stories flash fiction by Hugh Cook
Note: this is a fairly long story - 9,162 words, equivalent to roughly thirty pages or so of printed text. The complete text of the story is on this site in three separate files. The link to the second file is at the foot of this page or you can get to the second file if you click here.
UpgradeA police interrogation, but Eric felt no stress. The police were nothing compared to the Institute. Wired up to the lie detector, he felt ... bored.
"What do you know about the body?" said the voice behind the light.
"Just rumor," said Eric.
"Tell us about the teeth."
"Uh ... torture, I guess. The Gestapo used to do that."
"You know," said Eric. "Nazi Germany. The ... what were they? Secret police? Political police. You know. The, the ... anyway, they used to file people's teeth."
"Because it hurts, I guess."
"Did the Gestapo used to file people's teeth to needle-sharp points?"
"Hey, it was, uh, before my time," said Eric. "I don't know the details."
And finally they let him go. And finally, after nosing around the Institute for a week, discovering nothing, they packed up and left.
The Institute had gotten away with murder yet again.
Whiteness. The computer screen was filled with sleeting whiteness -- the whiteness of static and snow. Eric Sajanti watched it, fascinated. By profession, he was a linguist. And that blizzard of data represented the ultimate triumph of the science which he served.
The whiteness was the visual manifestation of Parlom Prentis, the suite of teaching programs designed to load information into Luxembourg and make it functional. Goodbye ape, hello angel.
If the project's aims had been achieved, then the fleeting shapes ghosting down the computer screen would be converted by Basilica into facts, figures, religious feelings, guilt and loyalty, memories of sunshine, the smell of a woman's shampoo, the smell of a wet dog's hair.
But until you had grown your own Basilica, that whirling snowstorm of data was the intellectual equivalent of junk DNA. Purposeless configurations of nothing. And to foster the growth of your own Basilica, your own angelic upper storey, you needed Luxembourg.
Which Alvin was trying to steal right now.
And what if Alvin got caught? If he got caught, they were both dead. Eric was in no doubt about that. By now, he understood the true nature of the Institute well enough to know just how dangerous it was to attempt this theft.
But the prize was so tempting.
Take Luxembourg, and you would expand your brain. You would grown your own Basilica, liberating yourself from human norms, permitting you to join the ranks of angels. The Institute could not be allowed to keep this prize to itself.
"I owe it to the human race," thought Eric.
He firmly believed exactly that. But he did not say it out loud. It was all too possible that his room might be bugged.
"Eric," said Jarline. "I'd like a chat."
Jarline was the Institute's psychiatrist, who was alleged to have killed at least one dissident researcher when she overdid the sodium pentothal during an interrogation.
"Sure," said Eric, trying to conceal his instant sense of alarm. "Any time."
Even in her sunniest moods, Jarline Plab was an alarming woman. In the big bulbous tumor of her head was the smallest of mouths. Were there teeth in that hot wet place? Maybe, but Eric had never seen them. The mouth never opened wide enough for you to chart its dangers. Still, for what it was worth, right now that mouth was in PR mode. Smiling.
"How about now?" said Jarline.
"Sure," said Eric, suppressing his sense of doom.
They had been caught. Right? Otherwise -- why would Jarline want a session?
But it turned out to be otherwise.
"Eric," said Jarline. "Gelhammer and I, we're looking for another volunteer. The problems with Luxembourg, we feel we've ironed them out. We want someone to take the next step."
Translation: You're just a linguist, and we don't mind expending you.
"Yes," said Eric, speaking the total truth. "Yes. That's what I want more than anything else in the world."
Gelhammer? Jarline? Eric no longer trusted them. And yet he still believed in their vision. He truly wanted to take Luxembourg. He wanted desperately. To build Basilica in his own brain. To take the next evolutionary step. To fulfill the dream which had once been Gelhammer's, though there was no telling what Gelhammer dreamed of now.
It was Jarline's anatomical peculiarity which had given Gelhammer Jantz the first hint of what might be possible. There were, living on planet Earth, a number of real live walking talking human beings of normal intelligence who functioned adequately despite the fact that they were lacking most of a normal human's brain mass. Jarline was one of these.
