“Synthology, the science of genetic engineering has brought forward a raft of organisms developed to serve specific, and typically unpleasant services. The Holy Grail has always been the human clone – and now, the Fujutsan-Brokkel Labs have begun mass production of their patented Carbon product. But where, I ask, did they capture the spark of life that previously plagued previous attempts at creating usefully sentient living things? And what does that say about the sustainability of the human Soul?”
- Vincenza Zhang: Art, Science, Morality - a study of Longetivity and Death through the eye of an evolving global, homogenised culture.
The silence of the sunrise was broken by the wailing loudspeaker blaring out the adhan. Hugo Nelson listened like a blind-man might fumble his way down a familiar alley. With cracked and blackened nails he scraped together a small amount of sticky resin from the bowl resting on the floor of his single room hovel, and rolled it into a small ball ready to smoke.
There is no deity but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.
The droning words, spoken in Arabic, brought a demented smile to his lips. Hugo knew he was lucky to be alive. But luck was a subjective term and he would say that being alive was close enough to Hell right now. So that the meaning of “luck” didn’t really apply. And death…well, that was no alternative. There was no guarantee that was a way out. No, because of what his friend Joseph Flavell had done that night on 13th October. The night when Flavell made a disastrous demonstration of the machine.
Joseph Flavell, his most loyal friend, right up to the moment Hugo had placed a gun to his forehead and pulled the trigger.
A quiet, serious-faced man with the pale skin, sad eyes and grimly-set mouth: East-European features blended with something Asiatic. A mysterious background in medicine and never short of money.
The day after Hugo’s father died, they met up. Hugo spoke of his grief, and whimsically mentioned his desire for science to uncover a way to stop the aging process – to enable people to live long, useful lives with the vitality of youth! Joseph cracked a knowing smile. Those words, it transpired, opened the gates to the inner workings of his remarkable, rapacious and deadly mind.
Joseph postulated that life, by definition of its animation, ceased when the medium of that animation departed the physical plane. An aspect of something he called the Ku. Death was the separation of Ku from the organic matter of the body. Illness and disease, even aging, was a consequence of transcription errors building up as tRNA read DNA in the eternal cycle of building proteins from strings of amino acids. What if, Joseph speculated, the Ku could be captured – recorded if you like – and then injected back into the physical vessel? Was it possible? And would not that facilitate a rejuvenation of vital facilities? Would it not lead to extended – or even ever lasting life?
Joseph Flavell believed these things were not beyond the steel-clutch of science – and he vocalised a promise that one day he would show Hugo how.
There was a trip to Prague. They stayed in a small renaissance-looking burgher house in Malá Strana, called Dům u velké boty. Situated opposite what had, until recently been the German embassy – which closed following handover of territorial powers to UTOC and the cultural attachés of MOCID - the property had been rebuilt in 1666.
Joseph’s main purpose for being there was to purchase a book. It came from a dealer of the rarest, choicest, best-preserved codices of ancient knowledge to have survived the savage journey through Time. The book’s title was “Calculi of Lycurgus” but that was its English translation; the actual thing was written in Latin – which Joseph could apparently read.
After Prague there was silence. A few weeks passed before Joseph made contact in that abrupt, unapologetic tone of his. An invitation to join him on a trip to New York.
“Was the book any good? What did you find?” Hugo asked.
“Come to America and you will see.”
The crowded hustle of New York was an immediate distraction to his feeling of unease. But the City didn’t interest Joseph. Not long after arriving both of them were on a ground bus, trundling north through dense forests along the Palisades Interstate Parkway and onto the 87 to the large but quaint township of Kingston. Hugo asked where they were going. Joseph’s answer was cryptic:
“To get what I need to finish the beginning.”
For the duration of the two hour journey Joseph continued to make elaborate sketches in a leather-bound notebook with a heavy charcoal pencil; it was something he always carried around with him. The sketches were like technical diagrams but always made Hugo’s head swim when he tried to look at them, so he didn’t.
At Kingston they booked a private taxi driver to take them to Olivebridge – an area at the foot of the Catskill mountains. It was nearly an hour’s drive. Joseph remained silent and for the first time since Hugo had known him, appeared tense.
“Who are we meeting out here?” Hugo probed.
“An important man for this task. Inventor. Collector. Deals when he sees reward in the transaction.”
Those were ominously prophetic words.
The encounter took place at Monohak House, an imposing brownstone Italianate villa that dated from the mid-19th Century. With widely overhanging eaves, verandas, and ornate windows, it reared up from manicured gardens with a distinctive asymmetric form, including a four-story tower.
