He forced his legs to carry on as long as he could. The sound of an engine tore through the air behind him as he ran, accompanied by a rhythmic pounding that echoed his footsteps. Before he had a chance to wonder what that meant, he was tackled from behind and his mind exploded into a brilliant spray of color before darkness took him.
His face blanched pale as he watched the smoke rise. That had to be a coincidence, some part of his mind tried to tell him. It didn’t shut up until the squealing of tires told him that his escape had been noticed. He flat out ran, no destination in mind other than “away from here.”
Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Breathing hard, wheezing. His lifestyle had left him ill-equipped to deal with this. He found himself wishing between breaths that he’d gone to the gym a few more times. Or at all.
He couldn’t tell if he was being followed; the paranoia center of his brain screamed that of course he was being followed. He listened to it. He’d better have some place to go.
All this over a drink? Less than that, stories about a drink? He could really use a drink. Or a clear breath.
He was rambling. Mentally at least. He wasn’t speaking. Couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe. He needed somewhere to go, but couldn’t go anywhere. Somewhere to hide and catch his breath then, and figure out just what was going on.
He was on a side street, little-used, hardly any traffic or people. Every chase movie he’d ever seen told him that was a bad thing; he’d stand out, be an easy target. On the plus side, there was no obvious sign that anyone was actually chasing him.
He ducked down an alley just in time for the screech of tires to jolt him back into a run he couldn’t keep up. His lungs were lead weights set on fire.
The late morning sun shone wanly over the campus as he made his way to the lecture hall. He had to take a longer route than usual due to campus construction.
Ralph was still muzzy-headed from a fatigue that even a second coffee hadn’t been able to dispell. Ironically, this saved his life. He stumbled over a curb and fell to the pavement; had he continued walking, the enormous, heavy iron girders that fell from the building above him would have smashed him to paste when they landed with a deafening crash right where he’d been going.
The day after that he was plenty wakeful; shaken and scared out of his wits, he’d done little after lecture but sleep. And so it was that when a car sped by at a fantastic speed, nearly killing him, he’d been alert enough to notice that it had swerved toward him, not away from him. Only a swift step out of the way had kept him from becoming road paste.
The third day after he posted the notes passed uneventfully until he got back from lecture. A small white-wrapped box sat outside his door, a note card set on top. “An admirer.”
He carried it in, puzzled, and was about to open it when a faint, acrid chemical smell made him stop. He had no idea what the smell was, but it made him acutely aware of his impression that the car the day before had tried to hit him. What was it they said? Twice is coincidence, but three times is enemy action. Shaken all over again, he grabbed a few things and left the tiny apartment as fast as he could. When he looked back a few minutes later, a thread of smoke wound its way to the sky from the building.
The next day, Ralph spent his after-lecture time pulling at that mental thread. He took his research well beyond the outlines the professor had laid out for him, digging deeply into the events leading up to the fall of all of the most notable historical civilizations. He came up empty on most of them, but on some few, he came upon references that he was certain must be a connection. They MUST!
His deadline for posting was coming up fast, and he gnashed his teeth in frustration. “Just have to keep looking for more after, I guess,” though he hated to put anything online before he’d done a thorough job. This was the sort of topic that he could spend his whole life researching though.
To suggest that a single drink was implicated in the fall of even one entire civilization was a remarkable claim. To suggest that it might be involved in the downfall of several? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, but he couldn’t let this go.
He spent hours putting together his findings into as clean and clear a summary as he could, and documented his every source. Eyes red and burning from the long hours of research and preparation, he hit the Submit button with relief. With the professor’s task set aside, he could focus on expanding the work himself. After he got some sleep.
The notes were intriguing to say the least; it’d been a while since he was this interested in the research subjects he’d been assigned. With a glance at the clock and a wince at the time, he packed up the notes and got ready for bed. He’d need to be clear-headed to dive into the historical sources he was going to need to validate what he’d just been handed.
The next two days were spent haunting the campus library, pouring through a surprising diversity of books, from the biological studies of fungus that he’d have expected to more unusual fare like medieval cookbooks to eye-witness accounts of the falls of civilizations. At the end of those two days, he felt like he’d spent a week on a serious bender; not for the first time, he forced himself to take a break.
“Break … break … got to stop researching,” he said, over and over, mantra-like. “The professor’s going to want these notes online. Might as well get started on that.”
It wasn’t much of a break, he silently admitted to himself, but at least it would get his eyes out of the books for a while. That had to be an improvement, right?
He started with an excerpt from an old manuscript that had caught his eye the first day. It told the tale of an ancient king who had become so fond of the beverage that he’d died of drinking it to excess; upon the discovery of his fate, his subjects grew fearful—at least until they too began to succumb to the temptation of the honey wine. Shortly thereafter the country was conquered by a foreign nation. Conventional wisdom held the events as unrelated, but a thread had caught at the professor’s mind, and now it wouldn’t let go of his, either.
The clock turned over to 3:00am. Ralph barely noticed; he was totally lost to the Internet, following link after link, conducting search after search. “This has to be it,” he murmured to himself, not even noticing that he’d spoken aloud.
He’d been working his way through the professor’s notes. It was pretty gory stuff; fungal infections that get into food crops. In this case, mainly corn. He’d been mildly revolted to find that some cultures considered the infected corn to be a delicacy, and prized it highly. Blech! He didn’t even care for mushrooms, let alone fungus-infested food.
Apparently a rare variant of the fungal species responsible had just been identified. This new variety preferred to infect grapes, and had a particular fondness for several species of grape popular among vintners.
“The descriptions are all the same. That can’t be a coincidence.” Intensified intoxication, with eventual onset of mild hallucinations. Mild at first, anyway. If what he was reading was true, there was a subtle ramping-up of the effect over time and continued imbibing.