Medicine Chowder
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Bubble"
Originally featured on 01-05-2009
As part of our series "Bursting Into '09"

Terra, the tall Austrian biochemist, wore a scarf that was gray on one end and purple on the other. Wrapped around her, there did not seem to be any portion of the scarf’s fabric that was both gray and purple. Tim Prenneline noticed what colors everyone was wearing before he learned their names. That made it easier. Tim had packed a wardrobe consisting mostly of whites and yellows for the expedition. He was a microbiologist.

The twelve scientists aboard the U.S.S. Vaccination Voyager — along with the seventy-seven musicians whose duty it was to never cease drumming — knew two things for certain about the voyage prior to leaving shore. The first surety was that sleep would be nearly impossible for the entirety of the mission, which might last anywhere from a week to a matter of months, or longer, if successful at all. The second unspoken fact that all twelve scientists agreed upon was that on board the U.S.S. Vaccination Voyager drifting in the middle of the ocean was the safest place on Earth.

Ronald, the virologist, wore bright orange windbreakers and passed his time by playing games of chess with anybody available, and always won. When possible, he preferred to play his games back to back without pausing for more than one breath.

Terra spoke with a thick, throaty accent and never smiled. At night they saw her leaning over the railing with her head arched toward the sky — usually during the span of time when the sky looked exactly like spilled coffee — her loose blonde hair whipping out in all directions like hands in search of disobedient children.

Ronald and Tim watched her from the other end of the deck with a fascination that was anything but sexual. Terra would occasionally glance at them, register their presence in the way that she might take inventory of a mosquito not yet in killing distance, and then return her gaze skyward. She always wore her scarf with the purple over her left shoulder and the gray on her right. Both men agreed that if she were ever to acknowledge them with a friendly wave, they would in all actuality soil their pants.

The sound of the constant drumming on deck was not something that anybody could condition their ears to ignore. It was not like the hum of an engine or the steady whine of a refrigerator. To Tim, it sounded like a frantic conversation in a language that no living being on Earth would ever speak, every word of which was urgent and directed personally at him. He knew that the boat, which had been built by the Navy Corps of Engineers specifically for this voyage, was designed to have special acoustic properties that would allow certain frequencies of sound to carry with heightened clarity and volume. Tim had no interest in the architecture of naval vessels, even less in the physics of sound, but when he overheard crew members on their cigarette breaks discussing the egg-like sloping curvature of the floor of the deck and the deliberate placing of the drumming quarters, both of Tim’s ears clenched like a muscle that wanted to vomit but had nothing to release. Nobody talked about the drumming, because to talk about it would be to complain about it, and complaining was taboo.

Nobody was allowed to get close enough to the drummers to see the expressions on their face, so nobody thought about the drummers. The drummers were too essential to the voyage to think about as people. None of the scientists understand the rhythm (and, according to the news, all the rhythm theory experts who were recruited from the nation’s leading music conservatories to sneak into tribal rituals and analyze the rhythm for the sake of reproducing it, they were baffled too), but they knew that the beat must go on.

Each resident dealt with it in their own way. Ronald become more competitive in his chess competitions that excited a tremor of the jaw that, in moments of decision that were crucial to the outcome of a game, often resulted in spouts of blood trickling down his chin from biting his tongue. By the time checkmate was imminent, it was not uncommon for Ronald to get down on all fours and crawl around the chess table’s perimeter while vocalizing a dog-like growl and leave a path of saliva in his wake.

Some of the other scientists were known to exhibit paroxysms of hysterical crying, in the mess hall, or even in the lab, pounding the floor with their fists until they tired themselves out. Others turned to compulsive sex, partaking in impromptu orgies on the lower deck. Tim, being a mild-mannered researcher — and adjunct professor — not prone to emotional outbursts or fervent expressions of lust, took on the habit of humming tunes. While going about his day, he was always singing melodies to jazz standards, most of which were easy to conform to the rhythm that no earplugs could block out.

Terra, the Austrian biochemist, was the only one whose behavior evinced no signs of agitation or discomfort. To all outward appearances, she remained calm and stoic, always the introvert. Every night, she watched the sky. Tim had heard her pronounce her last name when they first met, and imagined it was spelled VAIZHOFF, or maybe VASEHOV. He muttered her full name out loud, to himself.

“What?” Ronald looked shocked. “Tear her face off? What? Who? What are you-”

Tim laughed, and then Ronald laughed, and their laughter expanded to build pressure against invisible walls, like a visual he had probably seen in an animated video some professor showed in some class, something about electricity. Their laughter, married into a single sound, fell into the rhythm of the drums like a body onto a soft bed, and they laughed harder articulating the beat. Terra did not look at them. Her hair continued to punish nothing, and both men knew she could hear them.

Tim, although no stranger to music theory, did not understand what Q Prime was, why it was unique, how it came to be called Q Prime, or why it had a name at all. By the fourth day at sea, after hearing Q Prime performed continuously (the corps of drummers, seventy seven in total, operated in shifts) with no glitches, the feeling came over him that he had never in his life not heard Q Prime playing in the back of his head.

What Tim found more interesting than the complexities of the rhythm itself was the lengths that the American government had to go to negotiate with the elders of the tribe to consent to allowing the sacred Q Prime rhythm to be played outside of the context of the religious ceremony it was intended for. The brave seventy-seven volunteers aboard the ship would be forever excommunicated from their tribe, if they returned home. Better yet, if anybody was still alive when they did.

