Storage Unit 106, Chapter 6

Click Here for Chapter 1

(More horrific fun)

Chapter 6: Planning

     I ran like the wind, or it sure felt like I did.  I took the quickest glance back as I turned the first corner, only to see a carpet of rats was not chasing me.  I didn’t slow down until I passed the last corner and saw the big, grey door in front of me, and I didn’t slow down very much.  The heavy door opened easily as I pulled with every ounce of fear-powered strength.  When I passed into the warm light of the basement hall, I closed it with urgency; I didn’t want the rats to get out.

     I had no idea how long I had been in the storage area, but, if you had asked me, I would have told you it was an hour or more.  I tried to act calmly, like I had not just survived a nightmare.  It was not until I reached the elevator that I realised my effort would surely have been wasted.

     It was well into the evening and I was in the hall, which almost never happened.  I was covered in dust and cobwebs, highlighting the little lines of sweat running down my face and neck.  That brought the fact I was sweating like crazy to my attention, which brought the fact that I was still panting and out of breath to my attention.  The run was nothing, I could have run farther than that in gym class without trying; but I had never run from rats before, and I’m sure I had never run that fast, either.

     Luckily, I escaped notice on my return to the apartment.  I locked the door, even attached the little security chain we never used.  Grandma was asleep in her wheelchair; everything was as I left it; suddenly, it felt like the safest, most wonderful place on earth.

     I was filthy and needed to clean up.  I tried to stay on the entrance rug as I stripped off the gloves, overalls and shirt, which were the biggest issues.  My shoes could wait to be cleaned, so I turned my overalls and shirt inside out and threw them into a plastic bag.  I kicked myself about forgetting the can of Raid as I checked pockets.  Then, I checked the time.  It was just before eleven.  Had all of that happened in only twenty minutes?

     I started to run the water for my bath.  As I reached over to test the water, something fell from my hair and I nearly screamed.  The tiny form of a spider sent equally tiny ripples through the bath water as it struggled, swimming for safety.  Not a fatty, but too big for my liking.  I was crying before I knew it.  I had just enough sense to close the bathroom door so I wouldn’t wake Grandma, but not much more than that.  I sobbed and sobbed as the rush of what I had just done caught up with me.  I was an eleven year old wreck for several minutes.  The tub was at the point of overflow for a little while before I turned off the taps.  The spider had got free of the water to rest on the edge of the tub, where it sat, seeming to watch me; for a little while, I watched it back.  It had to go, but I was completely spooked by it.  Getting rid of spiders was Grandma’s job.  In the end, a Kleenex and forced courage got the job done.

     I cried again while I bathed, but washing seemed to clear my mind, so I felt much better.  I got into my pyjamas and tried to settle down.  It was strange to feel so tired, like I’d run a marathon or something, and be wide awake.  It was the longest, short night I had experienced.  I was able to drink a little water and eat a piece of bread.  It was past eleven thirty and well past my bedtime.  I really didn’t want to go to bed; the thought of being alone in a dark place was more than I could bear, so there was no point in actually trying it.  So I took a blanket from the closet and got onto the couch.  It was a rare thing for me to sleep on the couch, but it was comfy and fit me just right.

     I was starting to relax, if only a little, when I realised that I would have to go back down to the storage to get the empty bucket.  What little chance I had of sleeping ran off with that thought.

     A million other thoughts stampeded into my mind; the planning was on and the resting was off.  I said a quick prayer for God to help me; but they were just words, I was too distracted to pray properly.  What could I do?

     I got my notes from Grandma and turned the paper over.  If I couldn’t sleep, I could plan.  I reviewed my experience and put together a better plan than simply walking in for the bucket.  My first thought was to camp out next to the storage door and intercept the farmer.  Grandma had told me he was odd, but my new fear of the storage area was enough to risk upsetting her and the farmer.  After all, this was technically a favour to him, so he could be made to see reason or get his slops elsewhere.  There were two flaws, in addition to challenging two adults, which would make the plan fail miserably.  For one, the thought of going downstairs and spending the night next to a nest of spiders, rats and whatever else was more than I could handle.  The second flaw was that I would surely be noticed by someone from the building.  I would have no proper explanation, in that case.

     So, it came down to another approach.  The main issue was 106.  Something had moved inside that unit, something big.  I wracked my brain to think of anything I had heard about rats, especially regarding their size, and came up dry.  I convinced myself, just barely, that the sound wasn’t exactly what I thought; I had been scared, and whatever it was had made a smaller sound.  I remembered my grade two science unit on sound, and how things could sound different coming from different places, so it must have been that.

     Anyway, I began to form a plan.  My goals were to stay as far from 106 as possible and spend as little time in the storage area as possible; easy enough with a little planning.  The speed part was mostly solved already.  I had been there once, so I didn’t need to go as slowly or waste time searching for 106.  The return trip didn’t involve a heavy bucket, either; I could go quick, maybe even run, to save time.  If I had finished the entire trip in less than twenty minutes, lugging a bucket and having other delays, then I could do it much faster at a run with an empty bucket.

     My deep concern about 106 was still the sound I had heard and what might have made it.  Even if my brain had exaggerated the sound, rats were involved.  Not good things to get close to.  The light was bad and I would be ambushed, sooner or later.  Grandma might get well enough to do the bucket thing again, but that might take days or weeks, maybe more; so the rats would have a few chances to get me.  I needed a way to get the bucket without getting closer than necessary.  In the end, my solution was to rig up a pole with a rope, like a fishing rod, to hook the bucket from a distance.  Several designs crossed my mind, but the realities of materials and construction ended each idea.  The closest thing I could come up with, that had a chance, was to find a stick and tie some string to the end of it.  I was pretty sure I could bend a coat hanger into a good enough hook and attach it to the other end.  I couldn’t figure out why, but it seemed like an impossible task when it was really just a stick, string and coat hanger.  Everything seemed like it would be hard to do.

     I woke with a start.  The night had nearly passed.  I was sleeping with my head on the table.  Somehow, I had fallen asleep without realising it.  My pen was still in hand and the paper resting under my head.  I felt stiff and tired as I got up and went to the bathroom.  I washed my face and checked the time: five o’clock.  The previous night felt far away, like a dream.  I wasn’t sure what to do about my fishing rod plan, but I had to do something soon.  Grandma always got the bucket the next morning, and it was usually quite early.  I decided I would try to put together my plan in the little time I had.  If it wasn’t perfect, I could adjust it after.

     I took last night’s clothes from the hamper and shook them off on the balcony.  Normally, this would get me in trouble, but I didn’t have time to wash them and dirtying another set of clothes seemed wasteful.  I got a flashlight and let myself out.  There wasn’t anyone around as I left the building through the back door and crossed the parking lot.  A small patch of lawn separated the parking lot from the bush, where the slope to the river began.  It was just after five and only the outside lights of the building gave me any chance to see.  I used the flashlight to search the bush until I found a stick suitable for the job.  It was as tall as I was, and sufficiently thick for what I needed.

     When I returned to the apartment, Grandma seemed to be stirring a little; the pill was wearing off.  I didn’t slow down in my task.  I found some string in Grandma’s craft supplies and tied a long, doubled length of it around a knot in the end of the stick, which I had stripped of branches.  The coat hanger turned out to be a bigger job than I had planned.  Getting the twisted part untwisted was a lot of work that ended up taking more than fifteen minutes, making a mess of butter knives, a screwdriver and braking a set of pliers.  Once it was apart, bending it into a hook shape was fairly easy, and I tied the result in place with a triple granny knot.

     It was almost six o’clock, and Grandma was getting quite restless.  I had no exact idea of how long it would take me to get the bucket, but estimated it wouldn’t be more than ten minutes.  Grandma probably wouldn’t wake up in that time, or so I hoped.

Storage Unit 106, Chapter 5

Click Here to Start at Chapter 1

(The spooky story continues. Enjoy)

Chapter 5: A Prayer in the Basement

Normally, I like to think things through before doing them; the same was true at eleven.  What kept me from taking a moment was the sudden recollection of Grandma’s instructions about going quickly.  If I mucked about for too long the rats would start waking up and taking notice, and then I would be in real trouble.

What got me moving again were two thoughts.  The first thought was: spiders were something I could deal with.  Sure, I had visions of hundreds or thousands or millions of fatties jumping down at once and biting me to death.  A video about bugs in second grade showed a spider sucking the juices out of a fly, and that image came to me as clear as day.  But I knew the spiders were scared of me, too; so long as I didn’t disturb them, they would probably just stay up in their webs.  The one that touched my neck had probably been disturbed when I looked around the corner, so I would be more careful about that.  I had never been bit by one before, but Grandma told me it was like a mosquito bite, and I had survived plenty of those.  The second thought: I had forgotten to pray.  A silly thing, perhaps, but it wouldn’t hurt.  I really was a good kid, so I was sure God would help me.  My attention at church service was not always the best, but I knew a few prayers by heart.  A whispered prayer was better than nothing.

     I picked up the bucket and took a few steps around the first corner.  The comfort of the big, grey door was behind me now.  I decided I could do it.

     “Our Father in Heaven,” I began, as I turned the corner to see another length of hall; this one had storage units on both sides.  The lighting was odd because all the bulbs did not hang directly above the hallway.  Strange patterns of blurred shadow formed on the floor.  I was being very careful about not looking into the storage units.  Grandma hadn’t specifically mentioned, but if there were rats in our storage unit they could be in any of them.  The storage units were shabby looking, on the outside, and most had some kind of padlock.  So far, they all seemed to have their numbers showing in black paint.  My math skills were pretty good, so I noticed the numbering system was highly erratic.  The numbers in the first hall started at five hundred and something.  The second hall started at 452, followed by 430, 426, 419, and so on.  I didn’t like checking the numbers because it meant I had to look at the doors; and might antagonise the rats.