The closed gate securing the driveway opened without prompt. At least they were expected. No staff were visible. No security patrolled the grounds. Compared to the large structure the porch was small and perfectly centred; paired, arched doors with large-pane glazing and elaborate framing decorations. The solitary man who greeted them there was impeccably groomed and equally imposing: tailored black suit, black shoes polished to a gleam, a shirt of golden silk open at the neck; blue jewellery circled his throat, wrists and fingers. Cleanly shaven but swarthy skin, the light of the afternoon sun glistened off a perpetual sweaty sheen. A Machiavellian smile played across broad lips and complimented dark, saturnine eyes. He held the gaze of somebody used to wielding great authority, the look of man who had communed with the Angels of Death.
A strange thought to have, but these notions whirled through Hugo’s head.
The experience of meeting the man – who was only introduced as “Mr Exley” – left a last impression on him. There was something otherworldly about Mr Exley’s comportment, mannerisms and speech. It struck Hugo, perhaps, that this must be what it would have been like to have met a Pharaoh in the Ancient World when such Men were considered as Gods.
The meeting was short and perfunctory. Most of it took place between Joseph and Mr Exley behind closed doors, leaving Hugo to wander the deserted house alone.
They returned to New York in the same taxi. Joseph was almost giddy with excitement, clutching a large box of polished mahogany. Inside, Hugo would later learn, was a machine – hand-built by Mr Exley and capable of remarkable things.
Joseph Flavell returned to the North-East of England and set up a laboratory in the attic of the house, where he lived alone, in Jesmond. The room overlooked an alleyway opposite, which led up to the rear of the Masonic Lodge, but the windows were so high it was impossible for anybody to observe what was taking place within.
The machine, no bigger than a medicine ball, resembled a miniature bathysphere on five short struts. Other devices were attached to it by coiled cables. The base opened up and fanned out with hinged plates of a silvery metal, each plate etched with remarkably intricate designs – intersecting lines and globules, glyphs that didn’t belong to human language.
With the machine, Joseph was able to record the essence of living things. Hugo didn’t believe him. So Joseph gave a demonstration.
He placed a bloodless pig’s heart on the table, resting on a flat panel of sterile gauze. It was the size of two fists bunched together, a mass of pink and dark coloured muscle with severed arteries, veins and massive vena cava gaping open. Then he took what looked like three old-fashioned soldering irons, attached to a polyhedron box behind the bathysphere and positioned them around the heart, needle-like tips pointing towards but not touching the dead flesh.
“I had to develop these myself,” Joseph explained, “The original purpose of the machine was not for this.”
He took a device, again connected to the bathysphere, that looked like the mouth-mask of emergency breathing apparatus and held it above the heart with one hand.
“This is the soul-funnel - it captures the essence,” Joseph stated confidently, “The Ku. It works on any size sample. Just one part of a sample connects to all Ku. You will see.”
With his other hand he flipped a switch and began making minute adjustments to a series of small metal dials. The atmosphere changed dramatically. A vial of black fluid started to bubble and Hugo was profoundly glad the vial was firmly sealed. After less than a minute, Joseph placed the soul-funnel to one side on the table. He stepped closer to the bathysphere and began to adjust a different set of dials, fixed into the silvery plates – his gaze focussed exclusively on the vial of bubbling ichor.
“Observe…,” his mumbled word trailed off, his eyes bugged wide as the entire contents of the vial blinked out of existence.
Hugo stared at his hands, feeling the hairs on the back of them standing up – as well as the skin on his scalp and neck contracting. A horrible sensation of vertigo gripped him, and he had to remain rigid still where he stood for fear of falling and tumbling into the unknown depths of transdimensional space opening up beneath and around him.
“Look!” Joseph called out wildly, “Look at the tube. The - liborato - it has not vanished. It is simply in a no-place. But also remains connected to the tube so long as we keep looking. Observation keeps it real. We must observe!”
A little further explanation came as they waited – whilst they observed. The black fluid, the liborato had absorbed the vestigial remains of Ku from the molecular remains of the animal the heart belonged to. Such base meat, after such a period of time, would not yield much Ku, but there would be enough for the purpose of this demonstration. Now the liborato was flowing through the channels between the overlapping spheres of Reality, attracting the long-departed Ku like electrons to a proton. Capturing what had gone.
Abruptly, Joseph decided that they had observed enough and shut down this stage of the experiment. The black fluid reappeared in the blink of an eye. No longer bubbling. Its stillness was contrary to the notion it now contained the essence of life of a deceased animal.
The room became preternaturally quiet.
