ROCKHOUND by Walter G Esselman
 
Present Day
 
Dr Richard Riktor walked sombrely through the government facility until he reached room 1961.
 
Stopping before it, he raised his hand to knock, but suddenly froze.
 
“Come on,” he chided himself. “You did this, now you have to face the music.”
 
He wondered—briefly—what kind of music would be suitable for this, and he decided that Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ summed up the last few weeks perfectly.
 
Riktor knocked on the door, and there came a crash from inside, as if something big had fallen.
 
“Blaze?” he called out, but there was no answer. “I’m opening the door.”
 
Turning the doorknob, he let the door swing open. However, room was completely dark.
 
“I’m going to turn on the light,” called out Riktor.
 
When there was no reply, he reached in and hit the light switch, but nothing happened.
 
Something shot through the doorway, and past Riktor’s head. There was a metallic crash behind him. Swivelling, he looked down.
 
“What was that?” he asked.
 
“Go away,” came a heavy voice from the darkness.
 
“Blaze?” asked Riktor.
 
“Scram,” growled the voice of Blaze.
 
“Were you aiming for my head?” asked Riktor.
 
“If I was aiming for your head,” growled Blaze, “you’d be dead by now...Dumbass!”
 
Riktor knelt and examined a sizable ball of metal. He tried to guess its original shape, but was flummoxed.
 
“Where did you get a cannonball?” asked Riktor, and then he added. “Pretty sure we didn’t stock your room with cannonballs.”
 
“Why would the government put cannonballs in my room?” asked Blaze in exasperation.
 
“In case of pirates…I don’t know,” shrugged Riktor. “Seriously though, did you make that?”
 
“Uhhh...the bed sorta collapsed under my weight,” admitted Blaze.
 
“THAT was the bed frame!” exclaimed Riktor. He touched the smooth metal ball. “The strength that must have taken.”
 
“I had time,” growled Blaze.
 
Riktor looked up at that. “Yeah, I know. I…”
 
He did not know where to begin.
 
Or end.
 
And—honestly—he was a little fuzzy about the middle bit.
 
“You don’t know what happened to me yet, do you,” accused Blaze hotly. “You said it would only take a couple of days.”
 
“It shouldn’t...I don’t know why the wormhole...I mean, it shouldn’t...” sputtered Riktor.
 
“It shouldn’t have turned me into a freaking monster!” roared Blaze.
 
For a moment, Blaze came close enough to the door, and Riktor could a suggestion of his friend. A friend whose body had been altered when it had passed through the wormhole.
 
“We’re trying,” insisted Riktor. “I got friends at M.I.T., Caltech, and the University of Michigan poring over the data. They…”
 
“They’re probably just as stupid as you are,” snarled Blaze. “You know why we called you ‘Bamboo’ in college?”
 
Riktor sighed. “Not this again.”
 
“It wasn’t because you were tall and skinny—No!—it was because it would have taken a team of zoologists, and a country the size of China, to get you laid,” spat Blaze.
 
“Blaze...” started Riktor.
 
“Next time, I won’t miss,” growled Blaze, and he slammed the door shut.
 
Riktor sighed long and hard. After the moment, he turned and went back the way he had come. He soon found himself outside the doctor’s office. He stepped inside and a strawberry-blonde woman looked up at him.
 
“Went that good?” asked Connie sympathetically.
 
Riktor shrugged. “I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. And his strength is...well, it’s incredible. He’s only in that room because he wants to be.”
 
“So, he’s sulking?” asked Connie.
 
Riktor blinked in surprise.
 
“Actually...yes,” he said. “That...that’s exactly what he’s doing.” He turned quickly, back towards the door.
 
“What’re you going to do?” asked Connie.
 
“It might be time for some tough love,” said Riktor, and he marched out of the room.
 
Connie clicked her tongue thoughtfully, and then she took out her cell phone.
 