     “Hallowed be thy name,” I whispered as I passed the second corner.  The hall was much like the other, except the air seemed to be getting heavier, damper.  There was another turn at the end of this hall, too.  A quick glance at the ceiling confirmed the spiders were still with me.

     “Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done.”  The storage numbers were making even less sense.  A couple of them didn’t even have numbers.  I was getting more frightened by the increasing distance from the entrance.  If rats did show up, I would have to make a long, winding run for safety.  I tried to focus on moving quietly and praying.  After all, God was up there with mom and dad, and my little brother, too; I needed all the help I could get.

     “On earth, as it is in Heaven.”  I passed the third corner.  The air was positively stale in the next stretch.  Someone had left a broken chair, lying on its side, next to locker 297.  Other than the strange feel of the air and my increasing distance from the safety of the grey door, I was starting to feel the tiniest bit better.  I was making progress and there had been no sign of rats.  The numbers on the units didn’t go down evenly, but they went down, so I was getting closer to 106.

     “Give us this day our daily bread.”  I rounded the fourth corner and thought I would die.  At least one or two bulbs had burnt out along this hall.  The tiny bit of light that carried over from the other hall was barely enough to see by.  Pure force of will kept me moving because this fresh scare.

     “And forgive us our trespasses.”  I squinted through the dim light, gripped with fear.  I tried to imagine Grandma coming down here with her arthritis, hurting the whole time, having trouble seeing the way.  I kept moving forward, one scared step at a time.  The lighting was roughly the same as I turned the next corner.  The air got worse, though, and actually started to smell; it was a familiar smell I couldn’t quite place.  I wondered if it was a rat smell.  More than ever, I wanted to get the chore over with.  There was another turn at the end of this hall.  It started to feel like a nightmare.

     “As we forgive those who trespass against us,” I whispered, almost forgetting to keep praying.  By the time I made the next turn, things had changed from bad to much worse.  The smell was a little stronger, and definitely more familiar.  It was an unpleasant, earthy smell, so thick I thought it would never leave my nose.  There was a single bulb at the end of the hall, dustier and dimmer than the others, making this the darkest length of hallway yet.  As I made my way to the dim glow at the end of the hall, I noticed very few of the units were locked; a couple of them even had their doors hanging open to reveal sinister interiors, full of dust and shadows.  The unit numbers only became clear to me when I got to the end of the row, close to the dusty little bulb.  It was hard to tell for certain, but it looked like 159.  I reasoned that the next length of hall would probably be the last, unless the numbers were completely mixed up.

     “And lead us not into temptation,” I continued as I rounded the sixth, and hopefully last, corner.  Two bulbs lit the way, this time, and they were nearest to me.  The problem was that the far end of the hall was obscured in darkness, making it tougher than ever.  Luckily, the left side of the hall was made of the same grey cinder block as the first length of hallway.  Even my eleven year old sense of logic suggested the end was close, though it was darker and smellier than I cared for.

     “But deliver us from evil,” I spoke, feeling like the words were sucked away into the darkness.  This stretch made me think of a dungeon, like in the days of knights and maidens.  It was a smelly, dark basement with lots of little passageways; all it needed were whips and chains on the walls to be complete.  I tried to rid my mind of those thoughts.  The door to locker 123, about half way up the hall, was completely off its hinges and lying inside the locker itself.  I was angry with myself for having looked inside, but too scared for the feeling to linger.  The ending of the Lord’s Prayer was badly timed because I felt like I needed it more than ever.  I passed the final light bulb and got my first good look at the end of the storage, sort of.

     The hall ended with a large door that appeared to be grey, like the entrance, with a nook to the left of it.  A door!  A door!  I was filled with a flash of hope as I approached.  I couldn’t be so easily trapped by the rats, after all.  My hope didn’t last.  The door was locked with two bolts, one at the top and another at the bottom.  Each was secured with an oversized padlock, barring any passage to freedom.  A large, shallow puddle of water had formed around the bottom of the door; a leaky pipe was my guess.  The loss of that quick, hopeful moment was far worse than never having it.

The light was extremely dim at that point, and the bucket felt heavier than ever.  The last unit to my right had no number, but the one before it was 118.  I reached the grey, locked door and looked to the left.  Despite the darkness, I made out the cheap wooden bars of a final storage locker.  It was about ten feet down a dead end hall; and maybe it was just my imagination, but I could have sworn I saw the number 106 through the gloom.

The Wye Marsh, I thought to myself.  The place smelled like the Wye Marsh.  I had been there twice on school trips.  The Wye Marsh was a swamp, just south of town, with a conservation and education center.  It drew plenty of students and summer tourists to see some of the local bugs, animals and plants living in the marsh.  It was spring when I first visited the place, and the smell of rot was the first thing I noticed.  All the kids in my class were going on and making jokes about the terrible smell.  Sidney Nelson got into trouble for making jokes about frog farts.  It was practically the same smell in the storage, which got me thinking the building might have been built on a marsh.  Or maybe Sidney Nelson was wrong, and it really was rat farts.  Either way, it wasn’t good.

To make matters worse, I had the terrible feeling I was being watched; and it wasn’t spiders or rats doing the watching.  I managed to convince myself it was all in my head and kept on toward the last unit, which had to be 106.  Those last steps were the longest.  Grandma had specifically said there were rats in that storage, and I was scared silly about it.  Finally, I stopped in the middle of the hall, a good five feet from 106; I was not going any closer to a nest of rats.  With a quiet sigh, I placed the bucket on the floor and turned to go.

Something moved in 106.  It was a shifting sound, like a heavy rug being dragged over the floor.  It is always difficult to judge things when you are scared, but I couldn’t imagine the size of rat it would take to make that sound.  My heart skipped a beat and I ran without looking back.  My imagination was more than capable of filling in the blanks, so looking back was unnecessary.

Storage Unit 106, Chapter 4

Click for Chapter 3

Click for Chapter 1

(The tale continues. It’s a rainy Friday morning, so much better for reading something scary. Enjoy.)

Chapter 4: Fatties

After tea, I got the wheelchair to the bathroom door.  It was not big enough for the wheelchair to pass, so Grandma needed help from there.  With her cane and a lot of my help, we got her to the toilet.  She managed to relieve herself without any problems.  She was in a great deal of pain from the simple effort of moving three or four feet to the toilet, though.  I warmed up a wash cloth and helped her do a quick washing.  I thought she was going to faint by the time that was finished and she returned to the wheelchair.  On her request, I moved the chair into the living room and got her pill.  She was taking shallow breaths and hardly moving, otherwise.

She took the pill with a little water.  “The bucket,” she said tensely, before the pill started to take effect, “must not go down,” she cleared her throat a few times, “before ten o’clock.  Promise me.”

“I promise, Grandma.  It will be okay.”

“Good, now take the cross I wear around my neck, dear, and wear it.”

“But Grandpa gave that to you,” I said.  “You always wear it.”

“I meant for you to have it, Alice,” she said with a quick clearing of her throat.  “The Lord’s sign will give you strength.  Say a little prayer while you’re in the storage, dear.  You won’t be alone, then.”

“I will Grandma, I promise.  Everything will be okay.  Just rest now.”  I was in caretaker mode, but my consolation was for both of us.  I took her chain before she made a fuss.  It was a simple chain with a small, silver cross hung on it.  I had a hard time putting it on because of the tiny clasp, but it fit me.

Minute by minute, Grandma settled until she slept.  Her mumblings were hard to understand, but had something to do with God and the storage.  I tried not to think about what she was saying.

I made sure Grandma was comfortable before cleaning up from supper.  Washing dishes and wiping the table felt like the most wonderful things in the world.  I could have done it all night.  Despite my efforts to drag out the experience, the time flew.  The hands on the clock told me it was nine thirty.

What would I do in between then?  It was the longest, scariest block of free time I’d ever spent.  The day had been bad, true, but now I was standing on the edge of it, and running out of room.  I tried my best to focus on what Grandma had said about never being hurt by the rats.  It was small consolation to me, though; Grandma was a grown up and I was not.

At quarter after ten, I was a wreck.  I had settled on a few points.  I would be the best combination of quick and quiet I could be.  Rats had tiny ears, so it stood to reason that stealth would be a huge factor.  Also, once the bucket was in place, I would run back at full speed, at least to the elevator.  Lastly, I would bring a small can of Raid.  Nothing on the Raid can suggested it was useful against rats, but poison was poison, and a little bit in those red, icky eyes might be enough to save me.

I changed into my overalls.  They were the denim ones I did my paper route and bottle collecting in.  Crawling into ditches and bushes for empty bottles was dirty work, and the old, rugged overalls were perfect for the task.  I stuffed the Raid into a side pocket where it bulged out but stayed covered.  I made sure my new, silver cross hung on the outside of my shirt.  It made sense that the cross would be more valuable if it was exposed; hopefully, having the same effect on rats as, say, vampires.  I threw on some garden gloves and opened the fridge door.  I hardly looked at the bucket as I lifted it out and closed the fridge.  It was a little heavy, but I could handle it.  A final check of the clock showed it was just after ten thirty.  Ten o’clock was my bed time on school nights; I could usually get away with ten thirty, or maybe eleven on weekends.  I wondered if I would be able to sleep, anyway.

I quickly checked the hall before walking to the elevator and pushing the call button.  The building was very quiet at that hour; all the same, I didn’t want to explain myself to anyone.  The elevator seemed to take forever.  It arrived with a hum and the doors slid open to reveal the empty space inside.  I got in and descended to the basement.  I braced myself for the possibility of encountering someone, but the doors opened to the empty, basement hall.  I wasted no time getting to the storage door.  It loomed like a grey monster, scarier than Frankenstein or Dracula; it held back the terrible rats that were already causing me to tremble.

I fumbled with Grandma’s key ring.  I had keys of my own, but was never given a copy of the storage key.  It was a good thing Grandma labelled her keys with plastic tags.  It felt like it would take forever, but I finally got the key out and into the lock.  I had to jiggle the key around to make it turn.  When it did, I pushed the door open and pulled the bucket in after me.  The heavy door swung closed before I realised the storage lights were off.  It was completely dark, too dark to see.