Activating a switch created a waspish, high-pitch whine. The surface of the dead heart shimmered as if a fine sparkling substance had been thrown across it. Joseph described his technical invention as an electro-chemical transduction array. Or ECTA for short. He handed Hugo a pair of custom-made goggles with thick lenses of dark, strange-coloured glass.
“Finest crystal from Pankraz Laboratories, nothing like them on Earth. Put them on.”
Hugo did as instructed and marvelled at what he saw. The shimmering was just what the human eye alone could perceive. Through the goggles he saw a triangular mesh of energy erupting from the tip of each of the three soldering-iron devices. They overlapped and created a further shape that was impossible for him to describe. It covered and penetrated the heart, and to Hugo it seemed that each and every molecule of dead flesh was glowing, radiating a faint energy.
The heart convulsed.
Hugo yelled and took a leaping stride backwards at the same time, nearly toppling over a stack of crated supplies. He tore away the goggles to witness it with his own eyes. Again, the heart muscle clenched and relaxed, the openings of empty blood vessels flexing like the mouths of suffocating fish.
“Jesus Christ that is bloody sick!” Hugo cried out.
Joseph smiled, “Jesus has nothing to do with it.”
The early demonstration and subsequent experiments were not a complete success.
After a few more moments the re-energised tissue would speckle with grotesque blisters that quickly suppurated and burst, further foaming and frothing as the organic matter dissolved, reducing down into a stinking torrent. It was disgusting.
It needed further study. It needed more specimens.
In those early days, Hugo spent a lot of time with his hands deep inside the carcases of dead animals, cutting out organs and setting about getting them ready for Joseph to try and re-energise them.
They had a breakthrough when they tried a different, rather novel approach. After using the soul-funnel to capture the departed Ku, Hugo suggested placing a different organ from a different animal within the field generated by the ECTA.
It worked. The revived organ not only continued to work, it rapidly evolved in appearance as if repairing itself. The moment was like witnessing a miracle. But then this too failed. After a period of time that varied greatly between different specimens, the life that had returned would fade and the organic tissue once more became inert and dead.
“There is not enough Ku to sustain longevity,” Joseph complained. “The specimens have been dead too long or the meat is weak. We need better, fresher flesh.”
They had however identified one constant about the experiments, the Ku, once departed from a living structure and subsequently recaptured could not be placed back within the organism it came from. Joseph was unable to explain why. The subject required further investigation.
The first time they experimented on human flesh was nearly the end of them. The date was October 13th.
There was a crematorium that was willing to incinerate cattle remains and take cash to look the other way whilst a cadaver was wheeled out the back door.
They used two bodies. Both male, both roughly the same age and both of white racial origin, one had tidy short brown hair, the other black, longer and unkempt. Joseph didn’t want to increase the risk of psychological issues by meddling too much with gender and the like. Both corpses had been in their late thirties and had died in separate unrelated traffic accidents. Brown Hair was badly mangled around the upper torso where wreckage had nearly severed his arm away at the shoulder. Black Hair was more-or-less unmarked apart from the signs of lividity on the body and deep bruising around the face. Joseph selected the latter to be the recipient of the other man’s Ku.
Hugo watched mesmerised as the soul-funnel was placed above the chest of Brown Hair. Was it his imagination or was the intensity of the bubbling in the black liquid much less? And yet the atmosphere of dread was much greater and as each second sluggishly ticked by the experience became close to intolerable.
Once again Joseph adjusted the silvery dials to bring the liborato out of the normal resonating frequency of reality, to send it out into a no-place in order to attract and capture the departed Ku. The gently bubbling black liquid vanished for a few seconds and then reappeared as Joseph brought the process to an end.
“Mr Brown has been dead for nearly five weeks,” Joseph muttered. “I don’t know how much personality will remain after such period. Maybe a little. Maybe nothing. Hope that he is grateful for life. Are you ready to find out?”
Hugo nodded as if his neck was made of wood. His legs were trembling where he stood, as Joseph instructed, behind Black Hair’s head. He held in both hands a bulky, highly illegal particle-chunker ready to use if there was any trouble this time. At this range it would have the equivalent effect as a sawn-off shotgun but with almost no noise.
The tension was acute and unbearable.
The deep bruising across Black Hair’s face began to fade. The body was repairing the damage.
“Incredible…,” Hugo tried to speak but his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. He unglued it, uttered sounds of awe as the transformation continued. “It’s remarkable Joseph!”
Black Hair opened his dead eyes. Sucked in a dead breath and shrieked. It was a ghastly, ungodly sound that would have caused Angels to flap away in fright. Joseph stared, his rapt expression beginning to show mile concern.