 
 
Two Weeks Ago
 
“Bamboo!” cried Blaze in joy.
 
Dr Riktor was engulfed in a bone-crunching hug that nearly squooze the life out of him.
 
“Hrng,” he muttered.
 
Blaze let him go. He was not a huge guy, but he was solid, as if he were made of teak. “Look at you—with a big old tie—acting like you’re an adult.”
 
“And look at you, Captain Blaze Carlyle,” replied Riktor.
 
“Aww, you know?” asked Blaze in disappointment. “That was supposed to be my big surprise.”
 
“Little bird told me,” grinned Riktor unrepentantly.
 
“And I’m gonna pull out every one of its feathers if I find out who did it,” growled Blaze with mock anger.
 
“Well, congratulations nonetheless,” said Riktor. “I know how hard you worked for that.”
 
“Ah, it was easy,” scoffed Blaze. “Now, why does a doofus like you need the Navy’s best pilot?”
 
“So humble,” chuckled Riktor. “Right! So, I have a project which deals with wormholes.”
 
“Oh God,” moaned Blaze. “Are you still on that wormhole kick?”
 
“You remember?” asked Riktor.
 
“You hardly talked about anything else for three years,” moaned Blaze. “Morning eggs, wormholes. Big party with cute girls, wormholes. I figure you probably talked about it while you were in the shower, but I didn’t want to test that theory.”
 
“I do some great thinking in the shower,” agreed Riktor.
 
“Ick!” cringed Blaze. “That’s T.M.I., Bamboo. That’s it, I’m invoking ‘Subject Change’!”
 
Riktor laughed. “All right, all right. You brought it up.”
 
“So what am I really doing here, other than entertaining you?” asked Blaze.
 
“I’ve got a stable wormhole,” said Riktor.
 
“No shit,” exclaimed Blaze. “You really got it to work? Wait! Please tell me that I’m not going to be the first thing that goes through it.”
 
“No, no,” said Riktor quickly. “We put plants in first, then mice, and then monkeys.”
 
“Show me the monkeys,” said Blaze.
 
“You need to see that the monkeys are okay, is that it?” asked Riktor.
 
“No, I just like monkeys,” shrugged Blaze. “But yeah, I’d also like to see that they weren’t turned inside out.”
 
“This way,” said Riktor. He led his friend through the government building to another section.
 
“You keep the monkeys in a doctor’s office?” asked Blaze. “That is not reassuring.”
 
“Dr Turner likes animals, and she wanted to keep them under observation for at least a month,” explained Riktor. “Mind you, that was over two months ago.”
 
“This wouldn’t be Dr Connie Turner, would it?” asked Blaze, and he waggled his eyebrows.
 
Riktor’s face set like concrete. “How do you know about her?”
 
“Oh, a little bird told me,” singsonged Blaze.
 
“What little bird?” asked Dr Connie Turner as she walked into the room.
 
“Dr Turner,” said Blaze in a big, happy voice, and he introduced himself. “I’ve been dying to meet you.”
 
“I admit, I’ve been curious to meet you too,” admitted Connie. “I had to wonder, which of the stories were true, but then—it’s not like Richard to make up stories.”
 
“I apologize for that,” said Blaze with mock sincerity. “I tried to make him a more interesting person.”
 
“Hey!” said Riktor.
 
“Oh, it’s okay,” said Connie as she feigned suffering. “I just have to put up with the honest boyfriend.” And then she gave a laugh. “Now, are you here to help Richard?”
 
“Yeah, I guess I’m your new pet monkey,” said Blaze. “But, I am a little curious about what happened to the other primates that came before me.”
 
“I can show you to your brothers, and sisters, in arms,” said Connie. “But they all appear pretty normal.”
 
“No change at all?” asked Blaze.
 
“Well, Harvest did have a liking for cheese, which she didn’t have before,” shrugged Connie. “Do you want to see them?”
 
