe.

        He snapped out of the self-induced trance and looked at his concerned colleagues. One of them opened the door, and the other colleague and Dr. Campbell followed. The closed door stifled the noise enough for them to hear each other.

        The colleagues looked at Dr. Campbell. One of them said, "This is. . .unnatural, Dr. Campbell."

        He looked at them blankly, but suspicious, as if to say What do you want from me? To give up?

        "Look," the other colleague said, "we'll vouch for you and do anything else we need to do so you can continue this. We don't know what you're trying to achieve, but we know you know what you're doing."

        Dr. Campbell took his colleagues' hands in both of his one-by-one and expressed his gratitude.

        "Anything for science, Dr. Campbell," one of them said.

        He was back in his office and though the noise had died down, it was still horrid. Dr. Campbell stood in front of the cage and looked at it, his hands in his coat pockets. He watched as the noises died down completely. Something fascinating him.

        He grabbed his phone from his desk and pressed RECORD on the app. "The specimen was making horrible noises a minute ago, while my two colleagues were here. It was so bad we had to leave the room. They got understandably shaken up by what was happening. Now, however, it seems to be dialing the noises down. It's as if. . .it was making an attempt at. . .rebellion. But then, tired, it stopped--I theorize only for a while, but it has stopped. It's trying to take a stand against its imprisonment. The question of what it is in the first place is something that must and will be answered."

        "For now, I will keep studying it. Anyway, the specimen is agitated. It has been since the moment I put it in the cage."

        He paused the RECORD button to look at the alien a few minutes. He noted how much it had grown. It didn't seem to need any sustenance, so all he had to do was watch it. Even he was getting apprehensive about the guy. It was shaking violently and looked like it was about to break out of the cage at any second. He had brought one the biggest cages the university had available, and it was already about to burst out.
 

       He pressed RECORD.
 

       "I'm just going to say it plainly because I don't know how else to say it: This thing is about to. . .do. . .something. Something that may affect the physical welfare of the people who work in this building. I'm not easily frightened, but this is unlike any case in which I've ever been involved. With that said--" It made a violent hissing noise that, along with a few other strange sounds, indicated it was about ready to come out. "—I'll wait."
 

       He knew he wouldn't be waiting much longer.
 

                                                                             ******

 

       Eight a.m.
 

       He was never at the university this early, but this wasn't just any workday. Somehow he knew it wouldn't be as he climbed the stairs leading to the door into the large room, at the far corner of which was his office and lab.

        Dr. Campbell crossed the large room, his footsteps echoing as the room was empty this time of day.

        He opened the door, to his dread. The unbreakable glass cage had bursted, leaving pieces of glass all over the office. Worse than that, of course, the alien was nowhere.

        Eyes wide and heart palpitating, he looked all over his office for a trace of his missing treasure piece. It was nowhere in the office. It was now on the loose.

        He had barely finished turning to leave the office when the alien jumped at his face. It had shrunk back to the size in which he had discovered it. Tension had been released.

        The doctor let out a muffled scream as it. . .entered his mouth. He felt the fur on both sides of his mouth as it forced its way down his throat. It made worse noises than ever as he felt the fur brush up against the back and start down into the esophagus. He was scared for his life as he rolled around at the alien's mercy.

        As loud as the scream that protruded from the office was, no one was around to hear it.
It was eight in the morning!

                                                                               ******

 

        An hour later, one of the other scientists employed at the university, who worked near the doctor's little corner office, arrived.
The light was on, and the doctor seemed to be sleeping at his desk.
To see what was up, he went over to the office, to discover on closer inspection that the cage was destroyed, and the creature was gone.

 

        He looked at Dr. Mark Campbell, whose head was resting on his arms on the desk. "Dr. Campbell?"

        A stir.

 

        "Dr. Campbell, what happened here?"

 

         Another stir.

 

        And then the doctor slowly lifted his head, his eyes still closed, and turned to his young colleague.

        He opened his eyes, and his usually green irises—were black.

THE END


2023 David Smith

Bio: David Smith is a 24-year-old graduate of Lindenwood University in Missouri, with a Master of Fine Arts. His story “Too Many Thoughts” landed his name on the cover of Aphelion's Dec. 2019/Jan. 2020 issue.

E-mail: David Smith

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