The moment of panic was harsh and terrible.  Every rat and monster on the planet was bound to come running.  How could they resist a terrified little girl in a dark basement?

If you can believe it, I was too scared to scream.  I frantically pawed for the door handle, desperately trying to reopen it for some light.  The tiny sliver of light from under the door was worthless and I was about to wet my pants, I was sure.  My hand came across the light switch before it reached the handle, and the shock of the lights coming on was almost as bad as the shock from the darkness, except I could see what I was dealing with; and it wasn’t much better.

The storage area was scary.  Even if I hadn’t been told about the rats, I would have suspected them; and much worse, too.  The floor was cement, badly overdue for a sweeping.  The outside walls were bare cinder block.  The ceiling, in the places you could see it, was the same, plain concrete as the floor.  A crisscross of pipes, valves, hoses and vents hung from the ceiling like a crazy, metal spider web.  The storage units were the truly ominous part, however.  They were cages made from thin slats of cheap wood, nailed together to create four by four spaces; each had a door made from the same slats that swung open on old hinges.  Those wooden walls stood about six feet high, maybe more, and almost touched some of the pipes.  A combination of chicken wire and boards had been used to cover off the tops of the units, and this blocked the light even more.  The lighting was provided by a series of dusty bulbs hanging from the ceiling.  They threw a very dim light; only the bulb at the entrance seemed properly bright.

Directly ahead was a small hall, formed by the outside wall on the right and a line of wooden storage units on the left.  To the immediate left of the door was a tiny nook with a broom, dustpan, and shovel, all of which were covered in thick dust.  The place was dirty and scary.

It took a moment to settle myself after the panic of being caught in the darkness.  I picked up the bucket and started on my way.  I did my best to be quiet and made good progress toward the end of the hall, where it turned to the left.  The corner scared me; I knew the rats would be nearby, and the corner would be a great ambush point.  The hall was too narrow for me to approach the corner and see all the way around it.  I kept going forward and stopped right before the turn; deciding to pop my head around the corner for a quick look.  I put the bucket down and took a deep breath, trying to be brave for Grandma.  I carefully stuck my head past the corner of the storage unit to see a short length of hallway that ended in another left turn.  I breathed again.

Something touched the back of my neck.  It was a quick, light touch, but a touch.  I let out a squeak and twisted around so fast that I bumped into the outside wall; I nearly fell, swatting at the back of my neck like it was on fire.  Whatever had touched me must have been quick because I could not see it.  Had it come from inside the storage unit?  It was the closest thing to me and the gaps in the wood were more than wide enough for something to reach out, like a quick rat, perhaps.  The air felt stuffy, all of a sudden, and it seemed as though I could not breathe fast enough.  In those seconds of fright, I looked down at the floor to see something moving; it was too small to be a rat.

I leaned down to see a spider scurrying for the safety of the storage unit I had just been standing next to.  It was a type of spider I recognised.  In the spring, especially on humid days, we would get them on the balcony.  Grandma really hated them and I usually let her handle their removal because they were icky.  These spiders were a pale, fleshy colour with large abdomens and spindly legs.  I shivered even though I was relieved it had not been a rat.  I brought my foot down on the thing in an act of retribution for scaring me silly.  Then, and I don’t know why, I looked up into the ceiling.

The light bulb hanging in the corner made it hard to see the ceiling clearly.  I lifted my hand to block out the light bulb and see the ceiling in detail.  I wished I hadn’t.  The ceiling was more than just a spider web of pipes, tubes, hoses and wires.  It was laced with webs, a lot of them; and there were more spiders perched up there than I would have thought existed in the whole world.  If this wasn’t bad enough, many of those spiders were what Grandma would call fatties.  They were great big ones with abdomens as wide as dimes; I had never seen so many fatties, and never thought they could get so big; they covered the ceiling for as far as I could see.  The terror in that moment caused me to forget the little can of Raid I had brought along.  I had my first, serious urge to run back.

Continue to Chapter 5

Storage Unit 106, Chapter 3

Click for Chapter 2

Click for Chapter 1

(More scary goodness.)

Chapter 3: Avoiding Rats

“Alice, dear,” Grandma snapped, more than a little harshly, and cleared her throat.  “You must write this down so you don’t forget it.”

“Yes, Grandma,” I said, nearly jumping out of my seat.  My hands shook as I wrote point form notes about moving quickly to avoid rats.  The writing was legible, but would have failed a handwriting test at school.

“The next morning, you must go and collect the bucket,” she continued.  “You must go quickly then, too, because the rats are always around.  They will be sleepy in the morning, but you can’t be sure.  Now, when you are bringing the bucket down or getting it back you must never, never look into the storage units.  The rats will be there and feel threatened if you look at them.  They get very nasty if you provoke them that way.  Do you understand?”  Another clearing of the throat followed.

“Yes, Grandma,” I said again, careful to write it down this time.

“That’s a good girl.  You know your numbers, so write down one, zero, six.  That’s the number of our storage unit, and it’s painted on the storage door.  Ours is the last one at the end of the hall.  You will leave the bucket in front of it.”

I scribbled the number down, trying not to think about sharp teeth, slimy tails and angry red eyes.  I had no special fear of rats, but going into a basement full of them was definitely changing that.

“Grandma?” I started to ask a question.

“Just a moment, Alice,” she interrupted.  “Read your notes to me.”

“Uh, okay, Grandma,” I said, brushing aside thoughts of twitchy noses and scratchy rat claws jumping out at me.  “I bring the bucket to the storage.  I must go quickly.  There are rats.  I must not look into the storage unit because of the rats.  The storage unit is 106.  It is the last one.  I leave the bucket in front of that storage.”

“Good,” she said.  “You must not tell anyone about this, Alice.  I am not really supposed to leave the meat for the farmer, but he is poor and needs the food for his animals.  This is why we leave it in the storage and tell no one.  Do you understand?”

“Yes, Grandma,” I answered in complete reflex.  It felt like a lie.  I understood what she was saying, but what she was asking made no sense.  My honest, guilty thought was that the farmer should starve rather than send me into a basement full of rats.

“If you go late in the evening, like I do, and return early in the morning, no one will see you go.  If they do see you, tell them you are taking it down to the garbage room.  They may think it strange, but it is better that way.”  She cleared her throat again, and I could tell she was running out of energy to fight the pain.  She would need the medicine soon.

“The bucket should have been brought down last night,” she said, beginning to struggle with her words.  “That is okay, but we must not make the farmer wait another day.  It is very important you bring the bucket down tonight.  Promise me you will do it, dear.”

My sense of sympathy and loyalty rushed in at that moment.  My new fear of rats and a weird, poor farmer no longer seemed so daunting.  Grandma needed me in a way she had never needed me before.  This was important to her, important enough to suffer through her arthritis to tell me about.  It occurred to me that all the other little things I had done, like the paper route, collecting bottles, cooking and cleaning, hadn’t mattered like this.  I was desperately afraid, but at that moment I would have walked into a rat nest with a cheese necklace if she had asked.

I promised her I would take care of the bucket and be very careful.  I kept my million questions to myself; Grandma was in too much pain to answer anything.  I gave her the pill and brought her some water.  Ten minutes later, she was drowsy, mumbling slightly about the bucket.  After another ten minutes she was sound asleep.

The immediate wash of sympathy for her began to fade, and the fear came back.  I tried to focus on the written list, but the details were already burned into my memory; I would not forget those details if it killed me.  The rest of that day was spent thinking about rats.  I had never seen a real rat before.  My entire experience with them had been in picture books and television, which was more than enough.  I had no specific ideas about them or what they would do to me, but I didn’t need details to know it would be unpleasant.

The rest of the day was spent in something like a fog.  I cleaned up the oatmeal dishes, kept Grandma propped up in her chair, tried to do homework, and things like that.  My mind would not play along, however.  I chipped a bowl in the sink, nearly woke Grandma twice, and couldn’t remember anything about my homework a second after I stopped looking at it.  I literally spent my day thinking about rats, farmers and stinky buckets of meat.

Grandma slept through lunch and I decided not to wake her.  Sometimes, on a busy day, she would miss lunch, so I felt it would be harmless.  It wasn’t until almost supper time that I began to shake out of my fearful daze and do something properly.  I began with getting supper ready.  I wasn’t sure if Grandma would wake up for supper, but I made enough for both of us, anyway.  I prepared chicken noodle soup from a can and made two cheese sandwiches.  It was a light supper, but enough for us; and there were cookies for dessert if Grandma was especially hungry.  The second thing I did was prepare a list of questions.  Mostly, they were little detail items about getting into the storage area, what time I should leave, and how fast rats could run.  I did add on some other questions regarding potential options that occurred to me.  For example, could I bring the bucket directly to the farmer?  He must not live too far away, right?  And what if I left the bucket somewhere else in the building, like the garbage room?  I tried to keep my questions to a minimum, knowing Grandma was not fond of constant questions, though an encounter with rats was testing my sense of restraint.

I kept the supper warm until the last moment, and Grandma began to wake.  She was groggy, like before, but shook it off faster than the last time.  I was glad she was hungry.  I gave her most of the soup and ended up making her a second sandwich.  She had eaten three cookies before I had her tea ready.  We had started late, so it was well after supper when I set out the tea.

“Thank you, Alice,” she said, still sounding tired, “that was a meal.  You are a strong, smart girl.”

“I almost started without you,” I said, adding milk to our tea.  “Your medicine is really strong.”

“I suppose it is.  The day has passed me by.  What did you do with your time, dear?”

“I cleaned the dishes, did my homework, and I made supper.  I stayed with you.  Are you going to be okay, Grandma?  Your knee looks a little better.”  This was true.  Her knee was still grossly swollen, but it seemed to have receded a little.