The U.S.S. Vaccination Voyager was so-named for this expedition because the twelve of them, the ship’s crew, and, most importantly, the seventy-seven drummers, were the only hope for the survival of humanity. The stuff of survival would be hauled back in fifty-gallon plastic tanks in a storage bay that had its own cooling unit.

On the day they left shore, twenty percent of the world’s population had already either died from or been diagnosed with the disease that was commonly known as the Fast Syndrome. There was only one known way to treat Fast Syndrome, and it involved a syrup distilled from a certain type of plankton, the anatomy of which only twelve people in the world fully understood and could diagram. Their mission was to fill up eighty-gallon tanks of the plankton and return to shore to bottle it. Finding it was the hard part.

“I don’t get it,” Ronald said to Tim after they had turned their attention from Terra to the drumming quarters, a cordoned off section in the center of the lower deck.

Tim shrugged. “You don’t get what? What is there to get, or not to get?”

Ronald motioned to the drum corps. “Those pieces of work. So the senate is granting a multi-million dollar subsidy to their tribe just to get their consent for these seventy-seven whackos to float around with us and bang on antelope skins all night while we lie awake and turn batshit from their constant racket? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to record a CD of their greatest hits and broadcast it over a megaphone?”

Tim shook his head and forced a small smile. “The Q Prime rhythm is this mathematical beast, it has a pattern of emerging time signatures, it’s performed continuously and the cycles never repeat — it’s all very intricate.”

Ronald mimicked in a singsong voice, while making a masturbation gesture with his hand, “It’s all very intricate. Those guys wear diapers, did you know that? They’re not allowed to take bathroom breaks, that’s how intricate their special rhythm is. And based on what, some Chinaman three hundred years ago whose fishing village survived a plague because he made a magic potion? How do they fucking know it wasn’t some gypsy playing a wooden flute that made the plankton rise to the surface? Tribal dumming, my ass. You roll me a joint and I’ll show you intricate. I’d like to know what the historians who came up with this legend were smoking.”

“Whoah, wait a minute,” said Tim. “You’re saying, you think this entire venture is a wild goose chase, a, a, what, a political diversion? If that’s what you think, why are-”

“Why am I here? Why would I pretend to be gung-ho about this pleasure cruise, gung-ho enough to be chosen as one of the twelve scientific experts in the world to be on board? Wake up. Why do you fucking think? We’re in a boat. An uncontaminated boat, isolated from the rest of the world. And they feed us. Have you seen the rest of the world? Not much of a pleasure cruise. You talk to the other ten much?”

The low, resonant female voice to their backs startled them both. “They will find the medicine and make into chowder.” Terra’s accent seemed to have become even thicker.

Both men snapped around, stunned. She stood with her scarf hugging her shoulders, tight like a fist. Her face was cold and turning slightly purple, but her skin would not tremble. Her eyes were on Ronald. For that Tim was relieved.

“Good evening,” Ronald said with a faux smile.

Terra did not return the smile. “It is not good to be ignorant.”

“Excuse me?” said Ronald.

“You cannot play it on a record,” Terra explained. “Our ear never know the difference, but the plankton, the plankton smart.”

That was when they first saw it — a glimmer of yellow where the waves meet the sky, except that it seemed much closer than the horizon.

In the morning they all saw it. The drummers continued drumming and did not look away from their drums.

It was a film of salt water that rose as high as any fancy hotel in New York City and was dome shaped. At first the crew panicked, thinking it was some sort of anomaly of a tidal wave, but as it drifted inevitably closer, the panic settled. The water around it was calmer than normal ocean water. It was a bubble, and they were headed straight for it.

Nobody got a good look at the bubble — that was bigger than the entire campuses of some colleges Tim had lectured at — because it seemed to reflect the sun everywhere on its surface. They sailed right into it.

The orgies continued. The drumming continued. Ronald and Tim continued their games of chess with regularity. Ronald continued to win.

The twelve scientists were divided into two factions, one holding the belief that the bubble, having been created by the rhythm itself having some sort of phenomenological effect on the water, was a time machine that would transport the U.S.S. Vaccination Voyager to a distant past or a distant future. The other faction denied that there was a bubble at all, offering no further explanation than the vague concept of mass hysteria.

“I will play winner,” Terra announced as she removed her scarf and draped it over a chair. She stood over the chessboard and watched intently, her face never shaking.

The drumming continued. It was starting to sound different. Terra’s scarf was still gray on one end and purple on the other, and no transitional fabric was exposed on the chair. She reached down and grabbed both kings off the board in one motion.

“Do you think that you are two kings of the world?” she said, holding the chess pieces under her eyes, poking and stretching her eyelids around the tips of the crosses.

Ronald shrugged. “I don’t know. What do you think?”

Terra shrugged. It looked as though she had never shrugged before in her life, and did it only to mimic Ronald. “I know now there is a real Santa Clause on a sleigh, driven by flying dolphins. The drumming is only thing that make them come.”

She walked away with the kings and resumed her usual stargazing spot, in daylight.

Everyone else may have been crazy, but Tim knew what the bubble really was made of; it was the plankton. The drumming had worked so well, nature’s most hidden elixir had not only risen to the surface, but had formed an effervescent monument and enveloped them like a mother’s arms. They could sail home now.

It had to be. He would tell them.

Tim had long since grown tired of singing. Before he realized it, he was dancing.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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