In the old stories wars are described as desolate places. Places in which ripped flags sway in a faint breeze, places where the soil is long stained with blood, and more then littered with the dead and dying. In the old stories the air would be filled with the ringing of swords clashing, the screams of the dying echoing in the air, battle chants being carried on the wind. Swords would be used to fight monsters- enemies- people that, without a doubt, needed to be killed. When I was a child I would always imagine these enemies to have hunched backs snapping their teeth at the good guys, maybe even clawing at the swords being thrust at them. In the end, however, the good guys would win, with maybe some exceptions, and the evil monsters would inevitably be defeated.
I remember reading about these old stories as I sat alone in my father’s house. I remember imagining myself as one of the heroes, as a man, fighting to save all those who I loved. I imagined that I wielded the blade like a master and sliced through the monstrous enemies that dared attack me. The only problem was that I was still a lonesome kid just sitting in a lonely room, trying to bury myself in a book.
This is not an old story, but this is a war, a war of the worst kind, almost worse than the ones from the old stories. Instead of swords we have machine guns; instead of good versus evil we have original individuals versus the unexplainable. Maybe to a few that is, in fact, still good versus evil. But no one has animal eyes, no one resembles the horrible monsters I imagined when I first read the old stories. One thing has to be clear; I’m a biologist- a geneticist, if you want to be specific- that is how I got into this mess. That is how I came to work at the Bram Institute in Atlanta where wars are fought with guns and infections, not swords. I am not a soldier, I know nothing of real combat but I know something of the penalties of war.
When I was a child I never imagined I would come to this. I remember going to my grandmother’s house in Georgia for the holidays, every holiday she would sit me on her knee and tell me a grand story like the ones from my books. I would sit at attention and try to remember every detail. During these visits I would, again, imagine myself as the hero like any little kid would. But someone still has to be the villain. Someone still has to have animal eyes and claws sharp enough to tear through flesh, but that couldn’t be a little girl from Virginia could it? I was wrong.
“Olivia,” My grandmother would say to me quietly like it was our little secret, “Though these monsters were grand and large, some of them were little. Just like you and I, little one, some of them looked just like you and me,” she would then smile at me kindly and continue with the story. It didn’t stop my imagination from wandering back to my original monsters all the same.
As I grew older I began to read more and more, I began to read anything I could get my hands on: Romances, Mysteries, Science Fiction, Medical Journals, and Research Papers. You name it I probably read it. I studied and studied as I went through school, reaching the top of my class in High School and getting into one of the top colleges in the country: The LaBute School of Science. I continued on the same path for a while until I grew accustomed to other…interests. I came to understand that most of the things I had read in Romance novels can be very relaxing when stressed about finals, and it probably didn’t help that many of my guy friends were willing to oblige my curiosity. Nevertheless I did become top of my class and graduated. And still I thought I knew the world and all that it could throw at me. I thought I understood how people could ‘use’ others and how people could be two-faced. I thought I had the world figured out when I entered graduate school but it wasn’t until I entered the real world that I was proven wrong, very wrong.
I started at the institute a little over a year ago, and a little over a year ago I started research that made me question humanity. I came to understand ‘monsters’ to not be horrible creatures that had twisted limbs, sharp teeth, and animal eyes but regular people; some of the scariest monsters were the ones that looked like everyone else, just like my grandmother had warned me about all of those years ago.
The first day I started I told myself what I was doing wasn’t all that bad. I was just supposed to inject foreign DNA and try to calculate the side effects. The bodies had been donated to science for these specific purposes, but I bet they didn’t think it would come to this when they signed the form. I leaned over dozens of body bags in those first few days; injecting, testing, labeling. The bodies became numbers- not things that were once living- and I waited for a break through. I forced myself to not see the faces, I forced myself to not think about the families or the weeping children, I forced myself to cut all emotional ties I could possibly make towards the bodies and just focus on my work. About the second day I no longer saw people on the metal table, I only saw chucks of meat, things to experiment on, things to research as I extracted various forms of DNA and injected it into the body’s skin. And I waited, we all waited.