“It still hurts, but I will be fine,” she said.  “It will be back to normal in a few days, I’m sure.”

“But the doctor said it would be a month, maybe more,” I said.

“Alice,” Grandma replied with hints of condescension, “the doctor sometimes gets things wrong.  I know my old bones better than he does, and I say it will be fine in a few days.  You’ll see.”

I wasn’t going to argue with her.  The knee looked terrible to me, far from healthy, and I doubted her.  Then again, Grandma had been pretty tough with her arthritis, so maybe she would recover faster.

“Do you need another pill now?” I asked.  She seemed much better than the last time she was awake.

“Not right away, dear,” she said.  “I need to go to the bathroom and change clothes, if I can.  The pill will knock me out too quickly for that.  Let’s just enjoy our tea now.”

“Okay, Grandma,” I said.  It was nice to have her awake with me.  Spending the day alone with thoughts of rats had been terrible.  I couldn’t help but ask, even though I badly wanted to prolong the moment of normality that was happening.  I was usually good at starting up a difficult discussion, but I was at a complete loss.  My list of questions was in the other room; as if I needed it.

“Grandma, what if I asked Mr. Gruber to get rid of the rats for us?  He wouldn’t have to know about the bucket, right?  I’m sure he would do something about it.”  Mr. Gruber was the superintendant for Riverview Apartments.  He was an older man, always a little grubby and usually hard to find.

Grandma gave me an odd look, like she had lost her concentration.  “There is no point in telling Mr. Gruber about the rats.  He already knows about them and has been trying to get rid of them.  Rats are tricky, and hard to kill.  Maybe he’ll get them all, one day.”

More information on rats that merely fuelled my fear: rats were tricky and hard to kill.  I would have guessed they were tricky.  Being hard to kill was nothing I would have guessed, and my anxiety heightened another notch.  If they were tough enough to survive Mr. Gruber’s efforts, then what chance would I have if the rats attacked me?

“Does the farmer live far away?  Maybe I could bring the bucket to him?  It would be better for him if he didn’t have to travel here, right?”  It took everything I had to speak slowly.

“He does live far from here, dear,” Grandma said.  “He passes through town, so it doesn’t cost him anything to come here.  Besides, you couldn’t carry the bucket that far.”

That ruined my thoughts of putting the bucket on my newspaper wagon and pulling it there.

“What if I left the bucket in the garbage room, Grandma?  It would be better than leaving it with the rats, wouldn’t it?”  At some point, without having noticed it, I had started to cry.  I was so scared that it just happened.  Grandma reached over and held my hand.

“Alice, dear,” she said quietly, “I know the rats scare you.  They scare me, too.  If I had a better way to get the bucket to the farmer, I would have thought of it long ago.  I don’t want you to feel really scared about them, dear.  Just remember not to look into the storage unit and don’t linger.  If you are a good girl, and do as I say, they will leave you alone, all right?  All right?”

I nodded my head; my eyes were a wash of tears.  Words would only have caused me to break down and start bawling.

“That’s a good girl,” she said, patting my hand.  “Grandma has brought that bucket down for a long time and the rats haven’t hurt me yet, so I’m sure you will be fine.”

Continue to Chapter 4

Storage Unit 106, Chapter 2

Follow this link for chapter 1

(It should be a lazy Sunday, perfect for reading. For now, more of the modern horror.)

Chapter 2: Normal

Life went on, as I said, and my childhood was as normal as it could be for a young orphan living with her grandmother.  Midland was a smaller town than Kitchener, even at that time.  Not that I was the most street smart kid or anything, but my new town had a more relaxed, rural feel to it; there was something safe about it that couldn’t easily be identified.  Grandma was the watchful sort, as I mentioned, and that added to my general sense of security.

     So, I went to school, made friends, took swimming lessons, did crafts with Grandma, and generally began to grow up.  My life was fairly normal, as far I knew.

     Where normal ends and not normal begins is never a fine line.  Everyone has little oddities in their life that are less normal than the rest of the world.  Those little oddities mostly fall into the spice of life or less normal category, and are usually harmless.  I had some of those oddities.  I also had some that crossed the line into definitely not normal.  The trouble with being six, losing your parents, losing your friends, moving to a new city, and everything that goes with that experience is that your sense of judgement is lost.  Your ability to know where the line beyond normal, as fuzzy as it can be, starts and ends is practically zero.  So, I did what any right minded little girl would do and trusted Grandma; she wouldn’t steer me wrong.  In this case, however, even that obvious, default decision was the wrong one.

     Grandma always kept a spot in the refrigerator for a bucket.  It was an old tin bucket with a round handle.  It was in pretty good shape for its age.  Anyway, the bucket was always in the bottom left corner of the fridge and Grandma was always very particular about it.  Any meat scraps from our meal or its preparation were put into the bucket.  Nothing was thrown away, not even the fatty or bony bits.  Grandma was meticulous about keeping everything that wasn’t used and putting it into the bucket.  After a few days, she would bring it downstairs to be collected.  Downstairs was the initial destination I was given for the bucket, which was the same place Grandma would go to retrieve it the next morning; only it was empty on the return.

My initial inquiry about the entire process and purpose for the bucket was easily answered.  Grandma explained that the scraps were left for a man who would bring them to his farm for feeding pigs, or something like that.  The man came in the evening and took the meat scraps, and Grandma would get the empty bucket the next day.  At six, that made as much sense to me as anything, so I never questioned it; not for a long time, at least.

After a while, I hardly gave much thought to Grandma and the normal factor of bringing a bucket of meat and bones to the basement every few days.  Occasional questions in the years that followed got me as far as understanding that downstairs meant the storage area of the building; it also lead me to understand the farmer was too busy during the day to pick up the slops, which is why he came in the late evening.  It was nothing strange by my reckoning, and life went on.

Fast forward a few years and things began to change.  My tough, independent grandmother had slowed down a great deal.  I was aware she suffered from arthritis, even before my parents died, but it really meant nothing to me.  Grandma had no obvious symptoms, other than occasional soreness after a long day; nothing out of the ordinary for an old lady, right?

Sometime around my ninth birthday, the signs were becoming more obvious.  It didn’t register with me right away, but a series of incidents caught my attention and I began to notice her suffering and slowing.  She would make little excuses for not going on a walk or finishing the dishes or whatever.  She was fond of citing a knot in her back for the trouble, but the truth had become clear to me.  By the time I was ten, she had all but admitted to the trouble her condition was causing.  The benefit package from Grandpa only covered part of her pain medication costs; and I was an unexpected cost, too.  My parents had not left much, but it had been enough for the first years.  When that money ran out, something had to give.

When it was clear to me that money was an issue, and I was part of the burden, my guilt and sense of duty kicked in.  I took on a paper route, which doubled as a glass bottle collection.  Every penny went straight to Grandma, who took the money with muttered regret.

Anyway, pain medication made little difference to Grandma’s condition, which continued to degrade with time.  At ten, I was doing a lot of the household chores and running errands on days when Grandma was really hurting.  I never complained about it; in fact, the little bit of help I gave made me feel better.  The loss of my parents was something I had not exactly forgotten or disconnected from.  I was deeply aware of how quickly and easily you can lose someone close to you, so I wasn’t about to lose Grandma by wearing her out with housework that I could do.  Being a natural introvert helped because the loss of free time didn’t impact me much.

The one chore that Grandma was adamant about doing herself was the bucket.  She always insisted she do it, and no reasoning would convince her otherwise.  My offers to simply go with her and open doors were also dismissed.  And so, every few days, without fail, Grandma would struggle with the bucket and hobble down to the basement, returning for it the next morning.  For a day or two after, Grandma wasn’t able to do very much on account of the pain.

It was a rainy Victoria Day when Grandma fell and twisted her knee.  She had been folding laundry, an easy job for her, when she lost her balance.  She complained about my fussing the entire time, but couldn’t put any weight on her leg, either.  It wasn’t until her knee had almost doubled in size that the trip to see a doctor was agreed to.  Grandma wasn’t a very big lady so my eleven year old frame was enough to help her into a taxi.  The final diagnosis was a severe sprain.  The doctor said she had been lucky her weakened knees weren’t damaged beyond the ligaments.  When he explained she would need to stay off of her feet for a month or more, I thought Grandma would leap out of the chair and attack him.  She went on about taking care of the apartment, me, and everything else; but when she tried to stand up, and couldn’t do it, she began to cry.  I had never seen Grandma cry like that before, and it was a shock.  I tried to console her, only to find myself crying, too.

To make the long story of an angry grandmother and stubborn doctor short, Grandma agreed to take a wheelchair, with her church paying the rental bill for it, and a handful of free, sample pain killers from the doctor.  The pain killers were quite strong and would help her sleep.  The doctor told me that I could return for more of them if she ran out.  It was 1985 in small town Ontario, so doctor-patient relations were much more casual.

The bucket issue had come to a head.  The wheelchair was good, but old, and too heavy for her to comfortably move.  The arthritis was also in her arms, so she could just barely move the chair around the apartment without becoming exhausted.  Her leg was so bad she couldn’t even stand with a cane.  Even prior to the injury, she had taken to sponge baths because getting in and out of the tub was tricky.  It was clear she wouldn’t be bringing the bucket down for some time.

She slept in her wheelchair the night we got back from the doctor.  The bucket was probably due to go down that night but the pain killers made her sleepy, and there was nothing to be done about it.  I was a little worried about her reaction if she knew I brought the bucket down for her.

I consider the morning that followed to be the start of the most devastating and terrible period of my life; even worse than the loss of my parents, if you can imagine that.

Grandma was quite groggy for the first couple of hours after she started waking up.  I made some porridge but she ate very little of it.  When the pain killers finally eased up, and Grandma was properly awake, the pain started again.  I brought her another pill, fresh from its individual paper package.  Grandma refused it, and told me to get a paper and pen.  I did what she asked and sat close so she could tell what was so important.

