You don’t go mad all at once.
“Here’s your birthday gift,” the Mynci caretaker said, handing him a wrapped box before hurrying away.
The young yellow Scorchio stared at the plain newspaper wrapping, wondering what could be inside. All gifts given at the orphanage were donations, of course, scavenged from the Money Tree or given privately. Last year his gift had been a pair of socks; the year before, a poorly mended toy sailboat.
He dragged the box into the corner, where he hoped no one else would notice him opening it. The Scorchio was a runt of a thing, with scabbed knees from playground fights. The other kids just didn’t understand why he found the ants so interesting, or why he’d traded his sailboat for a magnifying lens to look more closely at them scurrying across the sand in their communal play box. He’d lost his magnifying glass to an older Usul who’d teased him, and he had no wish to lose this gift too.
Carefully, he unwrapped the paper, setting it aside so he could read it later. He then used a sharpened talon to open the taped box. Inside was another box, this time with words and pictures. Beginner’s Chemistry Set, it read.
“What’re you looking at?” asked a voice. The Scorchio looked up and saw the red Usul who’d bothered him before.
“Nothing,” he said.
“It doesn’t look like nothing. Looks like you got something. Is it your birthday or something?”
A few other Neopets had wandered away from the toys on the other side of the room, gathering behind the Usul. “I said it’s nothing,” the Scorchio said. “It’s none of your business.”
The Usul snatched the box from his grasp. “I’ll decide what’s my business, thank you very much.” He turned the box over in his hands, running his paws over the text. “What is this? Some kind of chemicals? What do you want with chemicals, weirdo?” Some of the other Neopets giggled, peering over the Usul’s shoulder to look at the gift.
“It’s a chemistry set,” the Scorchio said. “That’s different. And give it back.”
The Usul didn’t listen, shaking the box as if to see if anything was hidden inside. But no sound emerged—the glass was seemingly tightly packed. “No thanks. I think I’ll take it for myself.”
He began to turn, but the Scorchio interrupted. He could feel his face turning red. “Give it back.”
With a smirk, the Usul displayed the box above his head. “Nah. Don’t think so.”
“It’s mine, and you’d better give it back.”
“Or what? You gonna make me give it back, little Scorchio?”
That was enough; he felt the rage fill him. The Scorchio stood to his full height and flared his nostrils. Steam poured out in lazy swirls. “Yeah, I’ll make you. You know the reason they gave me the chemistry set, and not you? It’s because I know all sorts of things about chemicals. Yeah. It doesn’t take much, you know?” The other Neopets were backing away now. His voice was lower than normal, and his eyes were bulging in his small head. “Just a few things is all I need to get you, when you least expect it, and then you’ll come running back and you’ll—” and here his voice cracked “—you’ll regret every trying to take anything from me.” He felt his lips spread in a mad grin.
Quickly, the Usul set down the chemistry set. His hands were shaking and his tail was tucked. “You could’ve just asked nicely,” he said, backing away. The other Neopets had already fled. “I don’t want your weird chemistry set. Don’t want it at all.”
The Scorchio lunged forward to grab the toy and dragged it behind him as he walked toward his bed. “Good,” he said, never taking his eyes off the scared Usul. “It’s mine.”
“Hey, Scientist,” a voice teased. He looked up to see a purple Blumaroo join him in the lab. She shrugged into a white lab coat and buttoned it before putting on goggles.
“Hello, Mimsy,” he said, catching her lopsided smile before looking back down to his notes. Messy formulas dotted the page, numbers and symbols and question marks. He was so close, but was missing something important. If only he could find it—
“What are you working on?” Mimsy asked from over his shoulder, surprising him. He made an errant mark on the page, smearing one of his equations. He held back a grumpy sigh, wanting to scold her but aware that she was vindictive and held two beakers in her hands, each of them full of a mysterious purple liquid.
The Scientist instead grunted. “Nothing much, really.”
