Li Qian stood beside the table with a stack of consent forms in her hands, rehearsing what she was supposed to say. She nervously glanced at the consent forms Professor Shen had insisted on, which still had all the required information, and the sampling kit. Sterile swabs, disposable gloves, felt pens for marking the sample tubes, check.
Everything was in order. Now she just needed to wait for the Dixingians Professor Shen had promised to bring over. And not pace, because pacing would look unprofessional.
Right. How would Professor Shen even get their subjects to this small room in the middle of a locked level? It was true there weren't that many better rooms available, and this way they wouldn't have to schlep all of their stuff in and out daily, but-
Abruptly, a man appeared out of thin air. Li Qian jumped back despite herself. “H-hello!” she said. “Are you here for the study?”
He stared at her. “A study,” he said. “What on Earth could you be studying?”
“The Dixing genome?” she squeaked. He probably wasn't here for the study, then. Even if it would've been cool to figure out whether Dixingians had genes for producing purple pigment like his hair. Unless it was structural coloration? Or hair dye.
The man scoffed. “So the Black-Cloaked Envoy is willing to betray us in yet another fashion. How unsurprising.”
Li Qian was beginning to think he had the wrong room. Nonetheless, her curiosity had been piqued despite herself. “Who's the Black-Cloaked Envoy?”
The man laughed in a caricature of evil laughter. “‘Who's the Black-Cloaked Envoy?’ Why, he's your teacher! He's turned his back to all Dixing so he could play Professor here on the surface.” He leaned in much too close for Li Qian's comfort. “He even sold his little brother to slavery. What a jerk, right?”
At that moment, the door opened and Professor Shen stepped through. He frowned. “Please step back, you're spooking my postgrad,” he said.
“Oh, no,” the purple-haired man said, turning his head to look at Professor Shen. Li Qian inched to the side, trapped between him and the table. “How am I supposed to reclaim the Longevity Dial from her if I step back?”
Li Qian had no idea what the Longevity Dial was. She inched more to the side just in case.
The purple-haired man suddenly thrust out his arm at her. She jumped backwards, out of his reach, but an invisible force grabbed her neck and pushed her up. She tried to scream, but nothing came. She couldn't breathe, she clawed at her neck fruitlessly, black spots appeared in her vision-
“Let her go,” Professor Shen growled. He threw a bolt of what must be dark energy.
Li Qian fell to the ground and coughed. She sucked air into her lungs, cold and burning, until the black spots fell away.
Professor Shen was engaged in fisticuffs with the purple-haired man. She hadn't known he did martial arts.
“You haven't seen the last of me!” the purple-haired man declared, then disappeared with a caricature of an evil laugh.
Professor Shen looked around himself, scanning the small room, before rushing to Li Qian's side. “Are you hurt?”
She shook her head. Professor Shen ignored her to hover a hand near her throat. Something cool and soothing spread through her. “Thanks,” she croaked.
“Did he do anything else to you?”
“He ... said you were some sort of envoy or something?” Li Qian rubbed her throat. “You're from Dixing.”
Professor Shen fell deathly silent. He stared at her expectantly, as if the next remark should be hers.
Perhaps he was right. “It's good for the study that you have connections to the populace we're studying,” she said and hid her wince. She'd never been good at talking to people; why had she thought it'd be a good idea?
Despite her awkwardness, Professor Shen smiled and relaxed. “I suppose.”
Li Qian smiled back awkwardly. “Do you know who that guy was?”
“...no,” Professor Shen sighed. “Though given what he claimed to be after-” He cut himself off and shook his head. “Have you seen a small sundial-like thing, made of silvery metal?”
“It's a family heirloom,” Li Qian said, not ready to reveal that she wore it on her neck, or the terrible price she'd paid with it. But if Professor Shen was from Dixing, maybe he'd know someone who could help her? She swallowed. “He also said you'd sold your brother to slavery?”
Professor Shen froze. “Oh no,” he whispered, then straightened his legs and disappeared into a portal.
Li Qian was left all alone in the room. The sample collection chair had been upturned, but the table with its sample collection kits and markers and pens was thankfully untouched.
Her legs shook as she pushed herself to her feet. She righted the chair and placed it next to the table, then mindlessly poked at the papers and tubes, pretending she was restoring order but in reality just mindlessly fretting.
