At 1045, there was a quiet rapping at her door. Lydia turned to see Dr. Corvis standing there, smiling politely. It was like watching a shark circling for an attack.
"Do you need something, Dr. Corvis?" Lydia said.
"Dr. Miller and I have worked out a possible sequence of alterations for one of the bacteria. Care to take a look?"
Sure she was walking into a trap, Lydia agreed anyway. One of the work stations had been arranged with four different devices: an electron microscope, a centrifuge, a chromosome splitter more compact than any she had seen before, and a rotating rack for petri dishes.
"Where did that come from?" She indicated the splitter. The display screen on the top showed a squirming object, pinned in place by the microlasers hovering above the sample tray. The controls hummed, waiting for their next command.
"My own personal stash," Nick said, coming up behind her. He was closer than she would've liked, but given the confines of the area there wasn't anything for it.
Lydia was stunned. "You own a chromosome splitter? How did you afford that?"
Nick shrugged. "It was a gift from Dr. DeBeauvoir."
"He's as generous as he is brilliant," Dr. Corvis gushed.
"Uh huh." Lydia gave her a sidelong glance. "So what have you been working on?"
Dr. Corvis answered for him. "Dr. Miller had some amazing insights on how to achieve the necessary virulence while maintaining its water-borne nature."
"You figured that out? That was the one thing I was dreading the most. I had hoped to find a workaround so I wouldn't mess with bacteria's environmental needs." What Lydia hadn't said was that she was terrified of creating some super bug that would become airborne and infect everyone on the station.
Nick moved over to the electron microscope and looked into the eyepiece, adjusting the focus. "If you take a look here, you can see the segment of the chromosome we're targeting."
He took a step back and she positioned herself in front of the device. "What am I looking at, exactly?"
Nick leaned against the table, closing the distance between them some. He was close enough that she caught the scent of sandalwood from the soap he'd used since she'd known him at Stanford. Focus, she reminded herself.
"These base pairs are responsible for virulence and environment adaptation. They're right beside one another so it can be difficult to separate them. You have to know exactly what you're doing or you could wind up with something really nasty."
Lydia looked up from the eyepiece and was startled to find his face less than a foot away from her own.
"Good thing you're here to make sure we don't do that then, I guess." She sounded like an idiot. His proximity was flustering her.
"I was about to make the first cut with the splitter, but I wanted to show you one other thing first." Nick slid up to the microscope and she skittered away, as though he might burn her if they touched.
If he noticed, he didn't show it. He made another slight adjustment to the eyepiece. "Here." They traded places again. "This is the chromosome segment responsible for host selection. According to Anna, this was being altered to make it viable on multiple cellular types. What this basically means is that the cell wall degradation mechanism will be much more powerful and adapted to both rigid cells from plants and softer cells from animals. Really wicked stuff."
He was calling her Anna already? Damn. That woman worked fast. She pushed it aside. Lydia focused on what was important: a bacterium that could attack both flora and fauna. Something that strong could be devastating. "So it feeds off of organic material then, but doesn't discriminate in regards to the source? The environmental impact that will have..." Lydia rubbed her forehead. "Not only on human life. Anything within the release area will be obliterated."
"It's designed to only work for a certain period of time, within a certain range, remember," Dr. Corvis offered. Was she really defending the Maven Initiative? "The nanotags will ensure self-destruction of any infected phytoplankton outside that."
Lydia gaped at her. "And so that makes it okay?"
She shrugged. "To them, it was acceptable."
"Now I'll show you how to split the base pairs and graft the new ones," Nick said. Her spine went rigid as his hand touched the small of her back, ushering her towards the other piece of equipment. Fortunately, there wasn't far to go and the contact was brief.
Nick's hand grasped the controls, strong and steady. He talked her through the operation, explaining where the precise cuts needed to be made and directing the microlasers expertly.
"Did you do a lot of this with Dr. DeBeauvoir?" she asked.
"Not at first," he said, keeping his eyes on the screen. "But the last two years I was in the lab almost exclusively. I got a lot of practice with this thing. They were upgrading the equipment when I left so that's why I didn't feel guilty when they sent me away with this baby. We have spent many an hour together, Sheila and I."
She tried not to laugh, but couldn't help herself. "You named the splitter Sheila?"
"I thought about calling it Lydia, but that seemed inappropriate given the circumstances."
Her face burned as Dr. Corvis giggled. She actually giggled. Lydia was mortified, and Nick didn't so much as crack a smile. He couldn't be serious.
"There." He finished the cut and turned back to her. "Want to give it a try?"
Reining in her embarrassment, she nodded and stepped up to the controls. Nick loaded up another sample. He reached in front of her and punched in the autofocus on the sample camera. Another hit of sandalwood drifted up to her, scattering her thoughts.
"You're looking for the eighteenth base pair," he said, directing her where to shift the sample plate. "Stop."
She had to remind herself to breathe. With the way her entire body was shaking, she would probably wind up creating a highly virulent super bacterium.
"Good, now lock in the sample position."
Lydia flipped a switch and six microlasers pinned the sample in place.
"This is the tricky part," Nick said. "You have to have the right touch."
Every nerve in her body electrified as Nick slid behind her and wrapped his hands around hers. If she wasn't seven shades of scarlet before, she absolutely was now. This was not happening. No way was this professional by any stretch of the imagination.
"Slowly... slowly... now cut."
Her thumbs pressed down on the buttons to fire the incision lasers, and she was careful not to jerk away as soon as it was done.
"Perfect," he said, leaning over her shoulder to smile at her.
Right on cue, a throat cleared and she jumped, pushing away from both the machine and Dr. Miller.
Daniel was standing not ten feet away, looking none too happy about what he'd walked in on.
"We're dicing bacterial DNA," she blurted. "Dr. Miller was demonstrating how his equipment worked."
His eyebrow twitched and somewhere behind her, Dr. Corvis coughed to hide her laughter. Maybe her word choice had been a little questionable, but her brain was scrambled.
"Daniel Brewer, right?" Nick strode forward, hand extended. "I don't think we've been properly introduced. Nick Miller."
Daniel was not impressed.
Lydia hurried forward, cutting Nick off before he got any closer and all but pushed Daniel toward the door. "Time for lunch? Great! I'm famished. Let's go."
She was pretty sure Dr. Harpy was still laughing when they left the lab. Apparently, she'd decided on a new plan of attack.