In truth, he had a grudging respect for Mimsy. They’d shared a lab since his fifth week here, and she’d always been nice to him. When she’d first walked in, wearing bright pink glasses and wielding an easy giggle, she’d found him mixing chemicals with a gleeful grin. Since then, she’d only called him the Scientist, purposefully forgetting that he’d ever had any other name.
“Is it the stuff for your investors?” She moved away. He glanced over to see her begin to mix the purple liquid with some glowing sand.
“No,” the Scientist said. “Finished that yesterday.”
“What?” Mimsy finished mixing, rinsed her hands, and scurried back over, leaning on the table and craning her head to make eye contact. She was blocking his notes, and he felt his frustration rise. “That funding was supposed to fund a four-year project, and it’s only been two since you got here! You can’t be done.”
He huffed. “I am done, Mimsy. The project wasn’t that complicated. I just needed to do a certain number of experiments so that I could explore the properties of the new transmogrifying material they wanted, and then I just—”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re Mr. Scientist, I got it.” She peered up at him for a moment longer. “You really are a genius,” she said. “I forget it sometimes.” The yellow Scorchio felt himself blush self-consciously in response and Mimsy winked before pushing away from the table and disappearing from his peripheral vision.
He didn’t disagree with her, though. The Scientist was a genius. And that’s how he knew that he could solve his current conundrum.
Using a pen, he continued to fill out the disorganized equations. What was a Shoyru’s skin made of again? What was the chemical composition? Frowning, he reached for a book on his top shelf and thumbed through the pages until he found the answer. He was dimly aware that Mimsy was muttering to herself, but ignored it as he finished the most recent equation and began measuring ingredients. He set it aside to check later.
Eventually Mimsy quieted, as she always did. Time passed as they worked in silence.
But then, much later: “Hey—hey, Mr. Scientist!” Mimsy said suddenly. He looked up and realized that she was near the door, having finished her work and left her experiment in their shared enclosed glass tank for the night. He saw something stirring in the glowing black goo. “I’m going out to see a concert tonight with some of the others. You want to come?”
“No,” he said. “I’m going to keep working.”
Mimsy’s gaze turned critical as she gave him a once over. He knew what she’d see: a short, stubby yellow Scorchio with a shock of black hair and wild eyebrows. A hint of frenzy around the eyes. In the eyes. “Fine,” she said at last. “But it’s your loss.”
The Scientist tapped his pen on the table for a moment before turning the page to begin a new equation.
The door shut quietly behind her.
He tightened the last screw and stepped back to examine his creation. It was a hulking metal machine at least five feet tall with bronzed panels. A long spherical shape that plugged into the ground and conducted electricity. The end was circular and open—that was where the beam of light would emerge.
He called it his Ray.
The Scientist turned and approached the counter, where a small glass tank sat. He poked the side of the tank with his talon. A Spyder emerged from the log in the corner and scampered around, frightened by the noise. He removed the lid from the tank and scooped up the Spyder; it struggled in his hands, but he tightened his grip and it went limp.
Walking back over to his Ray, he placed the Spyder in a second tank within five feet of the machine. Once set down, it proceeded to panic, circling the edge of its glass cage.
Staring at the set-up, the Scientist giggled. “Perfect,” he whispered. “Just perfect.”
He slipped on his googles and stood behind his Ray, caressing the cool metal of the levers. He pressed a gleaming button and laughed as the machine purred. Months and years of study and experiments and dreams and all for this—
He pulled the rightmost lever and a beam of red light shot out at the Spyder. When his vision cleared he powered the Ray down before scampering forward, looking for the proof, for the Warf into which he’d wanted to transform the Spyder.
But he only saw a small pile of something black in the tank. The Scientist stared at it, distaste churning in his stomach and disquiet building behind his eyes. He moved closer, touching the glass tank. It was still warm.
He smelled soot.
“What is this?” Mimsy shoved a poster in his face. The Scientist flinched away. It was one of the posters he’d hand-painted and hung around several different lands, including Neopia Central and the Haunted Woods.
