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Fiction: Rubber Band Man by Meredith A. Lang
Rubber Band Man
Marcus Johnson watched in horror as his finger stretched and pulled. He heard a loud popping and snapping sound, and his finger flopped, hanging limply. Two of his other fingers were beginning to show some wear themselves. All over the city, the same symptoms had been reported: joints that flexed and stretched to great lengths, only to snap and break in two or remain loose and ungainly. Marcus Johnson and his colleagues had been in a state of high anxiety and great panic, traveling around the city to document the outbreaks—taking pictures, recording interviews, attempting to understand what was happening. Arms and legs were stretched out into long ribbons. Some limbs bounced back, some remained stretched out, some broke and were left dangling. People were understandably upset. Calls for action rang across the city. The mayor was involved. The news media had gone on a 24-hour news cycle to report the progression of the outbreak in real time.
Marcus did his best to wrap his hands around the steering wheel. He felt the muscles in his hand stretch and pull, unnaturally lengthening. Marcus breathed in deeply, feeling the catch at the top of his inhalation. He shook his head trying to dismiss the image of his hand snapping away. He had heard so many horrifying stories.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time. BetterBionetics had answered the call. The team of test—subject rats had performed remarkably well under laboratory conditions. When research had moved to the phase of human testing, Marcus and his colleagues had assembled an impressive number of willing participants. After spending time building a representative sample size of healthy individuals, the testing had begun in earnest.
The results were nothing short of remarkable. Marcus watched with glee as the test subjects, sitting in the very center of one of the lab’s testing rooms, reached objects around the periphery with ease. He watched as a man crossed the large room in two gigantic strides. People folded themselves in two, forward and backward. Arms were seamlessly intertwined around legs, fingers met the back of hands painlessly. Heads swiveled around, owl-like, to spy on other participants. Like a room full of cats, the volunteers draped themselves across couches, squeezed into boxes, curled into inordinately small shapes. They bounced up and down like balls.
Something had gone wrong. What had seemed so promising at first had become a disaster. The first couple of cases had seemed like a curious anomaly. A middle-aged lawyer had come to the lab, his arms flopping out on the floor in front of him, absurdly long. He was immediately brought into the lab, tests were run, and after a long, drawn-out process in which his joints were returned to normal, went home. The local news reporters descended on the lab the next day, and it became the feature story in the weird news segment. Marcus read the paper that evening, glancing over the hospital admittance reports—people in and out of the ER with dislocations, joints slightly out of place, overstretched muscles. Weekend warriors and wanna-be athletes.
Two weeks later, a woman came to the lab in a wheelchair, her legs coiled like ropes on the seat. A week later, a man came in, swaying uncontrollably from side to side. Two days later, an irate woman entered, her floppy head supported by a friend walking behind her, both of his hands holding it upright as the woman shouted at the receptionist. The next day, the lobby was swarming with reporters, and Marcus Johnson faced down an army of microphones pointed at his face like a fleet of so many hurtling arrows.
The arrows were loosed, and Marcus Johnson faced a barrage of questions.
“Dr. Johnson, do you have any comments?”
“Dr. Johnson, just what exactly IS happening here?”
“Dr. Johnson, have you and your staff been able to treat these people?”
“Dr. Johnson, what do you say to the critics who claim that your lab did not conduct thorough testing of the formulation?”
“Lawsuits are pending, Dr. Johnson. How do you intend to answer them?”
“You will have to check with our legal team.”
“Have you retained representation yourself?”
“I have no comment at this time.”
And so on. The questions continued until, with the help of a colleague, Marcus was able to glide out of the scrum of reporters without further comment.
Marcus’ lab, BetterBionetics was one of the, if not perhaps highly respected, certainly radical and innovative, bioengineering labs in the country. He and his colleagues tasked themselves and their careers with the improvement of the lives of their fellow citizens through the application of cutting-edge scientific techniques. Sure, occasionally protestors gathered outside with signs: RESIST THE ROBOT OVERLORDS, GOD GOT THE HUMAN FORM CORRECT THE FIRST TIME, I’M ALREADY PERFECT, and so on. Most people, though, understood the life-saving work that BetterBionetics conducted. The lab had gained notoriety last year for their ground-breaking work with the “Private Eye” project. News leaked out prematurely, before tests were fully finished and the product perfected and completed, and soon people began imagining a world in which every criminal, ne’er-do-well, and ruffian on the streets would be immediately caught in the act. Justice would be swift, peace would be restored. Criminals, ruffians, and ne’er-do-wells were still on the loose, justice was sleeping, and peace on vacation, because the project devoted to placing tiny cameras in the eyes that would, upon the witnessing of a crime, immediately take a picture of the act with a mere thought from said witness, was quietly swept under the rug. The volunteer test subjects turned out to use their new power rather indiscriminately, and captured so many infractions, from the minor, to the incredibly minor, to the infinitesimally minor, that local police stations were flooded with complaints. The lab was blamed for the increase in unjust profiling and forced to abandon the project.