Jarline's head was mostly full of junk fluid, more of an aquarium than a computer. Her actual brain was a thin layer of neuronal complexity pushed up against the membranes which padded the interior of the skull. Yet she functioned at the polymath level.
What did that mean?
Obviously, the full mass of an ordinary human brain is unnecessary for human mental functions. Less can do more. In a visionary moment of insight, Gelhammer Jantz figured out the implications. By adding an additional designer layer to a functioning human brain, a layer which was hardly more than a smear of cells on the inside of the skull, you could enhance human mental function.
Gelhammer's name for this designer layer was Basilica. An angelic overbrain. The next evolutionary step.
Eric meant to take that evolutionary step. But on his own. Not under the control and supervision of Jarline and Gelhammer. Those two had killed far too many already. As Eric saw it, they both belonged in jail. And, if possible, he planned to send them there.
But, first, he had to get his hands on the necessary vials of Luxembourg.
The Institute stood on top of the cliff, with a view across the Valley to the brusque barbarities of the tangled mountains beyond -- stark white snow and black rock.
An elevator connected the Institute with the carpark. At the prearranged time, Eric descended in the elevator and met Alvin the carpark.
"I have it," said Alvin.
"Really?" said Eric.
"Yes," said Alvin, smiling.
"Then where is it?"
Alvin told him, and Eric swore.
"Why did you stash it there?" said Eric.
"Because," said Alvin, "they'll never find it there."
"You mean you think they're looking for it?" said Eric. "Already?"
"I think they might be," said Alvin.
Bad news. If they were, then both Eric and Alvin might end up dead.
The searches began just after nine o'clock that night. They were supervised by Coil Ranch, the nominally human muscle freak who was in charge of security at the Institute.
Soon the corridors of the Institute were filled with scientists and technicians, angry and protesting. While people had grown accustomed to the Institute's quasi-military habits, this was too much.
Tough. Nobody was going to quit. Technically, escape was possible -- people still went on leave -- but in practice they were all too heavily invested. Most had put in years of effort. Worse, they were all, to a degree, implicated in the illegal experiments. They all shared the responsibility for the twenty-seven deaths which had been required to take the project this far.
Oh, sure, the twenty-seven had all been volunteers. But no ethics committee would ever have approved the risks that they had run.
The next day, Gelhammer did personal interviews with staff members. Eric had to wait until after lunch for his own interrogation. When it came to security risks, even the technician who serviced the electron microscopes outranked the linguist.
"Eric," said Gelhammer, welcoming Eric into his office with a smile.
Gelhammer looked astonishingly like Andy Warhol. The physical resemblance was striking. The chief difference was in the set out of the mouth. Over the last nine years -- the nine years of the Basilica project -- Gelhammer had taken on the disappointed petulance of a spoilt child. A fish too big in a pool too small. No other significant egos to check the growth of his own.
"We have suffered a loss," said Gelhammer, in that orotund preacherly fashion into which he lapsed more and more frequently these days. "Some vials of Luxembourg have gone missing. You what that means."
"Yes," said Eric.
That needed no amplification. If the wider world got to know about the project, the results would be scandal, jail, lawsuits, closure. Absolute and unmitigated ruin.
"Eric," said Gelhammer earnestly, "if you know anything about this, anything at all, you must tell me. We can't let someone's cowardice or petty criminality stop us now. We've sacrificed too much to go back. Eric -- we're on the brink of a great evolutionary step forward for all of humankind."
"I know," said Eric, letting the truth serve his purposes. "I share this ... dream."
But Eric now believed that the dream had to be liberated from the Institute. His growing fear was that the secrets of Luxembourg were destined to become top secret government property, owned by the unscrutinized military paymasters who had come up with the necessary funding after the original consortium of universities had pulled out.
"So who do you think doesn't share the dream?" said Gelhammer.
"Anyone can waver at times," said Eric, falling into the quasi-religious rhetoric which had become more and more the Institute's norm in the past year.
As the interrogation continued, Eric played his role as best he could, promising when promises were appropriate, denying when denials were in order, and letting the truth serve him wherever possible, so the hidden stress analyzers would deny that he lied.
"We're not doing this for ourselves, Eric," said Gelhammer.