My supervisors came by occasionally those first few days just to ‘check in’. I wasn’t sure what they were expecting. They knew I was top of my class; they knew I had gone to the top science schools in the country but they also knew I couldn’t make things magically happen. Still they entered my lab at a casual stroll and looked about as casually as they could possibly manage. They glanced at my notes, questioned some of my activity, peered at the body as if they expected it to turn into a ramped beast and then they turned and left. I was getting a little nervous by the second day as they continued to walk in. I was getting used to looking over my shoulder to see if someone was there to ask another question or look over the notes that I had just written. I remember hoping that this didn’t continue for much longer or I would become paranoid. But then it happened, what everyone was waiting for happened.
My ‘break through’ came three days later. It had started off completely normal, just another day of work. That’s what I told myself as the sliding glass doors of the institute glided open to admit me into the building. I nodded to the secretary and flashed my badge, she buzzed me through. Just another day of research, I told myself as the clicking of my heels bounced off the walls and echoed down the hall, just another day. But it wasn’t. I walked through the empty, silent halls filled with sanitation showers, carts with stacked documents neatly organized on them, I walked past closed doors that I assumed held labs much like my own. It was rare to see another soul in those narrow halls, and I learned very quickly that if you did see someone you never made eye contact. You never smiled.
I came into my lab, which at that time wasn’t much of anything but a large empty room that only housed a desk with a computer, a metal table, and my equipment used to extract DNA and formulate it. When I walked into the lab the body was already there, lying on the metal table still in its black body bag. They delivered it for me, I remember thinking as I set my things down, how nice. I grabbed my white coat from the peg by the door and set to work. I came up to the body bag and unzipped it. What lay beneath was Number 53, that was the body’s label, and it used to be a man. His dark hair stuck out in wild directions and his skin had the blue tinge of death. I unzipped the bag further until the man’s torso was uncovered; I inspected the area and found no apparent wounds around the injection sight, not that I was sure why it exactly mattered at the time. The body was dead after all. I grabbed the latex gloves from the desk and slid them on before I grabbed the large needle I had laid out before I had left the night before. Slowly, as slowly I could possibly go I inserted the needle under the chest cavity and drew out some of the body’s blood.
I eased the needle back out and turned to my formulating equipment. I had one other formula prepared that I had been ready to test the night before but I had felt to defeated with finding nothing worthwhile the rest of the day. I sighed and inserted the blood with the body’s DNA into the equipment and waited. The process of formulating DNA into just the right mixture took a long time, a surprising long time when the damn thing didn’t work in the first place but I always waited. I was opening up my computer and starting another log with the equipment beeped.
“Working hard already I see,” said a jolly voice from behind me.
I jumped, I had forgotten about my supervisors, or was it I had hoped they had forgotten about me? I turned around to see a round man that was slightly taller than me and sporting a goatee scroll into my lab, I put on my best smile. Don’t get defensive, I warned myself, “Like always I guess.”
“May I see what you are doing?”
“Of course Mr.-“
“It’s Tony, please. I don’t like to be as formal as my colleagues,” he smiled kindly over at me.
I nodded towards the metal table, “Look for yourself, I haven’t injected anything yet.”
“Ah,” he chuckled good naturedly, “Then I shall be the one to witness that this fellow was certainly dead when you started.”
I nodded as I got the formulated DNA out of the equipment and twisted into another syringe, “Ready,” I joked.
“The suspense is killing me, Doctor.”
I slowly injected the new formula into the chest cavity, the same way I got the blood out of the heart and slowly pulled out; laying the needle aside I bounded on the body’s chest a few times. Tony quickly felt for a pulse, I looked at him quizzically but he paid me no mind, “Well,” he said giving up, “Better luck next time.”