“Alice, dear,” she said, when I was ready to take notes.  “You must write down everything I tell you, and carefully.”  She paused a moment, pretending to clear her throat, a habit she developed to cover her flares of pain.  “You know how I bring the bucket downstairs for the farmer, don’t you dear?”

“Yes, Grandma,” I told her eagerly, knowing she was going to ask me to take on that task.

“Good,” she continued.  “Now I need you to do it, but you need to be careful how you do it.  The farmer is very picky about where you leave the bucket.  You also need to know that there are rats in the storage area.  Don’t worry, dear, they can’t get out of that place.”  She cleared her throat, wincing slightly.  “The rats are only dangerous if you take too long, so it is very, very important you leave the bucket and get out of the storage area quickly.  Do you understand?”

The level of shock I felt is hard to explain.  Meat waste in a bucket was practically normal; a peculiar farmer collecting it was half normal; having rats in our storage was an incredibly frightening concept.  That kind of fright doesn’t lend itself to questions of why are the rats there? or why hasn’t the landlord removed them? or the like.  The raw fact freezes you in place, like the proverbial deer in the headlights.  Grandma noticed that I was gazing into those headlights; I had stopped writing my notes and probably turned ghostly pale.  The needle on the not normal meter had just swung well into the red zone.

Continue to Chapter 3

Storage Unit 106, Chapter 1

(After too much pondering, some spooky stuff for you. I have always enjoyed a good, scary read, so I hope you do, too. This one was partly inspired by a niece and nephew. It certainly classifies as horror. It will be broken it up into smaller chapters than my first offering; around 2000 words each)

Chapter 1: Where It All Started

My name is Alice Velamy.  I was born in Kitchener, Ontario, living there until I was six years old, when my parents and little brother died in a car accident.  I’ve been asked how that felt on many occasions since.  Sure, it’s not always asked straight out, like a reporter asking how the victims of a recent house fire feel or something along those lines; my answer hasn’t changed, really, though my recollection of how I experienced that feeling has changed over the years.  Considering everything I’ve gone through since then, I think that is perfectly normal; as if my early life could be called normal.

     When I was young, shortly after the accident, their deaths didn’t feel real.  It was like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were skipping a year and forgot to tell you to your face.  My six year old sense of time, and the events in the years that followed, have fogged my perspective of those hours and days, maybe weeks, following their deaths.  I only have a vague recollection of a babysitter becoming deeply concerned and telephoning the world when my parents failed to return.  I can’t picture her now; I can’t tell you her name or what she was wearing.  I don’t know why, but I think she was a teenager and familiar to the family.  I have an excellent recollection of the police officer who came to the door in the wee hours of the night.  He was tall and dark, with strong, masculine features and a bushy moustache.  He looked like a star in a cop movie or something.  I can still picture him today; and, if I had the talent, I could draw or paint him.  He arrived with a social worker, who I recall as an older lady with a clipboard.  They spoke briefly with the babysitter before telling me there had been an accident and I needed to go with them.

     I don’t recall feeling shocked or horrified.  I remember the cop, and his eyes.  He had dark, friendly eyes, and my six year old intuition told me I could trust him; and how could a trustworthy man, a policeman, at that, give me truly terrible news?

     I don’t remember the funeral, though I’ve been told it was a very tiny affair.  I spent the days that followed my parents’ passing in a temporary care home; essentially, they were foster parents that temporarily cared for kids in my situation.  I only remember that they were a young couple and gave me lots of ice cream.

     When the immediate dust had settled, there weren’t a ton of options for me.  My family was spread out, and not ideal for raising an orphan of six.  On my father’s side, there was an aunt, Melanie, who lived in Brampton.  Like so much else from that time, my sense of Aunt Melanie was quite vague.  I’m sure I had seen her by then because the name was familiar.  Aunt Melanie was right out of the question as a potential guardian, though.  She was well on her way to being a burnt-out druggie, at that time; and years later she went to prison for armed robbery, and hung herself in her cell.  The rest of my fathers’ relations were few and distant, people I’d never heard about or met.

     My mother’s side had more potential.  There was an Uncle Roger who lived in Sudbury, and I’d met him once.  He probably would have taken me in, if there had been no one else, but he was a career bachelor with a busy life and no preparation for a kid.  Years later, I learned he was estranged from the family for a variety of reasons.

     There was a distant cousin who had kept in touch with my mom, right up until her death.  Her name was Tina, and I wish she had taken me in, all those years ago.  Tina lived in Alberta and worked as a secretary for a small manufacturing company.  She didn’t make much money and Alberta was considered too far to relocate me.

     This left my grandmother.  Grandma and Grandpa lived fairly close by, in Midland, and I knew them reasonably well.  Mostly, we visited them on big occasions like Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving.  I don’t remember hearing about Grandpa’s death before then, but he had passed away, apparently.  Grandma picked me up from the temporary care home two days after my parents died.  We went to the apartment, the only home I had ever known, where she began packing things and organising the rest.  We stayed at the apartment for two days and left after the funeral.

     Grandma had always been nice to me.  She was your stereotypical, white haired, conservative old lady who baked cookies and gifted you socks and all that.  Despite all the crap that happened after, I am still glad that it was my Grandma who came to watch me in the days and weeks that followed.  Her familiar presence was a comfort I don’t think anyone else could have given me.

     It was not until the start of the school year that the death of my family actually hit me.  Grandma had me ready for day one of a new school year, in a new school, when I just couldn’t stop bawling.  I had my shoes on and waited at the apartment door with my lunchbox when I felt the loss of my parents, all at once, and it was awful.  We were due to leave at any moment when something just clicked and I couldn’t do anything but cry.  It’s one of those helpless, powerless feelings that sneak up on you; when you’re six, with no perspective or experience, they hit hard.  Grandma called the school and I stayed home.  I’m pretty sure I cried steady for the next couple of days.  The weeks that followed were tough, too, but I got through them and Grandma was very patient and supportive.

     Of course, life went on.  I began going to school, making new friends and slowly becoming myself.  It wasn’t always easy, but I got through it.

     I suppose I should talk about Grandma and our living arrangement.  Grandma lived in the Riverview Apartments on Monarch Street.  The apartments were fairly old and a bit dark.  The building had ten floors and about ninety apartments.  It was probably the biggest apartment building in Midland, at the time.  Grandma explained that she had moved to the apartments because Grandpa had been sick and they couldn’t take care of their house any longer.  I didn’t completely grasp that, because I had no memory of them living in a house.  Anyway, the building was adequate, with an underground parking garage, laundry room and basement storage.  There was even a decent common room with a piano and library.

     When I look back on it, the place was at a tipping point in terms of maintenance.  It’s one of those situations where the owner starts pinching pennies and dragging his feet on maintenance; and the longer that happens, the more the tenants get used to it, only encouraging the owner to drag his feet.  Riverview Apartments were at a point where the neglect could no longer be masked, and was turning dumpy.  As a little kid, I noticed the condition without really processing it.  I normalised the situation.  This was where Grandma lived and that’s how things were at places where Grandma’s lived, so the case was closed.

     Apartment 504, where we lived, was a small, two bedroom place.  It was properly suited for older couples, or young couples starting out.  The kitchen was tiny and there wasn’t much open space.  The balcony was a nice size, though, and I spent a fair bit of time there.  It overlooked an undeveloped area of trees and river, even though I considered it more of a creek.  Grandma placed a small, plastic patio set on the balcony in the summers and I made good use of it.  The rest of the apartment was cozy, and had that old person look to it.  The walls were covered with pictures, shelves of knickknacks, a clock, a barometer, and a collection of knitted, artsy pieces that Grandma referred to as her birds.  The other furnishings consisted of a smallish dining set, couch, rocking chair, coffee table, ancient TV and little writing desk.

     My room had been used as a craft studio, of sorts, before I moved in.  I have vague memories of being fascinated by the place on family visits.  It was a clutter of shiny, neat stuff that any little girl would love.  Of course, the other half of the fascination was in not technically being allowed to play there.  When I moved in, Grandma fixed up the room by clearing out her crafts and installing my old bed and dresser, along with some other odds and ends from my old room, like my Smurfette poster and spaghetti art.  She had also recovered a rare, family picture and hung it on the wall beside my bed.  I didn’t properly appreciate that picture until years later, when I realised how little I had left from my parents.  It was a small room, but not much smaller than the one I had spent the previous six years in.

     Grandma’s room was larger, but you wouldn’t have known it.  She had a large bed and dresser that ate up most of the space in the room.  They were nice, and also quite old.  The decorations on the walls thinned out in her bedroom.  All that decorated her walls were an old picture of her and Grandpa, when they were younger, a crucifix and a tapestry depicting the last supper.  Grandma wasn’t a religious nut; however, she was a solid, churchgoing Christian.

     My memory of Grandpa was not very good.  I remember he was usually sick when we would visit, and usually crotchety, which Mom explained away with his illness; I remember her telling me Grandpa hadn’t always been like that.  I also remembered the strange, small sores on Grandpa’s arms.  They were green and smelled strange, like worms or something.  When I moved in with Grandma, I was surprised to hear he had passed; but it didn’t bother me that he was gone, either.

     I wasn’t allowed to play in the halls or garage; and the common and laundry rooms were off limits unless Grandma was with me.  These were the sort of casual limits I was used to, however.  When you are six, more things are out of bounds than in.  I suppose the point is that I wasn’t really bothered about going anywhere in the building.  Grandma kept close tabs on me and I wasn’t prone to wandering, so all was well.

     The big off zone, however, were the storage lockers in the basement.  Grandma was always very clear about keeping away from that part of the building.  There wasn’t much of interest down there, anyway.  The entrance to the basement was either by the stairwell, on one side only, or the elevator; and the two were close together.  The storage area was accessed though a heavy, grey door.  It was pointed out to me, soon after I moved in, that this was a no zone.  The door was dented in a few places and the paint looked like it was the most recent of several layers.  The iron handle and keyhole above it had splotches of grey paint on them, too.  It immediately took on a sinister look and I heeded Grandma’s warning.

