The corridor curved constantly to the right, flanked with steel doors, some with thick glass windows through which a flurry of movement could be seen: A lab assistant carrying a test-tube, a cage with a globulous jelly, a robotic arm hyperextending into a convex cauldron.
Was that a Zorgon?
Chuck Marley slowed and peered through an acrylic-plated aperture. But Rothball Hazard swooped on him and pushed him relentlessly further down the corridor.
Above each door a plaque displayed the credentials of the scientist who worked inside. Marley barely had time to read them (Rothball Hazard moved at such pace that his short legs were just a blur).
They passed the door of Incipien Rooney, engaged in an experiment involving three mice and varieties of gourmet cheese. They rushed by the door of Gladium Urdu who had almost invented a machine that could decipher all known languages in the galaxy, create languages of its own, and solve multilingual cryptic crosswords.
Through the window of Frint Nono’s lab flailing limbs could be seen and shrieks and cries could just be heard, even though the walls were soundproof. Nono was a follower of Grulos Jandy and was comparing the pain threshold of various lifeforms using contraptions, physical and mental, that will not be described. Marley was suddenly glad they were walking fast.
The Professor was lagging behind, so Rothball Hazard again slowed his pace and pushed Dimble half running, half tumbling past Marley.
Marley was wheezing when Hazard halted, yet the mad scientist stood with his legs apart and hands on hips, ready to pose for another statue.
On the large steel door before them the name Thuris Thranganis had been engraved with a blowtorch. A plaque stated: “Head of Biochemical Engineering”. Below this some graffiti: “Chemist and studier of useless things”.
Hazard punched three blue buttons on an intercom. The door to this lab was metal-grey. The walls were pristine white, the same colour as the scientists’ coats, sometimes giving the impression of disembodied hands and heads floating in the air.
Rothball Hazard stamped his foot. He poked three blue buttons again with his stubby finger. He was about to hurl a double-fisted punch when a short burst of static checked him. They heard painful coughing through the intercom.
A Centauran accent croaked between gasps: “Yes? Yes? Thuris Thranganis here, what is it you need?”
Marley peered through the rectangular view-plate but could only see a bilious green cloud. Faint traces of smoke escaped under the door and even through the intercom speaker. Hazard was about to launch a brittle insult when the door slid open and smoke whooshed out the lab in a backdraft.
Marley stumbled back, Dimble fought to keep his toupee, and the eyebrows of Hazard flattened against his face, temporarily blinding him.
Marley recovered his balance, Gaston adjusted his wig, and Rothball Hazard swept his brows away from his eyes. He accosted Thranganis with the same vehemence he used when trying to subdue an overcharged Nucleon Battledroid. He marched up to Thranganis, and though he reached no higher than the scientist’s nose, he gave the nose such a stare that some of the hairs within turned grey.
Thranganis recovered himself.
Rothball Hazard addressed the nose: “Thuris Thranganis, the Health Protectors are here to see you.”
The nose of Thranganis was pointy, straight and long. His round glasses took from three to six minutes to slide from summit to nasal precipice, at which point they would be pushed back up, only to recommence their downward journey. He blinked rapidly every few seconds. His eyes were watery and red.
“Have you nothing to say for yourself Thuris, Biochemical Engineer?” Rothball repeated the last two words with a certain relish. He came so close to Thranganis that his forehead briefly touched the nose.
Thranganis breathed deeply but spoke rapidly. “I am working on a fragile and important experiment, the nature of which I cannot divulge. You have just interrupted the climax of the covalent bonding.”
“You don’t need to teach me about biochemical reproduction. Turn on the air-conditioning.”
The smoke from the lab had a life of its own. It wafted through the doorway, round the corner, up the corridor, down the corridor. It formed hideous shapes, demonic faces, and curved around the legs of everyone in the room. None of them could move. The smoke snaked and enveloped their bodies.
Hazard was the first to disappear beneath the cloud cover, but his voice could still be heard…And his burning eyes could be sensed through the smog: “Turn on the air-conditioning!”
Thranganis stuttered: “The button’s over there, across the room. I can’t reach it.” The cloud curled itself around each body like a cobra.
Everyone would have suffocated had it not been for one of those coincidences that Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is famous for: the tight button event horizon:
The funnel-like cloud squeezed the base of Dimble’s stomach, making his lungs and torso expand. The last button on his undersized shirt sprung loose and shot across the room, hitting the air-conditioning panel with full force, sending it into overdrive. The green smoke whistled away through the vents in tendrils. Powerful currents surged back through the doorway. The air whipped itself into a frenzy. Marley’s hoped his clothes wouldn’t fly off. The force of the reverse air-conditioning dried out his eyes.
Then Dimble’s toupee was sucked into the main air vent, restoring atmospheric balance.
Thuris Thranganis looked at Dimble with gratitude and relief.
Even Rothball Hazard bowed for a few moments, before once again confronting his rival man of science. “Thuris Thranganis, you are lucky to have experienced Health Protectors on the premises. We would all have perished in that wretched smoke if it wasn’t for the quick thinking of this man. What is your name, Health Protector?”
“Gast…er, Gunder. Gunder Drake.” Gaston avoided eye contact.
“Gunder – you needn’t worry about your bald spot. The Biochemical Engineers manufacture toupees for all kinds of situations. Don’t they Thuris?”
“We also do head transplants.”
“Enough! I leave these two with you. Or, I should say,” and he turned to Marley and Gaston, “I leave this insufferable scientist with you. Leave no beaker unturned, no test tube unsniffed, no slime puddle unscooped. Be careful. This laboratory contains many noxious entities that even I have difficulty naming. Of course, as seasoned Health Protectors I’m sure you can look after yourself. Uncover the malpractice I have long suspected. Ah, when you’ve finished, forward me the results, so I know what to avoid.”
And Rothball Hazard disappeared up the corridor as if he’d never been there.