"No," said Eric. "We're not."
Doing it for himself? He could not be. Damnation was an old-fashioned concept, but the shadow of that threat had more than once contaminated Eric's nightmares. Whether there was a literal hell or not, he did not know. But, if he had connived at experimental murder just to further his career and serve his own self-interest, then hell was exactly where he belonged.
Two days later, Eric met Alvin met high on the mountain. They arrived by different routes, climbing with skis so they could ski downwards. Back before the invention of ski lifts, anyone wanting to ski had been forced to climb like this ... hard to imagine, when you experienced the labors of the climb.
From the heights, you could see most of the Valley. The air was so pristine that Eric could distinctly see the buildings of Northgrape Farm -- the property owned by Gelhammer Jantz and his female partner, Jarline Plab. Behind the farmhouse was a crematorium.
Crematorium? No, that's not the word you want. It's a ... an incinerator. That's it. Escaping from the incinerator's chimney was the tiniest wisp of black smoke.
"So, Eric," said Alvin. "Before I hand this stuff over, I just wanted to say ...."
"What?" said Eric.
They were in agreement, weren't they? Alvin to steal, Eric to smuggle. What did Alvin want now? Money? They had already decided that they were doing this for science. Hadn't they?
"Ah, the hell with it," said Alvin.
From his small backpack, Alvin took out a metal pencil case. On receiving the pencil case, Eric took off his gloves and opened it. Inside, nestled in cotton wool, were three vials of purple fluid -- three vials of Luxembourg. Plus a syringe and needles for injecting it.
"You did it," said Eric, full of congratulations.
"Yes," said Alvin. "But this isn't the first time."
"The first time?" said Eric, confused. "For what?"
"For me to steal Luxembourg," said Alvin. "I got away with a vial late last year. They thought it had been broken. Eric -- you're thinking of taking Luxembourg, right?"
"Yes," said Eric. "I want to be the first."
To be the first success. To be the first to try to new product, from which, if the experts could be believed, the last of the lethal problems had been removed. The Institute needed to be exposed, but the success of the project also needed to be demonstrated. Otherwise all those deaths would have been in vain.
"You're too late," said Alvin. "I took it."
"Took what?" said Eric, hearing the simple words but finding himself unable to process them.
"Luxembourg," said Alvin. "I took a full dose. When I was down in Rio. You know. That, uh -- "
"Extended vacation," said Eric. "And? How was it?"
"It's rough," said Alvin. "You have a fever, you have hallucinations. You really need to be somewhere ... safe."
"You were late getting back from Rio," said Eric.
"Three weeks," said Alvin, swallowing hard. "Still late when I got here. I had to plead hepatitis."
His eyes were too bright. Tears? What was wrong?
"And?" said Eric, glancing around quickly, warily, but finding no ambush.
"Some days it's better to be a refrigerator," said Alvin cryptically. "Don't worry, Eric. You're too late to be the first angel. But nobody's going to know that."
So saying, Alvin put on the skis which he had backpacked up the mountain. Then he began to ski. Not down the safe and easy slope to the right. But to the left.
"Not that way, Alvin!" yelled Eric. "Alvin! Stop! There's a cliff!"
At the last moment, Alvin did stop, two hundred yards downhill, killing his downward momentum with a stylish flurry of snow.
"You and your dumb practical jokes!" yelled Eric, outraged by the idiot risk Alvin had taken.
His voice rang in the bright iron of the air, hoarse, terrified, cracking into something close to hysteria as he realized just how close Alvin had come to going over the cliff.
With a brief shake of his head, a "no" of indeterminate context, Alvin took off his backpack, dipped into it, and removed something. A package which looked, from a distance, vaguely like a large salami. Then Alvin tossed the backpack away. It slid downhill and was snapped away by gravity, falling. Alvin tinkered with the salami, then tossed it uphill.
Once, briefly, Alvin waved.
Then skied over the edge.
In the perfect nothing of his departure, the salami-shape slithered downhill. Then exploded.
A flat crump of thunder.
Unleashed, a mass of snow began to move, lurching at first ponderously, then accelerating with an engulfing roar toward the memory of Alvin, which it buried with the invincible magnitude of its thunder.
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