“Nothing,” he said, grabbing it from her hands and shoving it in his lab coat pocket. He ignored her ensuing glare.
“It’s obviously not nothing,” she retorted. Mimsy pushed aside his arm and pulled the poster out, uncrumpling it. “Test subjects wanted,” she read, rattling off the rest of the advertisement, which included the address of their lab. “What, are you testing things on other Neopets now?”
He was silent until she stepped on his toes. “Ow, stop that. Fine. I planned on testing something, yes, but haven’t had anyone volunteer yet.”
“Well, can you blame them? This thing isn’t exactly clear. Who would want to volunteer for something when they have no idea what it is?”
The Scientist flushed. “I guess.”
Mimsy’s calculating gaze focused on his face. After she examined him, her eyes widened. “This is something big, isn’t it? Whatever you’ve been working on that you’ve been so secretive about?” Her voice was little more than a whisper.
“I haven’t been secretive about anything.”
“Don’t lie to me, Scientist,” Mimsy said. “Please. I know you’ve been working late on something for months now.”
“Um, then, sort of,” he said. “Yeah.”
She inhaled sharply and her eyes narrowed. She threw the poster over her shoulder and said, “Show me.” It was more a command than a request.
He stared at the poster, crumpled and on the ground. He felt Mimsy’s stare on his face. “Okay,” he said at last. He moved past her to the far wall. There was a yellow button there that they had pressed a thousand times when they’d first moved in. Neither of them, though, had ever been able to discover what it did.
“What are you doing?” Mimsy asked. “That doesn’t do anything—”
He pressed the button and one of the floor panels slid away, revealing a winding metal staircase in the ground. Mimsy stopped speaking in the middle of her thought, staring down into the darkness.
“I reconfigured the button and panels to access the basement,” the Scientist explained. “I did it when you went on vacation a few months ago.”
“Wow,” she said. “Just . . . wow.”
The Scorchio began to descend the stairs. Mimsy’s soft footsteps followed him. Once they reached the bottom, he saw her look around the room at the complicated machinery lining the walls. Every wire led to the center of the room, and her gaze was eventually drawn there to the Ray. She approached it cautiously. “What is it?” she asked.
“I call it the Ray,” the Scientist said.
“What does it do?”
He chuckled. “Almost anything.”
She looked over her shoulder at him, eyes wide and wild. “Almost anything?”
“Still no one,” he said as soon as Mimsy entered their shared lab. It had been the first thing she’d asked him each day for the past month, but he had no updates for her. No one had volunteered to undergo the Ray. She paused in the middle of shrugging off her heavy winter coat and sighed dramatically.
“Fine,” she said. “This is how it’ll have to be. Get the Ray prepared.”
The Scientist stared at her. “What?”
Mimsy rolled her eyes and hung up her jacket before removing her scarf and ear muffs. “Don’t be silly. We both knew that if no one signed up, I’d eventually do it. I’m too curious.” In fact, he hadn’t known that, and he said so. “Oh, as if. You knew in your heart, or whatever’s left of that mangled old thing. Let’s go downstairs.”
He was still staring as she pressed the button exposing the secret staircase and began to descend. “Are you coming?” Mimsy asked from the stairs, and he reluctantly followed her down.
“You don’t need to do this,” he told her once he’d reached the secret lab. She was poking and prodding at the machine, seemingly understanding how it fit together. Well, he had shared his notes with her. Perhaps she’d actually read them.
“I know,” she said. “But I want to do this. This experiment is too potentially valuable to go untested. And hand me the wrench. It’s almost calibrated. No, not that one—the big one.”
“It’s my invention, I think I know when it’s calibrated,” he grumbled. Still, he passed her the big wrench. She tightened one cinch and loosened another, running her paws along the sides of the machine until she was satisfied. The Scientist watched, disbelieving that she—a fellow scientist—would be willing to undergo an experiment herself.
