After a shower and more coffee, another thought came to Gary. Or rather, it began to form in the shower, while he was jacking himself, in that creeping- vine way that thoughts have, especially when you’re trying to concentrate on something that is neither present nor fresh in your memory. He did his best to shut the thought out, but returned immediately to it while he was toweling off. By the time he poured coffee, he had the outlines of a new plan and was looking through the Yellow Pages — the hard copy, handier for browsing. Then, while he was still slurping, he looked through Bluthe’s site some more, wondering if he could find what he had overlooked — find it before it was directly before him, on a blind curve or encircling his home.

He drove over an hour to the chemical supply store. He parked his car in an asphalt lot that was full of pebbles, as if it couldn’t free itself from its dirt road origins. The building was a tin or aluminum box, industrial sized. Gary marched up to the glass door that seemed to be the main entrance, and went in, with a pause just before pulling the door to steel his nerves.

He stepped onto the cold solid concrete floor that he knew extended throughout the building; there was a small office front set up around the entrance, with a low acoustic ceiling, three walls of imitation pine paneling, a counter and the company logo. Gary stopped before the bell on the counter — something he was a bit apprehensive to use.

A moment later, someone came around the corner –no doubt the door had a sensor on it. Maybe a few years older than Gary, the clerk had the requisite lab coat and that hurried expression of someone who actually had work to do, not just tending a cash register.

“Can I help you,” he said while still positioning himself and without a glance.

“Yes-s-s,” started Gary with an extended response that presaged a story or complication, then: “I’ve got this friend, he’s a doctor and he sometimes thinks it’s a good gag to embarrass me with some kind of inside joke that I don’t get. This time” — he took out the list of elements — “he told me I had to get some of this. I just have no idea what it is.”

The clerk looked at him with the expression: I have no interest in your story, just tell me what this has to do with me.

“I was hoping you could sell me some of this.” He handed over the sheet.

The clerk looked at it — it had Gary’s sketch of the bars and stars above, with the chemical names below. He turned the sheet over in case there was something sensible there. Gary tried a stupid smile and was about to repeat the salient feature of the story when the clerk decided just to solve the problem. He didn’t inquire about quantities.

When he returned he had a quart jar of a powder labeled “Agar” and a half-pint jar of a metallic powder, aluminum. He placed them with authority on the counter, but without making even a few granules dance, and rang up the purchase on the register. Gary brought out his credit card, eliciting a momentary sigh and then a number of hair-precise movements, and finally an awkward pause while the clerk was eye-to-eye with Gary, waiting on the receipt to print. He pulled it out the very moment the last dot was printed. “Thanks, come again,” he said as he pulled the store receipt from under Gary’s pen, and before striding — released — behind the wall again.

It wasn’t until Gary was beside his car that he remembered the immense caution of his plan: “Pay for everything with cash; park your car so the license plate is hidden.” He looked back at the metal box, sorely tempted to go back in and make things right, but he knew the transaction record was somewhere else and immune to his regret. He felt in his pocket and was mightily relieved to find the list there — that at least was not out of his control.

He went by a supermarket for a bowl, mixing spoons and some distilled water. Time to mix this up, he thought. Got a six-pack, too.

He knew, of course, that a cynical trick had been played upon him by the clerk. That asshole might as well have handed him a stack of Jell-O packages — at least he’d have something to eat for his troubles. The clerk had done no analysis of the configuration of elements, but had just settled on the first thing that came to mind that would have the same mess of elements. From what Gary knew of chemistry, the gelatin would be gigantic chains, immense molecules with very different properties from less massive formulae. The odds of someone across the galaxy or the whole of time-space knowing what kind of gelatin we make from some goddam algae seemed vanishingly small.

Unless, of course, they’ve learned through experience, a trial-and-error process of request and reply, re-phrase and retry. Or maybe they will discover that Gary can’t produce what they need and they’ll pull the plug. But Gary knew that, practical joke or not, this was his best shot.