BetterBionetics pursued some more conventional work after that, and the Private Eye project faded into the background, information about it relegated to the murkier corners of the Internet. Marcus, likewise, moved on from his role in that fiasco and devoted himself to other work.
The leadership of BetterBionetics, however, was rarely content to sit back and let opportunities pass on to other labs. So, when the latest pop-culture/health talking point to rise in people’s consciousness became the lack of flexibility of the modern person, the lab jumped at the opportunity to address this issue in a novel way.
Marcus opened the e-mail and read the minutes from the meeting. BetterBionetics’ heads wanted to take on this lack of flexibility. People didn’t move much anymore, and muscles were becoming tight and stiff. There was room, they thought, to help people make it easier to gain increased flexibility.
“Yes, rubber bands. They stretch out, twist, curl. We can help people move more easily, like rubber bands. Internal body rubber bands. We could even develop different thicknesses for different areas of the body: small bands for fingers, large ones for calves, and so on.”
With that, Marcus became tasked with the development of a formula to help grow rubber-band like strands in the human body. These strands, so the idea went, would be able to be injected into tendons and ligaments, in just the right proportions and with just the right amount of strength, elasticity, and flexibility to allow people to move and stretch in ways that were never possible before. Marcus worked in his lab, investigating and experimenting with different natural and synthetic rubber compounds and formulations. He ran tests, he made models, he played with prototypes. Many of those prototypes broke, many proved too stiff, many proved yet to be a bit too bendy. Formula after formula he tried, until he finally developed one that was ready to move on to the next phase.
Marcus watched as a series of lab rats stretched, flexed, and reached across cages to steal food from far-away unsuspecting fellow test subjects. Further tests were conducted, more tweaks were made, pigs were next, all with the goal of moving on to his first set of human volunteers.
“Thank you for your willingness to serve as the first human test subjects for BetterBionetic’s next big project —FantastaElasta,” said Marcus, looking at the small group in front of him. “With this unique formula comprised of a mix of natural and synthetic rubber compounds designed to supplement human tissue, we hope to be able to create a far greater range of flexibility in humans than has yet been possible, even with regular exercise. Our hope is that when people discover how much easier it is to move, then they will be motivated to move more frequently, and then, ultimately, we will be able to improve the overall mobility of the population. In essence, we hope to make a sedentary lifestyle a thing of the past, again! Now, none of you have a latex allergy, right?”
His subjects shook their heads. He stepped up and handed each of them, five men and five women of varying ages and activity levels, but in overall good health, a large pill. “Now, if you would, please take this capsule. Several minutes will be needed for the formula to make its way through your body. You may feel a tingling feeling as it works.”
The test subjects did as they were directed. Marcus watched with bated breath. There were no unfortunate effects. He ran them through his initial battery of tests—simple stretching, movement exercises, observations, checks for any pain, discomfort, inflammation. Marcus smiled with increasing delight at the impeccable performance of his subjects.
Satisfied that the initial run of tests had performed better than expected, Marcus and his colleagues expanded their pool of volunteers. Greater numbers of people representing a wider variety of lifestyle factors were tested, and retested. The collected data was analyzed with excruciating scrutiny and the volunteers all signed a confidentiality agreement. There was to be no discussion of the trials until they were complete.
All the while, volunteers continued to be administered capsules containing the secret formula of FantastaElasta. Several large doses were needed to ensure an adequate and successful buildup of FantastaElasta in the body. Once absorbed and properly infused into muscles, tendons, and ligaments, then no further dosing was needed, until, with the natural passage of time and age, a booster was required. All the while, at the same time as his volunteers, Marcus himself took doses of FantastaElasta, for he was not a man to suggest something to others that he was not willing to try himself.
Marcus straightened his tie as he stood in front of his bathroom mirror. The press conference announcing the official reveal of FantastaElasta was to begin in an hour. The entire staff of BetterBionetics had been abuzz for the past two weeks. It was an exciting time. Everyone in the lab was ready to announce the rollout of a successful project, and be redeemed in the eyes of a skeptical public.
Marcus screeched into his parking space. Trembling, he managed to turn the key in the ignition, and his car quietly thrummed off. Fumbling his way out of his car, he ran across the parking lot, holding his hands together with failing fingers. Grabbing his ID badge with his teeth, he pulled it up on its retractable string and flashed it in front of the reader by the door. When the door clicked open, Marcus shouldered his way in with a push and ran headlong to his office. He repeated the same procedure at the entrance to his lab and office area.
He sat down at his desk, panting.
“Dr. Johnson!” Petrick, his assistant, looked at him with eyes wide. “Are you OK? The news!”
“Quick, Petrick, grab some tape!”
Marcus watched as the young man wound medical tape around his fingers as he explained the problem.
“Something has gone horribly wrong, Petrick. The formula—I thought it was sound—but…” he trailed off, looking at his hands, clumsily held together with many rounds of surgical tape. “I need to fix this! The rubber bands—in the body—they are breaking, or else becoming so stretched out that they become useless. That’s what’s happening. It’s happened to…” Thousands, thousands of people. And now himself, too.