Continue to chapter 2!

Just a Quick Update

I told myself I would limit posts without material attached.  I also told myself I would post two or three times a month, meaning I am on track for month one.  Something I had not considered was the decision making process for what or what kind of story would follow another.

What I have figured out is that my initial posts were too long.  Five thousand word posts are on the high side, based on what I have seen out there.  I am not terribly worried about it but want to keep some interest for the reader.

At the moment, I am working on a dark-ish, futuristic story that is not letting go and may run longer than anticipated.  The plan is to pound away at that, for now, and post up some shorter stuff with no fixed themes.  Something will be posted within the next few days, as soon as I figure out what should go first.

Electric Soul, Part IV

Part IPart IIPart III

(This is the final part of the story, for sure. These posts, in retrospect, have been a bit longer than I think they should be. Future stories will be broken up into smaller posts. I digress. This is a near-future, science-fiction story. The entire story is in the posts below, in reverse order. And now, the exciting conclusion…)

I brought him to the first checkpoint of the lab, where I unlocked the door through a dual retinal scan and palm print lock.  We removed our outer clothes and put on sterile, full body suits.  They were good suits, even if they were a bit outdated, and I was especially pleased with their breath filters.  The second checkpoint was a sealed off chamber accessed with a simple, twelve character, alphanumeric code.  We waited fourteen minutes and thirty-six seconds to be fully sterilised before entering the lab itself.  We didn’t say much, and there wasn’t much to say.  Morgan had been through this before, when we set up the lab; he had doubtlessly been through similar decontamination processes in his own work, too.

     The lab was set to go.  As I passed through the final door, it seemed like I was seeing the place for the first time; as if I had studied it without having been there before.  A strange feeling to have when you consider I’d spent the last ten years there; stranger yet when you consider I had logged an average of fourteen hours per day in the past seven years.

     The walls were the same, high density polymer used in all sterile labs.  I hadn’t needed to change them, thankfully, because they were ridiculously durable and expensive.  The ventilation ducts, air pumps, filtration units, air sensors and temperature controls related to keeping the ambient conditions stable were housed openly in the ceiling.  They had been top of the line when they were installed and, other than some software upgrades and preventative maintenance, had performed without incident.

     The center of the lab space was dominated with the principle piece of equipment used for creating tissues.  It was about four by three metres on the base, and stood a little over a meter high, not including the transparent, raised hood for viewing the various chambers within.  It had some basic controls on one end, but they were rarely used.  Like almost all of the equipment, it was operated from a primary computer station nearest the lab entrance.  It was pure white with chrome housings for the controls and viewing hood.  It was technically a tissue generation device, and there were several different types and brands; but the rather offensive name, and frequently used in the industry, was baby-maker.  I never used the term, myself.

     The second device that caught the eye was mostly my own creation.  It was originally an incubation unit.  It was three by two metres, standing two metres high.  It had a white base with a transparent viewing face starting half way up one side.  The only visible controls on it were a set of well-spaced kill switches.  It was meant to hold tissues for an extended period of time so they could be worked on.  The tissue generator had built-in incubation capacity, but I had always found it harder to work with than a dedicated machine.  The machine was quite clean and sleek, except for the tangle of wires and tubes I had rigged up to affect my transfer.  This mess of connections ended in a full helmet, built exclusively to fit me, that rested on a cot next to the machine.  The cot had been an addition to allow me to comfortably extend my lab hours.

     Most of the other equipment was smaller and less impressive to look at.  The odd piece was slightly redundant or outdated, but I had need of it all.

     “I guess I don’t need to ask what you’ve done to the incubator,” Morgan said through his suit mic.  The suits all had low range transmitter/receivers, so you didn’t have to shout at each other.

     “Before I explain anything else, let’s deal with security,” I said, activating the security program from the main computer terminal.  “I’m deleting the entire record now, and then I’ll destroy the storage.  It will just take a minute or two.”  The computer cleared the memory and I walked to the far side of the room where the backup terminal stood.  The storage for the security was behind an unmarked wall panel next to the terminal.  I gave a retinal scan and entered a series of codes that opened it.  The storage unit was an older style of crystal in a cartridge about the size of a ballpoint pen.

     “Is there anything else in there you’re trying to hide?” Morgan asked me.  It was a valid question.

     “If you prefer, I’ll leave it with you,” I said, holding out to him.  “It’s a tech that is over ten years old, and I’m told any decent computer hack can recover the files from it.”

     Morgan was clearly uncomfortable, even through his lab mask.  He was almost shying away from the crystal, like it was toxic.

     I placed it on the work space beside the backup terminal.  “It’s there if you want it,” I said, almost daring him to take it.  “If you decide to destroy it, smash it with a hammer or crush it.  I’m told that reducing as little as twenty percent of the matter to powder will render the data unrecoverable.  Now, let’s have a look my new place.”

     Morgan picked up the crystal and put it in his pocket.  The incubation units viewing window gave a clear view of the synthetic neural mass I was to occupy before the end of the day.  There were no visual signs of trouble, just a blob of grey tissue that closely resembled a human brain.  The connections running from it were both for monitoring and connection to the hardware portion of the brain.  It seemed to be going fine, even though there was no meaningful way to tell from a visual.

     “So that’s it?” Morgan asked, almost coming out as a statement.  “The Franken-brain.”  We both laughed at that.

     “It’s been a labour of science and desperation, Morgan.  I think more of me wants it to work for the value to science and man.”

     I was sure Morgan was in.  His scientific juices had to be flowing, or he was no scientist.

     “The applications could go well beyond the purely medical,” he said.  “Space travel and colonisation could be far more manageable.  Imagine the great thinkers who could live on to do great work.”

     “Or the horrible, degenerate tyrants who could live on to do great harm,” I added.  I had the edge on Morgan, here, as I’d thought a great deal about the potential of my work.  “It’s a tool like our other creations, and I’m under no illusions about the possibilities.  We can only hope the good nature of man will win out and prevent misuse.  Hell, I sound like I’m giving a bioethics talk.”

     “Why did you go with the mix of hardware and tissue again?” he asked, suddenly on a different track.

     “When I ran the numbers on the potential processing issues between my current brain and this one, there were plenty of them; I think they ran into the hundreds of thousands of errors per billion processes.  That was too much for my taste.  Either way, I needed a processor my brainwaves would accept and adjust quickly to.  So I built a small computer to handle that and hooked it up.  Preliminary tests have the error rate down to a few thousand per billion, which is still high; however, the computer has the potential to identify most of those and correct for them.  Theoretically, the computer could have the error rate down to under a hundred per billion after a few minutes.”

     “I see,” he mumbled.  His voice told me that he was intrigued.

     “Feel free to review my notes,” I said, directing him to the backup terminal.  “I’ve already prepared a summary file for you, in case you decided to help.  Take a look at it while I run some diagnostics and prep the equipment.”

     “I must be a lunatic for not running away screaming from this,” was all Morgan said as he sat down at the terminal while I opened a guest access screen for him.

     “Running and screaming are not allowed in the lab,” I joked, “but you are permitted to walk and grumble, I believe.”  The humour was dry, and Morgan didn’t find it funny.

     I fired up the diagnostics on the incubation unit and my home-brewed attachment while Morgan read.  Everything was fine.  I usually fretted about every little detail, and there were lots to fret about, but I was in a state of peace; it was like nothing could go wrong, despite knowing the opposite.  I concluded my equipment work by checking the power supply backups and doing some fairly random scans of the tissue.

     “Mike,” Morgan called from the other terminal, “the tissue you are about to use was initiated in July, right?”

     “Yes,” I answered politely, knowing he would have questions.

     “How sure are you of full stability?” he asked, concerned.  “I’ve been working with neural tissues for a while, and we don’t usually start testing on them until they reach six months; otherwise, the potential for instability is too high.”

     “I’ve been able to isolate symptoms of instability early on, and this one is clear.”

     “That’s still pretty thin.  It’s one hell of a risk.”

     “Well, I have had to cut some corners on account of my circumstances,” I said.  “If I had another six to eight months, I could do it all properly and be content; but I don’t, so I can’t.  There’s not much more to add.”

     “Give me another hour to review this,” he said, “and then I’ll decide what I’m doing, okay?”

     “No problem, Morgan; I’ve got puttering to do, so take your time.”

     The next hour or so flew by.  Morgan asked occasional questions, and was not always happy with my responses, while I fired up the software and transitioned my new brain into a portable compartment that would be powered and monitored remotely.  The funny thing was that I had constructed the compartment from a variety of parts and the final product was something from a cheap science fiction movie.  The entire thing was a clear, plastic cylinder, about thirty centimeters in diameter, on a solid base that held the power supply, controlled the storage fluid, interfaced with external devices and so forth.  It was the classic brain in a jar.

     Once I got the new tissue and hardware into the jar, I prepared it for extraction, which would happen later.  By that point it was lunchtime, and I wanted pie.

     Morgan had finished reviewing the files, and we returned to the front office to eat and excrete; an inside joke among scientists who work in full sterility environments for long periods.  His questions had stopped; he seemed to understand most of my risks were directly related to a lack of time.

     “So this is it, then?” he said, picking at his slice of blueberry pie, barely present to the moment.  “You’re going through with it.”

     “Yes,” I said, already working on my second piece of pie, “and I’m really excited about it, too.  It’s too much to explain.  I feel as though I am about to embark on a journey of discovery, cross a new frontier.  It’s never been as real to me as right now.”

     “Any regrets?”

     “Don’t laugh, but the only thing I completely regret is that the restaurant didn’t have cherry pie; that’s my favorite.”

     Morgan didn’t find that funny, even though I was being serious.  “I don’t know why, but I’ve decided to help you,” he said.  “From what your notes suggest, there are all sorts of minor issues your software won’t correct for.  In fact, the main problem is that the software won’t anticipate issues before they arise.  That has an upside, too, but I agree with your initial preference for a human operator.”

