Thoughts crashed into one another inside Hunter Chambers’ head as he stared out the window of his office. It was getting harder and harder for him to focus, and it seemed like the more he tried, the more the threads retreated from him. He was the director of Apogee Labs, held a PhD. in biochemical engineering as well as one in organic chemistry, and at the moment he was having trouble remembering the difference between valence and covalence. He wasn’t even certain that one of those terms was an actual word but it didn’t make much of a difference. The meaning of them slipped through his fingers as he tried to grasp them.
“Good afternoon, Dr. Chambers,” a young man said as he walked through the door. He was wearing a dark blue suit with a skinny tie, yet somehow still seemed to look casual. Hunter, on the other hand, was wearing a black suit with a gray pinstriped shirt but his lack of a tie or the use of his top button somehow made him feel conservative next to his assistant.
“Good afternoon, Dale,” he said, suddenly annoyed with himself for being able to remember the kid’s name but knowing at the same time that he was going to have to look up the security code to his alarm system when he went home so he wouldn’t set it off. Again. “Is there a problem?”
“No, just dropping off the quarterly reports.” He handed a thick binder to Hunter, who flipped through them. He was dismayed to realize that he couldn’t simply scan them in an instant anymore, and he wondered how much longer he could keep this up. “Kimberly in payroll wanted you to stop by when you get a minute. Something about approving the latest round of raises.”
“Sure,” Hunter said, tossing the binder on his desk and hoping his frustration didn’t show through. “I’ll call her after lunch. I doubt it’s really important enough for me to go down to HR. Anything else?”
“Dr. Ashton is making friends in the pharmaceutical lab again,” Dale said, a smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Drs. Peltier and Foreman refuse to go into the lab, and the techs are giving it a wide berth now too. Nothing for you to worry about, though. The best thing to do with that situation is just let her have her own corner of the lab.” Hunter didn’t answer and Dale shrugged. “If you need anything else, let me know. I’m going to lunch in thirty.”
“Thanks,” Hunter said absently. When Dale had departed, he jumped up from his chair. Of course, he thought. Dr. Ashton. Not wanting to give himself time to forget what he intended to talk to her about, Hunter hurried out of his office and to the elevator without a word to anyone on the way.
The pharmaceutical development lab was four levels down from his office, and he paced around the elevator as he rode down, repeating the same words over and over so he wouldn’t look like a fool in front of her when he got there. This was too important to screw up.
“Good afternoon, Dr. Chambers,” two women in white lab coats said, looking up from a tablet as he passed. Hunter raised a hand to them, afraid that if he spoke to them he’d lose what he wanted to talk to Dr. Ashton about, and they went back to their work. The people around the lab were used to him being somewhat reserved, and if anyone had noticed his slow decline they hadn’t mentioned it to him.
Unlike the majority of the doctors who were used to his occasional presence, some of the newer assistants in the pharmaceutical lab had never met him in person before and they seemed awed by him. It normally would have made him feel good about himself but today it just served to annoy him. He looked around, and when he didn’t see Dr. Ashton he motioned to one of the assistants.
“Yes, Dr. Chambers? Is there something I can do for you?” Hunter looked over the young man’s badge. Even if dementia hadn’t been creeping up on him, he wouldn’t have known his name, and it probably would have disappeared just as quickly as it did then.
“I’m looking for Dr. Ashton.”
“She’s in there,” the assistant said, pointing to a door at the far end of the room. “She sort of lives in there.”
“Thanks,” Hunter said. He went to the door and put a hand on the knob, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. Talking to her could change his life, all he had to do was explain what he needed. He pulled the door open, still holding his breath, and was immediately hit in the face by a wave of electronic music so loud that he was surprised that he hadn’t heard it when he stepped out of the elevator. He glanced back and saw one of the other doctors look up from his computer with a scowl. Now I see what Dale meant about her ‘making friends.’ Not wanting to draw more attention to himself than he had to, Hunter braved the dubstep and went into the room.
