So I went to work for Theobald Greco—in his laboratory in Southern California, where we replaced some of the things that had been destroyed.
And one morning I woke up and found my hair was white.
I cried, "Greek!"
Minnie came running in. I don't believe I told you about Minnie. She was Greco's idea of the perfect laboratory assistant—stupid, old, worthless to the world and without visible kin. She came in and stared and set up a cackling that would wake the dead.
"Mister Hampstead!" she chortled. "My, but ain't you a sight!"
"Where's Greco?" I demanded, and pushed her out of my way.
In pajamas and bathrobe, I stalked down the stairs and into the room that had once been a kitchen and now was Greco's laboratory.
"Look!" I yelled. "What about _this_?"
He turned to look at me.
After a long moment, he shook his head.
"I was afraid of that," he mumbled. "You were a towhead as a kid, weren't you?
And now you're a towhead again."
"But my hair, Greek! It's turned _white_."
"Not white," he corrected despondently. "Yellow. It's reverted to youth—overnight, the way it happens sometimes. I warned you, Virgie. I told you there were dangers. Now you know. Because—"
He hesitated, looked at me, then looked away.
"Because," he said, "you're getting younger, just like me. If we don't get this thing straightened out, you're going to die of young age yourself."
I stared at him. "You said that before, about yourself. I thought you'd just tongue-twisted. But you really mean—"
"Sit down," he ordered. "Virgie, I told you that you were looking younger. It wasn't just looks. It's the demons—and not just you and me, but a lot of people. First Grand Rapids. Then when the hotel burned. Plenty have been exposed—you more than most, I guess, ever since the day you walked into my lab and I was trying to recapture some that had got away. Well, I don't guess I recaptured them all."
"You mean _I_ —"
He nodded. "Some of the demons make people younger. And you've got a colony of them in you."
I swallowed and sat down. "You mean I'm going to get younger and younger, until finally I become a baby? And then—what then, Greek?"
He shrugged. "How do I know? Ask me in another ten years. _Look at me, Virgie!_ " he cried, suddenly loud. "How old do I look to you? Eighteen?
It was the plain truth. He looked no more than that. Seeing him day by day, I wasn't conscious of change; remembering him from when we had gone to school, I thought of him as younger anyway. But he was forty, at the very least, and he didn't look old enough to vote.
He said, "I've had demons inside of me for six years. It seems they're a bit choosy about where they'll live. They don't inhabit the whole body, just parts of it—heart, lungs, liver. Maybe bones. Maybe some of the glands—perhaps that'
s why I feel so chipper physically. But not my brain, or not yet.
"Fortunately? But that's wrong, Greek! If your brain grew younger too—"
"Fool! If I had a young brain, I'd forget everything I learned, like unrolling a tape backwards! That's the danger, Virgie, the immediate danger that's pressing me—that's why I needed help! Because if I ever forget, that's the end. Not just for me—for everybody; because there's no one else in the world who knows how to control these things at all. Except me—and you, if I can train you."
"They're loose?" I felt my hair wonderingly. Still, it was not exactly a surprise. "How many?"
He shrugged. "I have no idea. When they let the first batch of rabbits loose in Australia, did they have any idea how many there would be a couple of dozen generations later?"
I whistled. Minnie popped her head in the door and giggled. I waved her away.
"She could use some of your demons," I remarked. "Sometimes I think she has awfully young ideas, for a woman who's sixty if she's a day."
Greco laughed crazily. "Minnie? She's been working for me for a year. And she was eighty-five when I hired her!"
"I can't believe you!"
"Then you'll have to start practicing right now," he said.
It was tough, and no fooling; but I became convinced. It wasn't the million dollars a year any more.
It was the thought of ending my days as a drooling, mewling infant—or worse!
To avert that, I was willing to work my brain to a shred.
First it was a matter of learning—learning about the "strange particles." Ever hear of them? That's not my term—that's what the physicists call them.
Positrons. The neutrino. Pions and muons, plus and minus; the lambda and the antilambda. K particles, positive and negative, and anti-protons and anti- neutrons and sigmas, positive, negative and neutral, and—
Well, that's enough; but physics had come a long way since the classes I cut at Old Ugly, and there was a lot to catch up on.