Marcus jumped up out of his chair and went into his lab, his inner sanctum, followed anxiously by Petrick. He walked around the perimeter, paced back and forth, looked at the tools that comprised his life. His eyes darted back and forth over all these things that he loved, but he couldn’t seem to see any of them clearly. He blinked. Petrick’s voice cut through the fog.
“Dr. Johnson, perhaps we should just begin by looking at all our data.”
Marcus jerked his head around, Petrick’s voice bringing him back to himself. He turned and walked briskly back to his desk. “Petrick, gather together some other interns. We have work to do.” The remainder of the day was spent pouring over data, charts, models. Night found Marcus sitting at his desk, his tape-mitten hands pulling at his hair.
Petrick entered the office. “Petrick, everything, everything checks out. My initial thoughts were that I had made an error, and my formulation created an inferior form of rubber, one that broke down much too quickly. But, Petrick there is no error! There—"
“Sir!” Petrick interrupted. “Sir, you must see these. They are expense reports. Someone from the business office handed them to me. I think that they will provide a rather concise explanation of the problem.” Petrick placed the reports on Marcus’ desk.
Marcus slowly placed his bandaged hands on top of the reports and looked at them for a long time. He took a deep breath and looked up at Petrick. “Petrick, we have a field trip to take to the front office. The public deserves both an explanation and a resolution.”
Applause rang through the gathered crowd, and camera bulbs flashed merrily as Marcus Johnson slowly drew his arm back. News cameras swiveled to catch the smiling, slightly embarrassed face of the woman in the middle of the crowd. She touched the sunglasses that had resumed their perch on the top of her head. She was immensely surprised when Marcus’ hand reached out to pick them up after they had slid from her head when she bent to tie her shoe. A barrage of questions arose from the press of reporters at the front. Marcus Johnson raised his hands for quiet. He quickly glanced back at Petrick, who stood behind him, looking infinitely embarrassed.
“Please, ladies and gentlemen, one at a time. I know that there are many questions, and we will get to them all shortly.”
“Dr. Johnson, I understand that there has been a great deal of restructuring of BetterBionetic’s leadership. Can you comment on that?”
“As you know, many of the individuals at the head of BetterBionetics have resigned. I would like to dispel any myths, now, surrounding this.” He took a deep breath. “My assistant,” Marcus motioned to Petrick, “discovered that a decision was made, without my knowledge, to purchase large quantities of an inferior variety of rubber to make FantastaElasta, a variety that would not have worked in my formulation. Hence, the epidemic of malfunctions that we have seen.”
“Why was this decision made?” a reporter shouted from the back of the crowd.
“To save money, of course.”
“Is the new formula safe?” another reporter nearer the front.
“Yes. After we discovered what had been done, we immediately demanded an explanation. To make a long story short, people were taken to task, changes were made, the appropriate rubber variety was ordered, and FantastaElasta was prepared according to formula.”
“Dr. Johnson, a great many people received doses of FantastaElasta. Have you managed to rectify all those cases?”
“No, we have not yet addressed every case. But we will meet with every person who received one of the faulty doses, and personally fix the problem, free of charge. So, I ask everyone who received FantastaElasta and has noticed signs of breakdown, to please contact us, so that we can provide you with the correct formula.”
Murmurs of approval ran through the crowd, and there was a brief moment in which collective thoughts were gathered.
“Dr. Johnson, how does it feel to have been at the forefront of a successful project that will forever change countless numbers of lives all around the world?”
“It feels amazing. Thank you. Next question!”
“Dr. Johnson, now that you have developed a safe and robust product, how does BetterBionetics intend to handle the high demand?”
“We intend to distribute our product to domestic markets first, and then we will develop a plan for international distribution.”
A further flurry of hands and voices.
“Yes, your question?”
“Dr. Johnson, how does your lab intend to decide who will benefit from the product?”
“We believe that everyone will benefit from FantastaElasta, but of course we will only administer it to those who wish to try it, or to those for whom their doctors perceive it to be of benefit. We will work to bring the cost of the formula down so that it will be within reach for all.”
What seemed like a thousand voices broke out after Marcus had finished speaking. “Dr. Johnson!” A young reporter’s voice broke above the ensuing clamor, “are you sure the formula is safe?”
Marcus called for quiet. “An important question was just raised, folks. Is the formula safe? And to this, I can say yes. It is safe, and moreover, it works.”
The press conference went on for another half an hour, until the journalists and reporters, clearly running out of questions, but not of their desire to ask questions, began hashing out old inquires about Private Eye. Marcus Johnson swiftly left.
Marcus Johnson lay in bed that night, exhausted, but triumphant. He stretched, gently, feeling the powerful pull and steady release of his arms and legs. On the other side of the house, his phone rang. He stretched out his arm and sighed. You could only go so far.
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