     “Glad to have you aboard,” I said, serving myself a third slice of pie.  “It seems fitting that you were here to start off this lab, and are here again for the finale.”

     The last slice of pie was as good as the first two, and I savoured it all.  I hadn’t given much thought to my last meal, but pie was as good as anything I could think of.  We returned to the lab and set up for the transfer.  I explained some final details and placed the jar into the prosthetic machine that would make me mobile and functional after the transfer.  It was charged and ready to go.

     “What if you can’t control this thing, Mike?” Morgan asked as we set it up.  “What if it goes on a rampage and you don’t even know it?”

     “Already accounted for that possibility,” I said.  “The machine is set low, slow and weak.  If I have trouble controlling it, I won’t be any more dangerous than an eighty year old man on his hands and knees.  If I can get past controlling it, I’ll worry about adding speed and power; until then, it won’t go Frankenstein on you or the lab.”

     “Your notes are a little fuzzy on the length of time the transfer will take.  What do you suppose is a healthy amount of time?”

     It was a good question, and I didn’t have a good answer.  “My hope is it will be measurable in single digit nanoseconds.  It might take a full second, maybe more, but I hope not.  The longer it takes, the more potential for trouble.  Anyway, I’m ready, are you?”

     “Yes,” he said nervously.  “Any last words?  A final piece of pie?”

     That got a good laugh out of me.  Even Morgan laughed at his weak humour.  It was good to hear.

     “I have nothing dramatic to say at this point, except that I hope to fuck I’m not crazy and this actually works.”

     I guided Morgan through the initialisation of the equipment before I lay down on the cot and pulled the helmet over my head.  I adjusted the probes and monitors so they rested in the proper spots.

     “Hey Morgan,” I said through the transmitter, “how is everything going now?”

     “Nothing has changed,” he responded.  “The helmet is picking up your brain activity.  I’ll give it a minute to settle, in case there’s any residual interference.  How are you doing?”

     “So far, so good.  In a moment, I’ll shut off the communications in the suit.  It doesn’t give off much of a field, but I want as little interference as possible.  I just wanted to tell you so you don’t panic when I stop responding.”

     “Okay, just give me a quick wave after you cut communication,” he said.  “You’re sure you have no final words of wisdom?”

     “I’m being optimistic and thinking these are the final words of wisdom from this broken down body.  I expect to have much more to say after I settle in to the new place.”

     “I hope so, too,” Morgan said, “because no one else would believe this.”

      “Yeah, that’s probably true.  I do have a final thing to say, though, and it’s not about the science stuff.  I just want to thank you for doing this.  I know I have put you in an awkward position at the last minute, so thanks.  The other thing is about that letter I gave you, about my lawyer.”

     “What about it?” Morgan asked.

     “I’ve cut you into my will, in a peculiar fashion,” I said, trying to explain it without making it sound crooked.  “I have willed you a set of lead paperweights.  They look like elephants.  Anyway, they are the type you can buy at any junk shop, except these babies have cores of gold.  They have been in my family forever, and my lawyer can give you their full story; but they are the kind of meaningless gift that will pass scrutiny when my estate is sued.  I figure the raw gold value is roughly a hundred thousand or so.  Do what you want with it.”

     “Don’t you have any other relations, Mike?” was the troubled response.

     “An ancient Aunt Clara, who lives in an Alberta home for the well-to-do; the life insurance from my Uncle Daniel is keeping her nicely provided for.  The other family I can think of are distant cousins, but we haven’t kept in touch.  Your help has been beyond price, Morgan.  If you feel badly about the gift, sign them over to my lawyer.  Rolly, my lawyer, is a great guy.  You can trust him.”

     “You seem to like dropping bombs at the last minute, Mike,” Morgan groaned.  “Is the bomb bay empty now?”

     “Yeah, that was it, Morgan; anything more you want to say?”  I was actually tired of the chit chat, but felt it was best to give him the option.

     “Yeah, have a safe trip, and I’ll see you on the other side,” he said lightly.

     “Thanks.”

     “After you cut your mic, I will give the system a minute or so to stabilise.  If it looks good from there, I’ll start the transfer.”

     “Okay, Morgan,” I said, not really feeling the weight of the moment, just anxious to get on with it, “I’m shutting down the transmitter now.  See you soon.”

     I thumbed the communications off and waited in the dark silence of the helmet.  I knew the wait would be long, but I wasn’t the least bit afraid; not for myself, that is.  Giving seven years of constant, brutal effort was no small matter, and I wanted to be right.  Regeneratix, PureLife, and even the university wouldn’t have a thing to say if this worked; and I hoped they all shit themselves with shock when they heard the news.

     The helmet started emitting a slight hum.  The capacitors were firing up, which meant the transfer was only seconds away.  I thought of my breakfast and the blueberry pie.

#

The Jar, 1:32pm, October 20, 2087

     The transfer must have completed.  Disorientation was extreme, and I struggled to keep focussed on anything.  I was going to pass out, although that was probably an inaccurate description of what was actually happening.  A moment of clarity occurred, and I had no time to mentally process my situation.  I did the only thing I could count on, and created a log file in the hardware portion of my failing home.  There was a lot of statistical data along with it, but I fired it off millions of times faster than I could otherwise have.

     “Hey, Morgan.  I hope you are able to recover this because these really are my last words.  I suspect you may be busy trying to keep this brain going, and God love you for it.  I think it’s a lost cause, at least for this go around.  The good news is that it can work!  I am conscious, even though I know I am going to lose that, shortly.  I wish I knew the exact reason why, but it could be anything, right?  So, unless it’s an issue of my soul, my science was correct and might hold water in the future, when some other scientist explores it.  I’m attaching as much of the statistical information as I can relay to this file.  I hope it helps.  Anyway, I wish I could describe how it feels to exist after the transfer, but it is complicated and I am concerned I will run short of time.  The immediate feeling is like electrocution, but milder.  This is followed by a short lapse in awareness and substantial disorientation.  When the disorientation passes, the sense of awareness is freakishly great; like I have this sudden capacity for recall and retention.  Imagine drinking a trillion cups of coffee from that old machine in one second, that’s the sudden mental speed I have.  I feel myself slipping away and have no logical explanation for it.  It just is.  Even now, I feel myself slipping off.  I hope you take the elephants, Morgan; buy some good pie or something.”

Electric Soul, Part III

Part IPart IIPart IV

(For anyone jumping in now, this is the third part of a near future, science fiction story, the beginning of which can be found in the previous posts. I made an error when I decided to break this up into three parts. Oops. The story does not break down well into three parts, unless one of them is quite long. As a result, I am breaking it into four parts. My plan was always to keep the posts on the shorter side, so hurrah for sticking to the plan. I will post part four, the conclusion, next week.)

The Lab, 7:22am, October 20, 2087

     Morgan and I had eaten at Marigold’s, a family restaurant in town, which he insisted upon after my choice of drinking establishment the previous night.  I ordered a lot and ate a lot, without any thought to cost or health.  I simply chose what I wanted and ate.  I gorged on eggs, over medium, sausage, bacon, ham, hash browns, toast, and even crammed down a bit of syrup-soaked waffle; no ketchup, salt or pepper was spared, either.  I was too full to finish a single mug of coffee, a sacrilege.  When we finished, I took four slices of pie to go.  The important bits of the work wouldn’t come together until the afternoon, and I would be damned if I ate healthy for that, either.

     “I take it you don’t usually eat that much,” Morgan commented as we got to the lab.

     “Never,” I said, “but today is a special occasion, so I am pulling out all the stops.  Anyway, I am stuffed and happy about it.”

     Morgan chuckled.  “Okay.  It’s hard to blame you, considering.  Are we ready to go?”

     “Yes and no,” I said.  “First, there’s the matter of your compensation to address.”  I pulled out a certified financial card and handed it to him.  “There’s fifteen hundred dollars.  It’s yours.”

     “That’s quite generous of you, Mike,” Morgan said, looking a little shocked.  “It is only one day of work, you know.”

     Morgan’s exact salary was definitely less than what I was throwing his way, but that wasn’t the whole picture.  “Well, Morgan old buddy, I look at it differently.  There is today, which may run late, and you had to clear it, anyway.  There was last night, too, and yes it counts.  In the grand scheme of things, I think the number is reasonable.  The money is locked into your name, so I can’t take it back, anyway.”

     “Okay, Mike, if you’ll feel better about it, I’ll take it.”

     “Wonderful,” I said.  “Now there is a bit of stuff I need to tell you before we proceed.  I made some notes because it’s complicated and long.  Would you like a coffee before I huff and puff?”

     Morgan looked suspicious, and it was hard to blame him.  “I think I will have another one.”

     I set up the machine to make coffee for us.  I was still full from breakfast, but I never seemed to have an issue with getting more coffee down if I waited.  I was about to tell him everything, and there was a lot to tell.  We were silent as the coffee brewed.

     I produced a card with a list of points I wanted to cover.  “I’ll try to be brief, but there’s so much to tell you.  The main thing is this: you may want to back out after you hear it.  If you do, I totally understand and there will be no hard feelings.  The money is yours, either way; I reserved your day, after all.  I need us to be clear on that, okay?”

     Morgan nodded.  “You sure know how to draw in an audience, Mike.  Too bad your lectures never had any of that.”

     That made me smile, and shook me out of my seriousness.  “I’ll make a note of that, in case I lecture again.  I’ll just tell it from the start; I think it will be clearer that way.”  I took a sip of coffee and began.

     “I took on the original project almost ten years ago.  I was going to research, design and build a bioprocessor to rival our own brain.  The university had brand new equipment and Regeneratix had a bit of interest in diversifying their scope.  The university was happy to put the equipment to use at that level, which was good.  Regeneratix was a harder sell.  They were into tissue growth, and I think they were interested in a taking a smaller step into a different field.  Anyway, my pitch was convincing, the deal came together and was on my way.  If I got it right, I was in Nobel territory; the university would be on the map and Regeneratix would have a patent worth a mint.  It was a heck of a deal.”

