Dr. Amy Garcia planned to work off the anger that night. She thought it was the most productive thing she could do. It was better than going home, being alone, and eating junk until her stomach hurt. She would take the energy generated by her terrible feelings, put it toward lab work, and maybe even advance knowledge in biology.
Dr. Garcia went to a wall in the lab to retrieve her protective clothing and equipment. As she gathered it, it began to drain the energy out of her. The company logo was all over the safety gear she had to wear. She had worked at Animalia Labs for so long, that her personal brand and reputation were intertwined with the company’s. She may as well have been tattooed with their logo too. It was one of the reasons she was so angry that night to hear that she was passed over for a promotion. She took a deep breath and, with great effort and resentment, she tied back her hair, jerked on a lab apron, and snapped on her safety goggles.
Dr. Garcia prepared a workstation with a live materials observation container and a special microscope. As she prepared it for the tiny creature she was going to study, she thought about all the ways she was a better choice for management than the man their senior executive picked. She had definitely put her time in at the lab. She had worked through lunch, had stayed late, and had gone into the lab on weekends to finish special projects. She was an internationally recognized biologist, but Dr. Stephen Martinez had not accomplished anything significant in the field.
Dr. Garcia’s thoughts were on the unfairness of her current situation, not on proper laboratory procedures. To her distracted mind, everything around her workstation appeared setup correctly. She glanced over the live materials observation container, microscope, and measurement equipment before leaving the workstation to retrieve a specimen. She had actually neglected a few safeguards, but that would not be the worst of her problems.
Dr. Garcia retrieved an unknown species of tardigrade from another room. Tardigrades, also known as Water Bears, were extremely tough. The animals could survive extreme cold, heat, radiation, and even the vacuum of space. They were tiny and, when seen under a microscope, looked like grubs with many legs, claws, and round horrible mouths. She was going to record some physical descriptions and run some routine tests on the specimen.
As Dr. Garcia worked, it was clear she was not herself. She was angry and her mind was on her past and future at the lab. Subconsciously, she took out her frustrations on the tardigrade. She exposed it to higher extremes than the species was known to tolerate. Yet, the specimen survived.
In her growing rage, Dr. Garcia saw the animal as a symbol of the company. She went from subconsciously trying to hurt it to trying to hurt it on purpose. The animal bore the extremes until she tested its heat tolerance. Many tardigrades were known to tolerate heat as high as 300 degrees Fahrenheit. She exceeded that in her testing. She turned up the temperature little by little at first. As the animal survived, it challenged her frustration and she raised the temperature higher and higher in response. The tardigrade refused to die.
When Dr. Garcia saw the temperature displayed on her lab equipment, she realized how unethically she had behaved. She stopped turning up the heat and examined the specimen. She expected it to be dead. She saw the tardigrade sustain a smoldering reaction. The slow, low-temperature, flameless combustion did not surprise her: what surprised her was that the tardigrade moved.
Dr. Garcia felt terribly about what she had done. She thought the animal was suffering, and she was going to end it. She reached for the thermal control to quickly incinerate the animal; but, before she touched it, a display showing the tardigrade’s temperature began to go up. The animal was self-heating.
Dr. Garcia watched the tardigrade change to a deep red and began to panic. As if sensing her state, the tardigrade’s self-heat rapidly accelerated. The doctor never expected to observe thermal runaway in a living creature; but it was happening. Then, the tardigrade ignited.
Dr. Garcia froze with shock. The flame from the tardigrade grew quickly. She felt the heat from it hit her face and she winced. That is when she unfroze and ran to the nearest fire extinguisher. She stopped momentarily to review the label on the extinguisher and determine whether she could use it on the equipment she was using. She quickly glanced back at the specimen. It was moving out of the container.
The tardigrade took flight like a wasp on fire. Dr. Garcia abandoned the extinguisher. She swung the lab door open, flew through the doorway, and slammed the lab door closed behind her. She thought she was out of danger.
Dr. Garcia looked into the lab through the door’s tempered glass window. She looked around for the creature and could not spot it. Suddenly, the flaming tardigrade landed on the glass. The doctor jumped back and yelled. The tardigrade stuck to the glass and rapidly accelerated to a higher temperature. The glass began to melt.
Dr. Garcia took another step back and watched in disbelief. When the tardigrade began to crawl through a hole in the glass, the doctor ran away down the hall.
As Dr. Garcia ran, an idea lit up her mind. There were marine life units in the facility. If she jumped into a tank and the tardigrade followed, it might be extinguished.
Dr. Garcia followed the signs to the marine lab as she ran through the halls. Her lab coat flew behind her like a cape. She slid as she went around corners. She thought she heard buzzing as if a bumble bee was behind her, but she did not dare stop to look back. She only stopped when she arrived at the door leading into the marine labs. It was locked.
Dr. Garcia turned the doorknob and shook it violently, but the door was solid and would not open. She looked back, and the flaming, flying tardigrade had followed her. The flames around it grew as if it was preparing to torch her.
The doctor was suddenly aware of the necklace hanging from her neck that displayed her badge which also served as a key card. She slammed her badge against the key pad. It unlocked the door. She jerked the door open and fled through. She did not have an opportunity to close the door, and the flaming tardigrade flew through it.
The tardigrade followed Dr. Garcia as she ran through marine life offices. She ran through a lab. She ran through a room with small marine specimens in tanks. She ran through some double doors, felt cold air, and stopped. She saw a pool.
Dr. Garcia did not know if the poolwas empty, if it held dolphins, or sharks; but she jumped in. It was deep enough that the doctor did not touch the bottom. She swam up and looked toward the light emitted by the animal on fire. The tardigrade hovered over the edge of the pool as if deciding what to do.
The doctor noticed that part of the pool was as under a roof, but the other part was open to the night sky. The tardigrade flew over her head and the pool and left the facility. Dr. Garcia watched it go and thought to herself, ‘What have I done?’
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