Long May She Reign(7)

By: Rhiannon Thomas

I’d left the laboratory door ajar. I stepped inside and began to light the lamps.

Dagny was curled up on the center table, a perfect circle of fluff. She was precisely the wrong breed and color for a laboratory cat—all the dust and dirt stuck in her long gray fur, making her look like she’d been crawling up a chimney—but that didn’t matter. She was my partner in science, even if her contributions were restricted to meows that Naomi called “assertive” and I called “needy.” She watched me as I talked through my ideas, like she was listening, like she already had the answer in mind and was just waiting for me to catch up, and her intelligent eyes always coaxed the greatest breakthroughs from my brain.

Now I picked her up and move her aside. She mewed with annoyance. “Well, what do you expect, sleeping there?” I said. “I’ve got work to do.” I deposited her on a stool, and Naomi offered her a comforting rub under the chin. Dagny shut her eyes and tilted her head back, a ripple arching along her spine.

Naomi was the world’s best tamer of cats. Or maybe cats were excellent tamers of Naomi. She had no pets of her own, so she fussed over Dagny whenever she saw her. I’m not sure which one of them enjoyed it more.

I squeezed past them, toward one of the cupboards on the far wall. “Can you grab that flask from the countertop? The round one, wide at the base, narrow at the top?” Dagny trilled as Naomi moved away.

I opened the cupboard door to reveal rows and rows of jars, each with a different substance stored inside. The iodine was near the back. The silvery flakes were volatile, to say the least, so it was best to keep them tucked away, safe from mishap. I pulled out the jar and carried it back to the center table. Then I took the hairpin from my pocket and held it up to the light to consider it again.

A butterfly clung to one end, its wings studded with diamonds. I snapped it off and placed it to one side. I couldn’t allow it to adulterate the aluminum.

Naomi, meanwhile, picked up the jar of iodine and considered the metal inside. “How much do you think you should use?”

“Three pinches, I think.” That would probably be safe. Less wouldn’t tell me anything, and more might work a little too well, if things didn’t go as I expected.

Dagny was too busy rubbing her head against Naomi’s arm to give her opinion.

With my thick leather gloves firmly in place and my goggles tight over my eyes, I twisted open the jar and used tongs to move three pinches of iodine into the flask. Then I carefully added the hairpin. Nothing happened. “It needs something,” I said. “Something to encourage it to react.”

I glanced at Dagny to make sure she was still a safe distance away, and then grabbed a pipette and went to fill it up with water. “Maybe you should stand back for this,” I said to Naomi. “Just in case.”

“But it’s okay if it explodes in your face?”

“It won’t explode in my face.” I wasn’t going to be wrong. I could feel it. “But—just in case.”

Naomi made a face at me. But she did step away.

I squeezed a couple of drops of water into the flask. For one second, and then two, nothing happened. Then bright purple smoke began to billow from the hairpin.

Not what I had been expecting.

The aluminum sparked. I jumped back just before it burst into flames.

The smoke billowed from the flask, getting thicker and more purple. My lungs tightened as the smoke swelled toward me, and I coughed. Dagny hissed in protest and dove under the chair.

The smoke grew and grew, the fire casting purple light across the room. I held my breath and counted to three, giving myself time to note the exact shade of purple, the intensity of the reaction, the speed with which it seemed to burn. Then I ran to the window and heaved it open, letting fresh air rush in.

Naomi clambered onto the counter to haul open the second window, her toes balanced between more flasks.

Dagny meowed again. She wasn’t pleased.

“I know, I know,” I said, as I fanned the smoke toward the open window. “But breakthroughs don’t come from being cautious. And nothing bad happened. Iodine is only a bit poisonous.”

“Only a bit poisonous?” Naomi said. “Freya—”

“Only if you eat it! Or touch it. Or inhale its fumes.” But we hadn’t breathed in much. “We’ll be fine.”

Naomi glared at me, eyebrows raised. Which . . . yes, all right, perhaps she had a point. It hadn’t been entirely safe. But science wasn’t safe. You had to take risks. And I was wearing goggles, and gloves, and I’d made sure she stepped back! Plus we’d learned something new. Wasn’t that the most important thing?