Dr. Emily Ashton was standing in front of a computer at the far end of what looked like a cobbled-together version of the main lab, her arms folded over her chest. She didn’t seem bothered in the least by the music and didn’t show any sign she had heard her boss come into the room. It annoyed him and he clapped his hands to get her attention. Emily jumped at the sharp sound and turned to see him.
“Turn that off,” he said, raising his voice so she could hear him. It made him sound like he was shouting at her and her eyes widened.
“Dr. Chambers!” Emily reached down to her smart watch and turned the dial so the music fell to an almost inaudible level. “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you come in.”
“I don’t know how you could have with that music,” he said, not intending to sound quite as brusque as it came out. Emily turned slightly pink and tapped her watch to turn it off. Hunter felt a little guilty about his tone. He wanted – no, needed – her help and he wasn’t going to get it if he kept snapping at her.
“What can I help you with?”
“How are you coming along with that…that new…” The words wouldn’t come to him and he wished he could look it up on his phone without feeling like an idiot. “…memory medication you’re working on?” He spoke the last part with what felt like resignation and was relieved to see Emily’s face light up.
“The cholinesterase inhibitor? Really well, as a matter of fact!” She motioned for him to come closer to the computer. “I’ve managed to isolate the part of the compound that results in the gastrointestinal side effects, and it seems to have improved prevention of the breakdown of acetylcholine significantly. I’ve almost figured out how to create a combination medication that adds in memantine which will result in a significant savings to suppliers.”
“I see,” Hunter said, though he had only understood about half of what she was saying. “Impressive. When do you think you’ll have something ready for clinical trials?”
“Soon, I hope,” Emily said. “Maybe six months? Now that I’ve been banished from the main lab, I can focus on my work.”
“Six months,” Hunter said, hoping he didn’t sound as dejected as he felt. Emily nodded.
“Maybe less if I can get approval to go straight to clinical trials.” She raised an eyebrow at him and he looked at her, trying to figure out why. “Approval? You know, from someone higher up?” Hunter felt like he was on the verge of a panic attack. He’d fully intended to come ask for her help but now that he was there he couldn’t even make small talk. Emily sighed and shrugged. “It was worth a try.”
“Want to see something really cool?” She grinned and tapped a few keys on the keyboard and a completely different screen came up. Just as her words hadn’t before, the images meant nothing to him, but Emily seemed to expect him to understand. He didn’t have to spend long trying to pretend he did, though, she was obviously bursting to tell someone. “I’m working on something now that could change the treatment of dementia forever.”
“Really?” She suddenly had Hunter’s full attention. “Tell me more.”
“I call it a neural bridge,” she said, clicking from one screen to another that had a 3D model of cells on it. When she clicked again, an animation started. “It acts as, well, a bridge that mimics the connections between cells that have deteriorated or been lost entirely. Theoretically, it could reverse the symptoms of Alzheimer’s dementia and retain most if not all memory function indefinitely.”
“That’s amazing,” Hunter said. “Can you really do this?”
“First I need funding so I can get the equipment to create a dedicated lab. No one seems to care if I use this room, I could work through it here.” She leaned on the desk and folded her arms over her chest again. “You’re the only one I’ve told about it. I have a feeling my colleagues would have a field day if—”
“I’ll get you funding,” Hunter said, not letting her finish. Emily looked at him, surprised. “Make a list of the equipment you need and give it to me.” She opened her mouth to speak just as his phone rang, and he held up a finger. “What is it?”
“Sorry to bother you, Dr. Chambers, but we’ve got a problem,” Dale said. “The power’s out on the entire third level and the generator’s not working. Dr. Evens says we’ve got about three, maybe four hours before the frozen things start getting unfrozen.”
“Is that the technical term?” He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. “Never mind. I’m on my way. I’ve got to go,” he said to Emily. “We’ll talk more later. Just get me that list.” She nodded, looking slightly dazed, and he left before she could say anything else.
As he went up the stairs rather than the elevator, Hunter’s mind wasn’t on the power outage. If Emily’s theory was sound, there was a chance he could not only stop his dementia from worsening, he could reverse the damage and be himself again. He realized that his hands were shaking and clenched his fists to stop it.
She’d get her equipment, even if he had to pay for it himself.