He flashed me another of his jolly smiles then with that he walked out of my lab, I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry but I watched him go. I looked back at the body and sighed. I remember typing at my computer; logging in what I thought was another useless piece of data when the body did the unthinkable, it moved. The body, one of my numbers, opened its eyes and sat up. I didn’t know what to think, the body didn’t move but to blink it’s still glazed eyes. I remember staring at the body, my mouth hanging open in a silent scream, my hands shaking at my sides, I didn’t remember moving my feet but suddenly I was against the wall on the other side of the room. The only things between me and the body were the desk and my equipment that had somehow fallen to the floor. I didn’t even hear it fall. That’s how they found me, my supervisors. Cowering against a wall while first one, then everyone poured into my lab to look at the thing, my number, my monster. My supervisors where not only impressed but where close to jumping for joy at the very concept. I wasn’t, I stood back while they took Number 53’s vitals and temperature, and ran tests that took the rest of the day. I felt numb, it wasn’t supposed to happen but that didn’t change the fact that it did.
Needless to say when I came back the next day they demanded I inject the same formula in two other bodies. The day after it was three others, the numbers grew- but then questions did too. If we could bring back the dead, could we change the dead too? Could we make armies of undead soldiers? Could we make these individual’s fly, or grow limbs, or use them to cure the incurable? With these growing questions came my growing dread. I was making monsters, I was becoming Frankenstein. The once simple formula that wasn’t supposed to work changed, morphed into something more. The tests became more frequent and more intense. I got a team which filled up my empty lab space so we could produce multiple formulas’ at one time to test. Some failed and didn’t cause the bodies to awaken, others didn’t cause what we hoped they would, yet some made the bodies more…alive. Then came another problem. Memories.
If we end up successfully waking these bodies what would they remember? Would they recall the life they used to lead or would the damage of brain death be enough to wipe all previous memory? As the formulas advanced so did this problem with no apparent solution… until the Engineers came.
About two months into these intense tests Engineers appeared in the lab with their pure white lab coats and grim expressions. They swept in silently, examining the bodies, conversing with my supervisors, but never once needing an explanation for what we did. It didn’t seem to matter for one simple reason: they had a plan. Short of performing a lobotomy only one thing could work from a scientific perspective. A high voltage laser was built to fry a specific portion of the brain without burning the retinas- however, it took 235- 264 to get the workings exactly right- either killing them or simply blinding them. The first body I brought to them was taken and forced onto a metal table almost like the ones I had in my lab. The table was a little different; this table had straps to hold the bodies in place. It didn’t resist, just went where it was pushed and laid where it was told. I was given goggles; all who were watching were given goggles, all of us but the body. The laser was turned on. The smell of burning flesh filled the room, dived into our nostrils so it wouldn’t get out for hours. The body twitched uncontrollably on the table and when the laser was turned off it lay limp. The grim Engineer walked over to it and shook his head, “Dead,” he announced to the room, “I’ll have to adjust it.”
No other emotion. No remark about the horrible pain we might have caused the body when it died for the second time. Yet I didn’t say anything either. I just stared as they brought in body after body to test. The smell will never leave me. I will always remember the look of the bodies as they lay there, blood running down their face from where the laser hit a part of the skin. I will remember the blank eyes of the ones the Engineers blinded only before my supervisors gave the orders to kill them. I will always be haunted by those eyes.
Rooms were built for the bodies, just simple four white walls with beds and toilets. Yet I have to admit I never saw them, in the early days, move much from their bed. Number 53 was the first to die. He never moved from the sitting position, never did anything but blink his glazed eyes. But Number 53 was special to all of us those first few days. Yet by that time he was also the most primitive of the bodies. When they wheeled him out of his room, after he had died again, I watched and wondered. We had given him life, if it could really even be called that, but what good did that do him. He never spoke, never saw with any comprehension, and never ate or walked or really lived. What had I done?
The bodies, the labeled individuals with no names, had nothing. They had no family, no memories, and no possessions to call their own. They just sat there and stared at their white walls until someone either brought them food or came to do some more tests. Throughout all of this I couldn’t stop thinking that I did this- I created the formula that awoke the dead. I disturbed their peace. I have become the monster from the old stories that the good guys always kill. I had become more frightening then the monsters I imagined when I was a child, the only problem was I wasn’t sure how to stop.