idol season 11 | week 26 | ~2300 words
The rat in the robo-chassis—the ghost in the machine—was that Sklurg didn't ask to be born, and Daniel Strider didn't ask to become a Daddy.
That is, if by 'born' you meant 'bubbled up out of a test tube,' and if by 'Daddy' you meant the person whose name was written on the label taped to the side of it.
It all started late one September night, when Daniel was working alone in the lab. He'd just finished entering the data from his most recent experiment into a lab book when he heard a sound behind him. It wasn't a noise he'd heard before, so it was hard to quantify it. But if he had to describe it, he probably would've said that it sounded like "Glup!"
He turned around and looked for the source of that sound. There was no one else in the room with him, not even the creepy night janitor. So, where had the noise come from?
Nothing looked out of place, and there was no one next door. Daniel decided he'd imagined it, and went back to writing his notes.
There it was again! It was definitely real. Surprisingly disgusting-sounding, too.
It came from that back corner, Daniel thought. He crept over to look more closely.
Scale. Thermometers. Autoclave. Beakers. Microscope. Test tubes…
Daniel peered over the tops of the test tubes. One of them was filled with an oddly sludgy liquid that seemed to be settling in on itself. "Huhhh," Daniel said.
The sludge reared up out of the tube and waved at him. "Hi, there!" it said.
"Gahhh!!" Daniel jolted back and nearly fell over. Crap, those losers from Geo spiked my coffee with LSD!
"Is that any way to speak to your child?" the sludge asked.
"You heard me! Is there anyone else here? No. So it has to be you."
"Hold on, now! I didn't—I wouldn't—"
"Great, a deadbeat dad. Just my luck." The sludge plopped back into its test tube.
Somebody is going to pay for this, Daniel thought. I don't know who, but when I figure it out, their ass is mine.
He tried to concentrate on his work again, but the dripping of the leaky main faucet interspersed with the occasional Glup proved too distracting. I must be coming down with something…
Daniel decided to clean and store away his equipment, and go home for the night. He locked up without noticing the light in the lab two doors down, and never would have suspected that the night janitor was in there dribbling something from a portable Crispr unit into yet another test tube.
The next day was uneventful and comparatively sane, until Daniel's colleagues finished for the day and left to have dinner with their families. The lab was empty for perhaps all of ten minutes before the sludge in the back-corner test tube surged up and spoke to him again.
"Oh, I see you're back."
Daniel accidentally launched a pen into the air. "Damn it, this is why I gave up drinking!" he shouted.
"Oh, no," the sludge said. "You can't pawn me off as some kind of hallucination! I'm your responsibility, so grow up and do your job."
"What job? What do you want from me?" Daniel asked.
"You're the father. You tell me."
Daniel turned and glared at it. "I am not your father. I don't know where you even got that idea."
"First of all, that's really hurtful," the sludge said. "And second, I have your name—it's written right there on the side of my home."
"That's not a home, it's a test tube. And my name is there because that tube holds one of the samples for my experiment. Or, did." Daniel scratched his beard. "Clearly, something went really wrong with it," he muttered.
"That's even worse than the thing you said before!" the sludge shrieked.
"I'm… sorry? I guess?" Daniel said. "I have no idea what I'm supposed to do here. I can't exactly play catch with you, or teach you how to ride a bike."
"No, but you can spend time with me, talk to me, help me learn about life."
"Ugh," Daniel shuddered.
"Why are you so mean!"
"Because I've either gone crazy, or some sort of monster is hijacking my lab!"
"Monster? I have a name, mister, and that name is 'Sklurg'."
Daniel grimaced. "Of course it is."
He looked around the lab. The day had not gone quite as he expected, though it had started well. But even if he'd only lost the last half hour, he was still too far behind to go home early. He would have to buckle down and finish logging the day's results.
Daniel rushed around, gathering the remaining data and jotting it down in his lab notebook as Sklurg pestered him with Heys and Helloooos? Then he logged onto the computer and entered the results along with the previous day's information, hustling out the door as soon as he was finished and leaving Sklurg and his plaintive howl of Where are you going? behind.
Daniel worked like a machine the next day, hardly uttering a word to his coworkers as he moved through his experiments and documentation with quick efficiency. He finished at the same time as everyone else, pleased to have made it through the day without interacting with his weird nemesis. He did peek into Sklurg's test tube at one point, where the contents looked as thick and murky as ever. Definitely some kind of failure, he thought, though he couldn't imagine how it had happened.
He noticed the night janitor lurking in the hallway as he left, and tried to manufacture a polite smile to mask his instinctual revulsion. He had no way of knowing that it looked more like a suspicious sneer instead, nor that it would inspire the janitor—who had a lab of his own at home—to retrieve more used Kleenexes and coffee cups from the garbage can by Daniel's desk and save them for future mischief.
It was such a relief to have finally had a 'normal' day that Daniel went home and watched bad TV until he fell asleep on the couch. By the time he woke up the next morning, he was already late for work.
The regular part of the day didn't worry him. Sklurg never spoke to him when other people were around. But arriving late meant staying late, and Daniel wasn't looking forward to that. Maybe if I work extra hard, I can be out of here at a reasonable time, he thought.
He checked the progress of his experiment, and analyzed the numbers. Still on track. Then he began the painstaking process of taking samples from each test tube and examining them under a microscope, recording his observations. He was still at it when the rest of the team went to lunch, but that was okay. He could always grab something from a vending machine later when he had the chance.