“You know what, we don’t have to,” shrugged Blaze. “I just really wanted to meet you.” He turned to Riktor. “She’s too good for you.”
 
“You’ve said that about everyone,” huffed Riktor. “Even Phoebe, and she was nuts.”
 
“She was, wasn’t she,” agreed Blaze. “But my statement still stands.”
 
“You’re impossible,” growled Riktor.
 
“I am,” agreed Blaze happily. “Well—enough fun!—let’s send an idiot through a wormhole.”
 
 
 
Present Day
 
Riktor stomped through the halls, now armed with a metal paint can. He came to room 1961 and practically kicked open the door.
 
“Knock, knock,” he called out. “I’m here for the pity party.”
 
Riktor swung the can underhanded and splashed paint across the floor.
 
“What the...” sputtered Blaze from the dark.
 
And suddenly, there was light. The paint hit the floor and sent off a luminescent glow, which began to quickly spread across the room.
 
Riktor’s eyes grew wide in amazement. “Wow. They’re going to freak when they see how well this paint is working, and also, because I kinda took it without asking.”
 
“Are you crazy?” demanded Blaze from deep in the room. “You’re babbling like an idiot.”
 
The pool of paint spread, and the light finally reached every corner of the room. As the last bit of shadow fell, Riktor could finally see Captain Blaze Carlyle pressed into a corner. Stepping forward from his last refuge, Blaze—clad only in blue jeans—bunched up his fists in rage.
 
Covering every inch of skin was a dusty compact siliceous rock. Even Blaze’s teeth appeared to be made of it. Only his blue eyes were still human.
 
“Are you happy?” demanded Blaze. “IS this what you wanted to see?”
 
“You can’t sit in the dark your whole life,” said Riktor.
 
“I liked it in here,” snapped Blaze.
 
“No, you were hiding in here,” replied Riktor forcefully.
 
“What would you know about hiding?” asked Blaze.
 
“Because that’s what I did my whole freshman year,” snapped Riktor. “I hid in the library, on my computer. Anywhere which stopped me from having to actually talk to another human IRL. And I probably wouldn’t have talked to anyone in college, except that in my second year I got a new roommate. He was a bit more gregarious than the last one.”
 
“I don’t know that last word was,” said Blaze. He suddenly leapt over the paint and dropped in front of Riktor. “But you can’t compare your sorry life to what you did to me!”
 
In anger, Blaze grabbed Riktor’s arm, and they both heard the bone break.
 
Riktor went as white as a sheet.
 
 
 
“What were you thinking?” demanded Connie. In the doctor’s office, she used a pair of surgical scissors to cut open the right sleeve of Riktor’s shirt.
 
“He was trying to provoke me, I think,” said Blaze in a surprisingly soft voice. He now stood a little ways from the bed that Riktor lay on.
 
“You know, Richard’s not slept more than two or three hours since the Wormhole Test.”
 
“I...I didn’t know that,” admitted Blaze.
 
“Well, he hasn’t,” said Connie, but then she looked at Blaze. “And I know you’re having a horrible time too. We—well, really me—I thought if we gave you more time, it would help.”
 
“Help me what?” asked Blaze.
 
“Adjust,” said Connie. “Adjust, just in case there isn’t a quick fix. Richard though, he hasn’t stopped for a moment. Once a day, I go to his office and shove some food down his throat to make sure he’s eating.”
 
“You know, I’m not unconscious,” said Riktor testily from the bed. “I’m wide awake.”
 
“Who could tell?” teased Blaze, and both he and Riktor were caught off-guard by the old time repartee.
 
“Right,” said Connie as she was looking at Riktor’s arm. “This—at least—seems to be a clean break.” She looked up at them. “Now, you two need to find a path forward. Not today, but…”
 
 A young woman bustled into the room with her water bottle speaking tartly. “You know, it’s not like I’m really, very busy, or anything. Show me this thing so that I can get back to…”
 
And then she froze when she saw Blaze.
 