“There,” she said. “I think it’s ready right now.” She sent him a sharp glare when he opened his mouth, and he wisely shut it. “So . . . what do I do now?” she asked.
“Just stand out there in front,” he said, pointing. Mimsy walked over and stood there, adjusting her glasses absently. “Are you sure about this?”
“Yes. What now?”
“Just stay still. I’ll count down and then pull the lever, okay?”
He could see her take a deep breath. “Okay,” she said. Her voice didn’t even shake.
“Good, now I’ll count down. Three, two, one . . .” But then he hesitated.
“Do it,” she said. “Do it, Scientist.” Her eyes met his. She seemed so sure of herself. In this moment, he envied her that.
The Scientist looked her over one last time: Short purple fur with subtle orange freckles. The hint of a dimple in her left cheek. Bright pink glasses that sat crookedly on her large nose. A golden ear piercing that she’d gotten on a whim as an act of rebellion against her overbearing parents. Ink stains on her fingers. The necklace she’d made from the bottlecaps of his energy drinks last year—“It’d be a shame for them to go to waste,” she’d teased.
Now, the Scientist saw her swallow as his hand reached for the lever. But she didn’t look away. Mimsy believed in this—in him. She was perhaps his only friend, he realized.
“Do it,” she said again, louder.
So the Scientist pulled the lever.
And everything flashed red.
Folding the wrinkled map and tucking it away, the striped Zafara stared up at the large doors. His wet fur dripped onto the floor—he’d swum from the surface to reach this underwater facility off the coast of a tropical island. He was surprised that it was real. He’d thought the map, which he’d won in a game of dice, was a fake.
He’d heard about this place, of course. Everybody had heard about the Secret Laboratory. It’s just that no one thought it actually existed.
He let out a nervous cough before knocking on the door. The ensuing sound echoed ominously in the antechamber. The Zafara waited for a response, fidgeting nervously.
Finally, the panel swooshed open. A yellow Scorchio emerged. A tangle of white hair capped his head and untamed brows framed his eyes, which were an angry swirl of red and yellow. “Well, it’s about time,” he said.
“Excuse me?” the Zafara asked.
“I’ve been waiting hours for you. Come in, come in. You’re here for a zap, right?”
“Um, well. I guess.”
The Scorchio regarded him for a moment. “Yes, yes, you’re here for a zap. I can always tell. Follow me!” He turned and his lab coat fluttered dramatically with the movement.
They passed through two rooms full of complicated and strange machinery before they reached a gigantic room with a glass roof. Standing on the floor and looking up, the Zafara could see a herd of Peophin swim by. Inside the room, machinery lined the walls, thousands of buttons and levers and flashing lights. Nearby, there was a table covered in jars filled with nebulous blobs; bubbles floated to the surface in a huge tank to their right.
“Here it is,” the Scorchio said. The Zafara looked over to see that he was lovingly caressing a large machine with shiny brass plating. It frankly looked older than the Zafara had expected.
He eyed the metal contraption with poorly concealed wariness. “And you’re quite sure this is safe? It won’t, like, make me disappear?”
The Scientist laughed, the sound echoing dully in the metal room. “Oh yes. It’s quite safe, quite safe.”
“Oh. Okay.” Although the Scorchio seemed mad, he also seemed so sure of himself. This soothed the striped Zafara, who felt his shoulders relaxing. “So . . . what now?” he asked. The Scientist’s swirling eyes turned menacing and the Zafara swallowed nervously.
“Just stand over there, close your eyes, and I’ll do the rest,” the Scorchio said. He smiled, revealing razor-sharp incisors. “Trust me.”
The Zafara glanced around the lab once more, taking in the strange buttons and levers and the jars full of who-knows-what. He moved to the area that the Scientist had pointed out and stood there nervously. “Okay,” he said. “Okay.”
Then he closed his eyes.
The Scientist said, “Three, two, one . . .”
No, you don’t go mad all at once.
You go mad one zap at a time.