He was timing cell division with a stopwatch when a voice piped up behind him. "Whatcha doin'?"
"Holy—!" Daniel fumbled the stopwatch, which narrowly missed falling into his coffee cop. "God, why do you keep sneaking up on me like that!"
"I'm not sneaking!" Sklurg said. "I'm always right here! Even if you like to pretend I'm not…"
"I'm trying to work," Daniel said.
"I know. But what does that mean? What is your work?"
"I'm measuring the rate of expansion for these cells."
"It sounds most important," another voice said slyly.
"Huh? Oh, hey Rajiv—you're back from lunch already?"
"Oh yes," Rajiv said. "And you are narrating your life for posterity now, is it?"
"Uhhhh, no. No." Daniel coughed and waved his hand vaguely at the material in front of him. "Thinking about writing a children's book, maybe," he said.
"Mmm, yes," Rajiv said, sounding unconvinced. He put on his lab goggles, and moved over to the mixing station. "I think you will need to be using smaller words…"
Daniel glared at the back corner of the lab, but Sklurg had settled back into his test tube as if he'd never spoken. Jesus, what if I'm actually going crazy? Daniel thought. Or I'm brain damaged from breathing fumes from one of these experiments?
He always felt fine, though, as long as Sklurg wasn't speaking to him. So he worked happily for the rest of the afternoon until five o'clock approached. Then his co-workers began cleaning up and leaving for the day, filling him with a sense of dread.
He decided to assert logic over the situation. Sklurg shouldn't and couldn't exist, and therefore didn't. Daniel was pretty satisfied with that approach until he was busy looking at a sample through the microscope and felt something touch his arm.
He pulled back and saw a tendril of…of yuck stretching from his skin to a small, blobular mass on the desk surface.
"Sonofabitch!" he yelled, shoving back from the desk as his chair rolled halfway across the floor. "That's it, I am done with this freak show, do you hear me? Done!"
He grabbed a large stainless-steel spatula, and scooped up the blob and put it in the sink. Then he turned on the water and let it run as he fetched the test tube from the back corner and carried it over.
"Murderer!" Sklurg screamed, but Daniel dumped him down the drain anyway and let the water run until the sink was clear.
Daniel stood there breathing heavily for a few minutes. He felt rattled and a little bit guilty, but also relieved.
Sklurg, whose fragmented pieces clung to the rim of the spatula and the inside of the drainpipe, was enraged.
Daniel went back to work, never noticing the small blob of sludge that had reassembled in the sink and then oozed its way upward and out to hide under one of the shelves. He never noticed the tinier blob that crept from the spatula to the side of his left shoe, either.
Anger fueled Sklurg's growth, as his pieces swelled and divided under the darkness of the shelf and the side of Daniel's shoe. He seethed in silence as Daniel finished working and cleaning up, and part of him fragmented off of Daniel's shoe and onto the hem of Daniel's pants, where it slithered up the side and waited.
Daniel drove home, put a frozen dinner in the microwave, and changed into a t-shirt and sweatpants. Then he sat at the table and ate a few bites of dinner before just poking at it listlessly with his fork and hoping his brain wasn't unraveling.
"So, you're just going to sit there and eat like you've got nothing to be sorry for?" a voice said from the table where he'd left his keys.
Daniel stood up and knocked his chair over. "How did you get here?"
"How do you think?" Sklurg asked. "You can't get rid of me that easily!"
"This can't be happening!"
"Oh, you have no idea what I'm capable of," Sklurg said. "I thought we were going to have this whole nice relationship and be pals, but you had to get all snotty and psycho and screw that up. Just wait—that lab of yours will never be the same!"
Sklurg had no way of knowing that Daniel had a flamethrower in the garage, just as Daniel had no way of knowing that Sklurg had already fragmented himself multiple times over and was now scattered around the house. It was an ugly back-and-forth battle of taunting, scorching, and fleeing, and it raged on in all directions until Daniel suddenly realized the whole house was burning, and that it was too far gone for him to stop it.
"You little monster!" he yelled.
He grabbed his computer and keys, and threw some clothes into a duffel bag along with a framed photo of his parents. Then he ran out the door, calling 911 as he got into the car and drove back to work.
From the hallway outside the lab, he could already hear the sounds of sloshing liquids and breaking glass. He yanked open the door.
Sklurg bloblets were everywhere, destroying the lab, the various experiments, and all of Daniel's notes.
"You brought this on yourself!" one of them shrieked.
"Fine!" Daniel said. He knew what he had to do.
He set up the Bunsen burners at the back of the lab on slow release, and worked his way back toward the door. He pulled the last burner as close to the door as it would get. Then he lit it, turned up the gas, and tipped it over into one of puddles of spilled chemicals as he ran out the door and slammed it behind him.
He kept running all the way back to his car, and drove away just as the lab exploded. He couldn't hear the screams of the remaining Sklurgs, any more than he could hear the bellowing of the creature growing in the lab next door—the creature that had resulted from the janitor adding the umbilical-cord stem cells his cousin had stolen after the last elephant birth at the zoo.
Daniel drove back to his house, where the firemen were busy destroying what was left of it. He leaned against his car and stared, wondering what on earth he would do now that he was out of a house and a job.
At least, he thought, I'm finally free. For whatever it's worth.
From the top of the headrest in Daniel's car, a Sklurg offshoot watched too. It surveyed the smoke and the glow of embers among the ashes, and it plotted its revenge.
This is a combination Gatekeeper and Community-only vote, so there's no poll this week, but all entries are linked in the comments here.