Then Black Hair sat bolt upright, lunged to his feet and span round – confusion and anger rippling across his features. Hugo wavered, uncertain whether to raise the weapon or wait and see what happened next. Black Hair seemed to read his intent. Lashed out, grabbed one of Hugo’s arms and slammed it against the wall. The gun tumbled to the floor. Black Hair drove a fist into Hugo’s face and that’s when everything winked out.
“We have to leave. Right now. Come. Come on.”
It was Joseph’s voice. Calm but very insistent. Hugo grimaced as pain telegraphed damage signals into his re-emerging consciousness. He was lying on the floor, the back of his skull was hot and felt twice as large as it should of done. He was bleeding from a gash there. He had a vague memory of staggering backwards after being punched in the face. He’d struck his head on a hard low-hanging structure. That’s what had knocked him out.
Smell of burning… and something else.
Groggy, head-spinning and fighting the urge to vomit as he sat upright, Hugo peered around at a scene of utter chaos.
The lab was on fire. Flames were hungrily licking up the walls amidst a torrent of black, oily smoke. Hugo stared. Joseph was dressed for a long journey with a large rucksack fastened to his back. The machine was gone. No doubt inside the rucksack. On the metal table where Brown Hair had been lying was now a gruesome, gory mess, bubbling away into a puddle of gristle and slime.
Joseph began to lead him away. The flames were now spilling up around the sloping roof. “I repeated the soul-funnel. Interesting result. Despite previous capture there was still some Ku left. Vestigial. Enough to allow primal reptilian functions to return. He started breathing. He opened his eyes. And then the constant occurred.”
It’s what had happened to all the organs in their early experiments.
And then the real horror hit him. As Joseph dragged him by the arm through the doorway onto the staircase. The doorway had been smashed open. The banister rail was broken as if something had tumbled through the spokes.
Mr Black Hair!
“Where the hell is the other one?” Hugo called out. They were running now. Dashing down the stairs onto the first floor landing of the barely used house. More signs that things had been disturbed here – as if a confused maniac had stumbled about, kicking down doorways looking for a way out.
It was an appropriate analogy, Hugo realised, as Joseph answered grimly. “Gone. He fled.”
“Fled? What…! Where the hell can he go? He’s dead!”
“We have to leave. This place will not be safe for us now.”
News of the bizarre and macabre story broke the next day. The wife and young children of the deceased Mr Brown Hair had been horrified to find the strange, naked man with wild black hair battering on the door of the house in the early hours. The man had been barely able to communicate, suffering a form of extreme psychological trauma – and yet shrieking things that made a chilling sort of sense to the widowed woman. Worse was to come, when police identified the lunatic as somebody who had been pronounced dead – and supposedly cremated a day earlier. Serious questions were being raised. The crematorium had already issued a statement of concern about possible fraudulent and criminal activities taking place within the facility.
The trail was undoubtedly going to lead back to Joseph Flavell and his assistant, Hugo Nelson.
They fled to Bristol.
Joseph had already made contacts there in his surreptitious search for a reliable supply of human cadavers to experiment upon.
It led to an encounter one moonless night, at the base of a historic tower set upon a wooded hill within the aged grounds of Arnos Vale cemetery. The only illumination came from a heavily shielded lamp placed by their feet. The tower had apparently been recently restored after centuries existing in a state of complete ruin; safety netting still surrounded the site but there was no security in place. The rendezvous was with a woman called Jezelle and three muscular cohorts who all wore thick, loose-fitting jackets that blocked out their outlines, whilst large hoods and rags covered their faces. Disturbingly they stank the same as the putrid, filthy carcasses Hugo had spent so many weeks dissecting.
Jezelle knew what Joseph was working on and what services he required.
So it quickly transpired that Joseph and Hugo moved into a large, badly maintained house situated on Bath Road not far from the entrance to the cemetery. In the basement was a concealed trapdoor that led down through a hand-carved stairwell into a roughly hewn sub-basement. A rusting metal door led from this into an antechamber, where another metal door existed. This other door always remained locked. Every other day, dead bodies were placed within the antechamber – Hugo never saw who delivered them but he gained a crystal clear, shocking and sanity eroding understanding of where they came from.
Fresh bodies were rare. Badly decomposed were more common, with the muck of the grave still clinging to exposed bones and the maggoty flesh. Ironically, Hugo came to prefer the more juicy specimens as pre-cursors – from where the Ku was captured; their prolonged state of death meant that very little of them, as people, returned when the Ku was transferred into a second body. These resurrected corpses, secondary vessels to the captured Ku, shuddered and writhed with basic vestiges of primitive functionality. Joseph had learned his lessons well and now all human subjects were securely fastened to a sturdy wooden chair by iron bands; the chair itself bolted to the floor.