The thing was, some of the "strange particles" were stranger than even most physicists knew. Some—in combination—were in fact Greco's demons.
We bought animals—mice, rabbits, guinea pigs, even dogs. We infected the young with some of our own demons—that was simple enough, frighteningly simple; all we had to do was handle them a bit. And we watched what happened.
They died—of young age.
Some vital organ or another regressed to embryonic condition, and they died—as Greco and I would die, if we didn't find the answer. As the whole world might die. Was it better than reverting past the embryo to the simple lifeless zygote? I couldn't decide. It was dying, all the same. When an embryonic heart or liver is called on to do a job for a mature organism, there is only one way out. Death.
And after death—the demons went on; the dog we fed on the remains of the guinea pigs followed them to extinction in a matter of weeks.
Minnie was an interesting case.
She was going about her work with more energy every day, and I'll be blasted if I didn't catch her casting a lingering Marilyn Monroe sort of look at me when Greco's back was turned.
"Shall we fire her?" I asked El Greco when I told him about it.
"She's disrupting the work!"
"The work isn't worth a damn anyhow," he said moodily. "We're not getting anywhere, Virgie. If it was only a matter of smooth, predictable rates—But look at her. She's picking up speed! She's dropped five years in the past couple weeks."
"She can stand to drop a lot more," I said, annoyed.
He shrugged. "It depends on where. Her nose? It's shortened to about a fifteen-year-old level now. Facial hair? That's mostly gone. Skin texture?
Well, I suppose there's no such thing as a too-immature skin, I mean short of the embryonic capsule, but—Wait a minute."
He was staring at the doorway.
Minnie was standing there, simpering.
"Come here!" he ordered in a voice like thunder. "Come here, you! Virgie, look at her nose!"
I looked. "Ugh," I said, but more or less under my breath.
"No, no!" cried Greco. "Virgie, don't you see her _nose_?" Foolish; of course I did. It was long, beaked—
Then I saw.
"It's growing longer," I whispered.
"Right, my boy! Right! One curve at least has reversed itself. Do you see, Virgie?"
I nodded. "She's—she's beginning to age again."
"Better than that!" he crowed. "It's faster than normal aging, Virgie! _There are aging demons loose too!_ "
A breath of hope!
But hope died. Sure, he was right—as far as it went.
There _were_ aging demons. We isolated them in some of our experimental animals. First we had to lure Minnie into standing still while Greco, swearing horribly, took a tissue sample; she didn't like that, but a hundred-dollar bonus converted her. Solid CO2 froze the skin; _snip_ , and a tiny flake of flesh came out of her nose at the point of Greco's scalpel; he put the sample of flesh through a few tricks and, at the end of the day, we tried it on some of our mice.
Well, it was gratifying, in a way—they died of old age. But die they did. It took three days to show an effect, but when it came, it was dramatic. These were young adult mice, in the full flush of their mousehood, but when these new demons got to work on them, they suddenly developed a frowsy, decrepit appearance that made them look like Bowery bums over whom Cinderella's good fairy had waved her wand in reverse. And two days later they were dead.
"I think we've got something," said Greco thoughtfully; but I didn't think so, and I was right. Dead was dead. We could kill the animals by making them too young. We could kill the animals by making them too old. But keep them alive, once the demons were in them, we could not.
Greco evolved a plan: Mix the two breeds of demons! Take an animal with the young-age demons already in it, then add a batch that worked in the other direction!
For a while, it seemed to work—but only for a while. After a couple of weeks, one breed or the other would gain the upper hand. And the animals died.
It was fast in mice, slow in humans. Minnie stayed alive. But the nose grew longer and facial hair reappeared; simultaneously her complexion cleared, her posture straightened.
And then, for the first time, we began to read the papers.
STRANGE PLAGUE STRIKES ELGIN
bawled the Chicago _Tribune_ , and went on to tell how the suburbs around Elgin, Illinois, were heavily infested with a curious new malady, the symptoms of which were—youth.
TOLL PASSES 10,000
blared the San Francisco _Examiner_. The New York _News_ found thousands of cases in Brooklyn. A whole hospital in Dallas was evacuated to make room for victims of the new plague.
We looked at each other.
"They're out in force," said Theobald Greco soberly. "And we don't have the cure."