For his part, Blaze shrunk into himself. The young woman could not tear her eyes away from him.
 
“Licia,” said Connie to the young woman. “This is Captain Blaze.”
 
“Oh! Um…er...” stammered Licia, like a kid at a middle school dance.
 
Riktor saw that Blaze was uncomfortable, and he started to rise to defend his friend.
 
“Miss...” he began stridently, but Connie put a quelling hand on his shoulder. He looked at her questioningly.
 
“Take a picture, lady, it’ll last longer,” grumbled Blaze, but the words were from pain, not belligerence.
 
Licia took a step towards Blaze who shrunk back.
 
“Can I see your hand?” asked Licia.
 
“Why?” asked Blaze.
 
“I won’t hurt you,” said Licia earnestly. “I promise.”
 
“I doubt she could with that skin,” muttered Riktor.
 
“Shhh,” said Connie to him.
 
Slowly, Blaze extended his hand, palm up.
 
Licia looked at his palm, and then she turned her water bottle over it.
 
“What the hell?” asked Blaze, but even as he tried to move his hand back, she followed.
 
Licia grasped two of his fingers to hold him steady.
 
“You’re beautiful,” she gasped.
 
“What?” asked Blaze.
 
“Everyone’s been talking about how something went wrong with the wormhole test,” said Licia, almost to herself. “But I never thought that something like that could produce such...I don’t know, beauty.”
 
“Were you dropped on your head as a kid?” asked Blaze, but his voice was more curious than angry.
 
“Many times,” smirked Licia flippantly. “But that’s not why we’re here. It’s like jaspilite.”
 
“Jasper Light?” asked Blaze.
 
“Jaspilite,” said Licia. I mean, look at this. It’s like your skin is now rock. And the rock looks like jaspilite, which is a banded ironstone.”
 
“Of course,” said Blaze. “That’s what I was going to say.”
 
“Well, you were looking at your hand when it was dull,” said Licia. “Now look at it.”
 
Lightly, Licia traced her fingers over the wet stone.
 
“That...that is pretty neat,” he admitted grudgingly.
 
“Jaspilite has that red, with bands of other colours, like the black you see,” explained Licia. “Is all your skin like this?”
 
“Pretty much,” admitted Blaze.
 
“Can you come down to my lab?” asked Licia.
 
“You’re not going to experiment on me, are you?” replied Blaze uncertainly.
 
“Yes, but the experiment will only involve wet paper towels,” said Licia.
 
“Wet with water?”
 
“Yes.”
 
“Um, I guess.”
 
“Excellent!” grinned Licia. Still holding onto Blaze’s hand, she started to tow him towards the door, but then she stopped.
 
Licia fixed Connie with a hard look. “You are a sneaky little kitten.” Then she turned to Blaze and gave him a mischievous smile. “I guess I should buy you dinner first. Eh, captain?”
 
“Well...” started Blaze, and his rocky face scrunched up. “Actually, I am kinda hungry.”
 
“First food, and then paper towels,” said Licia, and she led a bewildered—but interested—Blaze out of the office.
 
After a moment, Dr Riktor spoke up. “Er, what just happened?”
 
“I thought we might need some help,” said Connie.
 
“Who did he just leave with?” asked Riktor protectively, and Connie was pretty sure he did not even notice concern in his voice.
 
“Licia, who—along with being brilliant, and cute—is a rockhound,” said Connie.
 
“A what?”
 
“It means she really loves rocks,” said Connie, a little smugly.
 
Riktor opened his mouth, and then he closed it. “That’s...that’s brilliant.”
 
 Connie grinned. Riktor used his unbroken arm to pull her down and kiss her hard.
 
“Mmmm, that’s good,” she murmured. “But first, I still need to put a cast on that arm.”
 
Riktor settled back on the hospital bed with a smile.
 
THE END
 
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