A large metal furnace provided heating and hot water; it also served to dispose of specimens that were no longer required. Even those that were not entirely dead.
During this fervent push for data, Joseph became increasingly more concerned about some unspoken…detail, that seemed to be weighing heavily upon his mind. Finally, he confessed to Hugo what was bothering him. On the night of October 13th, when Hugo had been struck and knocked unconscious, Joseph had panicked at how much blood there was, and keen to save the life of his only friend, had used the soul-funnel on him whilst he lay there prone.
Hugo was twisted through a mangle of conflicting and overlapping emotions: outrage and compassion, fear and curiosity.
Where is my Ku?
He asked the question and Joseph went quietly to the battered leather valise that contained his journal and copy of Calculi of Lycurgus. From there he extracted a carefully wrapped and protected glass vial, two-thirds full with black ichor.
“So what happens when I die, Joseph?” Hugo demanded, his anger straining through the attempt to keep his feelings in check.
“I bring you back. Every time. I bring you back. But we must perfect the process! Too much can go wrong still. Too much can go so terribly wrong.”
It was one bitterly cold night in early January, whilst a bone-gnawing wind howled through the old walls and windows of the house above, that Joseph confided his fears to Hugo.
“Jezelle wants my research. She wants this technology, when it’s ready.”
Joseph was sure of it. Jezelle had discovered how a person, once their Ku was captured, could be resurrected time and time again. Even if killed.
“…or tortured, for their secrets, the information that was valuable during life.” Joseph added, explaining how Jezelle’s cohorts could use banking details and passwords to crack financial gold from dead shells.
Jezelle wasn’t going to let Joseph walk out of there.
Hugo placed the ugly, stubby barrel
of the particle-chunker against Joseph’s forehead and pulled the trigger. He felt the sub-sonic backwash as the chunker
released its charge. Watched his friend’s head erupt in a mist of blood and
mincemeat, a gory splatter across the stone walls of the lab.
The vial, containing Joseph’s Ku was securely wrapped and placed in the battered leather valise alongside his own.
Hugo worked quickly. He dragged the decapitated body to the large furnace and then manhandled the floppy mass of limbs and torso onto the sliding loader, before hauling open the large metal hatch and slamming it all inside.
The plan was shocking yet simple. Joseph believed he would never be allowed to escape, not whilst walking around in his body. Hugo could, and he was to take the machine and the contents of the battered valise with him. His instructions after that were to acquire a new body to inject Joseph’s Ku back into. But no ordinary body. Joseph had already been in contact with two people who at that time were involved in the difficult and floundering development of advanced proto-humans: Clifton Jorgenson and Dr Jürgen Riéger.
Departing the draughty, crumbling house on the Bath Road with the rucksack fastened to his back was one of the most nerve-wracking moments of his life. He was certain that he’d be stopped at any moment and hurled back into a subterranean nightmare. But nobody questioned his motives: he was often seen using the rucksack when he went for supplies.
He took rail transport to London and did what he could to vanish. He started a cautious process of reaching out to the people who could help him bring Joseph Flavell back to life.
Both Jorgenson and Riéger responded with immediate and great interest. Both men wanted to meet and discuss what he had to offer.
Casablanca was chosen for the rendezvous. He travelled by sea. The black liquid inside the two vials he was carrying transfixed his attention. Two vials. Two separate Ku.
Hugo wasn’t sure who betrayed him. When he became sick he thought it was food-poisoning, but the illness deepened into a sweating fever, leaving him delirious with hallucinations and unable to do anything but sleep. They didn’t touch him. Just stole everything he had.
The Captain was sympathetic but not able – or willing - to provide much help beyond giving Hugo time to recover his strength. They dropped him off in Casablanca as arranged. Nobody came to meet him.
Hugo had used all of his money to help fund Joseph’s experiments. He was forced to work cleaning toilets just to pay for food and a place to rest his head. He took to smoking hashish to calm his shredded nerves.
He thought about taking his own life. Be done with it: except for the grotesquely distorted notions of horror about what would happen… after. He couldn’t shake loose from the barbed memories of the gibbering, mocking corpses that shrieked and howled their secrets from beyond the grave. For as long as he lived they couldn’t force his Ku into another body. But once he was no longer in a living vessel…
Somebody had the machine and the vial of black liborato that had trapped his soul. Whoever used it could bring him back, inject him into anything. A butchered cadaver, a decomposing corpse – if they wanted to.
The sunrise expanded as the wailing loudspeaker fell into silence. Hugo Nelson prepared the small ball of black resin, ready to to smoke. Oblivion came in small doses.
This life was Hell, but life after death might be infinitely worse.