Her PhD supervisor was an alien. This should probably have been a much larger revelation. She was still trying to deal with being choked, probably.
She was also tired. How long would Professor Shen take in Dixing, or wherever he was? Maybe she could manage a nap.
She could at least sit on the chair and rest a bit. Right. She'd rest her feet until Professor Shen returned with a willing study participant.
Perhaps ten minutes later, her rest was interrupted by another portal erupting in the room. When she saw that it was Professor Shen and another person, she jumped to her feet so fast the chair clattered behind her and her vision swam. “Hello!” she said. Professor Shen had probably already told him about the study, but-
“You can let go now, didi,” Professor Shen said to the gray-haired man clinging to him.
“No,” Professor Shen's brother whined.
Professor Shen sighed and patted his brother's hair. “You'll need to let go at some point. I'll arrange the practicalities, okay, you just need to be here.”
Professor Shen's brother pouted. From this angle, Li Qian could spot the family resemblance: save for the hair color, they were identical.
“Is he here for the study?” she hesitantly asked.
“What study?” Professor Shen's brother asked. Professor Shen looked mildly guilty.
“The study on the Dixing genome and heritability of Dixing powers?”
Professor Shen's brother scoffed. “Heritability? Gege and I are twins, and not even we have the same power.”
“Maybe it's epigenetic?” Li Qian blurted out. “Professor Shen? Do you think the genes responsible for the shape of the power would be especially sensitive to DNA methylation or histone modification?”
“I suppose it's possible,” Professor Shen replied after a moment's thought.
“Do I get to do a twin study?” Li Qian asked hopefully.
“You might have trouble recruiting a sufficiently large sample,” he said, but reached for a consent form and scribbled his name on it. “Didi, I need both hands for this.”
Professor Shen's brother made a discontent noise but let go. Professor Shen took one of the sampling kits, unwrapped it, and rubbed the collector sponge against first one side of the lower gums and then the other. He unscrewed the cap, turned it around so the collector went into the tube, then screwed it back on again and shook.
“Here, let me label it,” Li Qian said. She carefully wrote 01A on the tube while Professor Shen was pushing a consent form at his brother.
It was perhaps a bit unethical, given the family relation and such; on the other hand, Dixingians weren't people, so they were covered only by the same ethical permissions as animal studies. The consent forms had been Professor Shen's idea. Li Qian winced at the thought of Professor Shen having to sit through meetings describing him and his people as inhuman and then cautiously advocating for consent forms.
His brother signed the consent form with a scrawl after reading it. Li Qian tried to decipher the two characters, but didn't see a resemblance to “Shen” in the first.
“Sit down, didi,” Professor Shen said as he was putting on the nitrile gloves. He unwrapped another sampling kit. “Open your mouth.”
Professor Shen repeated the sampling procedure, holding on to his disgruntled brother's jaw. While Li Qian labeled that tube 01B, he disposed of the gloves and wrote down his and his brother's Dixing powers on the key sheet.
“I need to take care of some practical matters,” Professor Shen said. “I won't be able to recruit people for your study, but perhaps you can start on analyzing what you already have.”
“Sure,” Li Qian said. She watched Professor Shen pick up his brother and portal out.
Now that the chair was free once more, she sat on it. She hoped the purple-haired man wouldn't turn up again.
Professor Shen was from Dixing. And the family heirloom with its great powers with greater price was a Dixingian artefact. Li Qian pressed a hand to her shirt; the pendant pressed back like a regular lump of metal would. Maybe he could help her, or knew someone who could help.
The tiny room had been booked for the whole week – it was usually empty – and had locked doors, so Li Qian could leave most of the stuff here. In the meanwhile, though, she really should get around to analyzing what she already had. Maybe she could give Professor Shen a preliminary report by tomorrow.
She grabbed the signed consent forms, the powers sheet, and the used sample tubes, then waslked out, locking the door behind her. Like a responsible poor student, she'd turned off the lights.
Apparently Professor Shen's power was learning. Huh. That'd explain things, she supposed. And his brother's was devouring. She could see the connection between them if she squinted a bit.
She let herself into Professor Shen's office with the spare key and locked the forms in the small safe under his desk. She made sure both the safe and the door were locked behind her before heading to the lab. Time to do some science.