     “I remember the hype,” Morgan said.  “You made a crappy celebrity, though.”

     “Yeah, I was never into the limelight thing,” I said, fidgeting with the rim of my coffee cup.  “Anyway, the first two or three years was spent productively.  I got a lot of work done, the university got a couple of tiny articles out of me, and Regeneratix was happy with the progress reports I sent their way.  Then, I went for a routine physical.  Strangely enough, the physical was part of my contract with Regeneratix; they didn’t want to put all their coin into the project without keeping tabs on my health.  I didn’t have regular staff and was everything for them.  Anyway, a random blood test caught a thing, which they used to catch another thing, and so on, until they found that I had Mortitis.  That was seven years ago.”

     “Shit, Mike, why the hell didn’t you say something about it?” Morgan interjected.

     “That’s where it gets complicated,” I said, trying to stay on topic.  “I knew a bit about Mortitis, of course, but I did more research after they confirmed my diagnosis; turns out the treatments are incredibly intensive and highly unreliable.  I was at an early enough stage that it should have been okay to get going with medical care.  The doctor even suggested I had a seventy percent chance of doubling my life expectancy if I started right away.  I had two problems with that.  The type of odds I was being offered were crappy; seventy percent chance of doubling my life expectancy sounds like a pile of bull.  Typically, for my situation, I had maybe eight or nine years left; and seventy percent was a really optimistic figure.  So I decided treatment was not for me.”

     “I’m still trying to process all of this, Mike,” Morgan said to me.  “What did Regeneratix say?  They couldn’t have been happy about your decision to ride it out.”

     “I never told them,” was all I could answer.

     “But the physicals…how could you…shit, you modified your medical report, didn’t you?”  Poor Morgan was saying the words as though they represented an impossibility.  He might as well have said I spilled water onto the ceiling.

     “I did, but it’s not as simple as that,” I picked up where I left off.  “I won’t go through my entire thought process, but I was in shock and running low on time.  If Regeneratix found out about my condition they would have pulled the project from me; not right away, of course, they would have kept me on for long enough to train a replacement.  If I was lucky, they might even keep me on until I broke down.  The moment I started any type of therapy for Mortitis I was handing over the control of my future to someone else.  God help me, Morgan, but I’ve never been good at doing that.  I’m a bio-engineer, and handing my health over to doctors who were my academic inferiors was not for me.”

     “So what are you saying?  You’ve been researching a cure for Mortitis all this time?”  Morgan was still in a state of mild disbelief, and it showed.

     “Interestingly enough, I did consider it.  The problem was that it fell a little outside of my comfort zone, and well outside my specialisation.  I didn’t think I had the time to pull off a cure, even if I could have.  I did have time to save myself another way, though.  It was well within my comfort zone and I had a head start, indirectly.”

     Morgan was nearly finished his coffee.  I had hardly touched mine, though my fidgeting nearly ruined the rim of the cup.  When I planned out this explanation, I had intended to just say it plainly at this point in the story; but sitting there with my ragged coffee cup and Morgan still half-shocked, I suddenly couldn’t find it in myself to say it, yet.  Part of me hoped he would guess what I chose, and in doing so, validate my choice.  Perhaps I was being foolish, but, in some small way, I hoped my course of logic wasn’t wrong.  By wrong, I don’t mean the purely moral sense of the word; I was concerned about my general sanity.  I’ve never had mental health issues, not even depression or anxiety; though I was aware I would be the last to know if something did develop.  It would have been quite the blow to discover my bag of marbles had a hole in the bottom.  How many old movies had I watched where the villain was just a deluded wacko building a castle in the sky?

     The hope I held for his immediate realisation of my plan died in the awkward silence that fell.  I continued.

     “Let me back up.  I had this crazy notion when I was doing my grad work.  At the time, it was a fanciful idea that I shelved in the back of my brain, in case the technology ever made it far enough in my lifetime.  Did I ever tell you about my sister?”

     “She died when you were young, right?”

     “Yep, it was a brain tumor.  They might have caught it in time to save her, but she hid her symptoms with illegal drugs.  Funny enough, she was using the right stuff for pain relief.  Anyway, she was dead at sixteen.  I was eighteen and blown away by the experience.  Several years later, I came up with my crazy idea of how to deal with stuff like that.  It wasn’t a purely original idea, but my journal searches came up with nothing serious or meaningful along those lines.”

     “Are you going to tell me what it is, or keep dancing?” Morgan interrupted with uncharacteristic impatience.

     “Just a moment or two of dancing, okay?  I’ve kept a lid on this for a while, so it’s tough to just spit out.  The plan to save myself was complicated, and I never really thought it completely through from the start; a lot of my actions since then have been taken on the fly.  At first, I even tried to do the work on the side, concurrent with the original project; a bit of quick math told me this was a pipe dream.  In the early going, the switch was easy.  The university was aware that my output of articles was going to be sporadic, at best, so they left me alone.  Regeneratix also knew the project was a minimum of five years and were familiar enough with scientific research to know results were streaky.”

     “So you completely abandoned your original work and did your own thing?” Morgan said, staring at his coffee cup in a daze.  “You were chasing some type of cure to save yourself the whole time.  That’s why you’ve clammed up and pissed everyone off.  That’s why you’re acting so strangely.  I think I’m starting to see why you have this outrageous urgency to conclude the project.  This isn’t about science, it’s about saving yourself.  Have you considered that you might spend all those years you save in a jail?  Even if you dodge that, your academic credibility is lost.”

     “There’s more to tell, Morgan,” I said, understanding his point of view, yet again, from his incomplete base of information.  “Would you like more coffee?”

     “No,” he said sharply.  “Right now, I’m not sure if I want to continue this conversation.  I’m sure that I’m not implicated in your fraud, yet, and I would like it to stay that way.  I’m sorry, Mike, but I can’t stay for this.”

     “Morgan, wait,” I wanted him to hear me out.  “You’re in the free and clear.  I made sure of it.”

     “How?” Morgan almost shouted.  “I signed paperwork connecting me to this lab, and to your lawyer.”

     “They were never filed,” I said, keeping calm.  “I just needed to make sure you didn’t run to the school or anything.  The money card was independently registered, and that cost me a mint, so there’s no trace there, either.  Whether you leave now, or in a few minutes, changes nothing; I’ve gone out of my way to insulate you from litigation.  All I’m asking is that you hear me out, for now.  If you want to leave after that, I understand.”

     “Then spit it the fuck out, Mike, because I’m tired of this drawn out bullshit.”

     “All right, Morgan,” I said, feeling my stomach start to shift without knowing if it was the breakfast or my nerves.  “I’ve broken the law in running this lab for the last seven years, but it has nothing to do with curing myself; I’m convinced my condition is far too advanced for that.  So I’m doing a transplant, sort of.”  It was out, for better or worse, and it was a relief to say it out loud.

     “What kind of a transplant?” Morgan’s voice was pure suspicion.  “Or is it some kind of newfangled gene treatment?”

     “I guess the proper term would be transfer,” I said.  “It’s not gene treatment.  I have to change brains, Morgan.  I’ve constructed a substitute I will move into.  That’s what the last seven years have been about.”

     Morgan sat back down again, nearly missing the chair.  His face expressed a combination of shock and contemplation.  I kept going to keep the silence at bay.  I wasn’t worried about his approval as much as his condemnation; I could have lived with anything but a strong reproach, so I needed him to hear me through.

     “There never was an alternative after the idea came to me.  My body is dying from a disease ambient in my tissues, so I only have one way out; and that way lies in the lab, waiting for me.”

     “Mike, are you telling me that you’ve created a duplicate of your brain?”

     “It’s not a duplicate or a clone,” I said, still fearing a moral outrage.  “It’s a combination of tissue and computer.  As far as I can tell, it works.”

     “Works how?  Are you planning on attaching your brain to it or something?” Morgan was still sifting through it all.

     “No,” I explained.  “There’s a lot more to it than that.  It might be better if I just explained it all the way I started to.”

     “Okay, Mike,” he said.  “I’ll have another coffee, too.”

     I started the next round of java and continued.  “My solution was the only way.  I considered cloning my brain and then doing a transfer, but the math was crazy and possibility for error was enormous.  I was also concerned that any tissue sampling I might attempt would involve bringing my condition with it.  I needed to make a clean transfer to something new; something with no physical relationship to my current tissues.”

     “Sorry to interrupt so soon,” Morgan said, sounding quite calm, “but you keep using the term transfer.  If you’re not moving your brain to a new body of tissue or connecting it to a new formation of tissue, then what exactly are you transferring?”

     “It’s complicated.  To make it quick, though, I am going to transfer my brain waves to a different location.”

     “Excuse me?  Did you say your brain waves?”  Morgan was halfway between analysing and doubting.  At least this was something expected.  “Have you checked in with a shrink?”

     “To answer your last question: yes.  I have seen a couple of them in the last few years.  I don’t think I’m crazy.”  I set down our coffee.

     “And what about the brain wave thing?”

     “Complicated, but I will try to sum it up.  What makes us tick, in our brains, is simply a complex set of chemical and electrical inputs and outputs.  That’s basic science.  When I first thought of switching to a different medium, my concern was in getting the physical construction right.  You see, constructing a mass of tissues that are identical to a brain, clone or otherwise, is quite simple.  The trouble is getting the fiddly bits straight.  If I was going to do a switch, and the receiving end wasn’t able to function because the connections weren’t where they were supposed to be, or expected to be, then what?  A few simulations I ran were inconclusive, though it was clear things were likely to get ugly.”

     “And where do the brain waves fit in?” Morgan asked.

     “Ah, yes, the brain waves.  When I originally planned my new brain, I intended it to be purely biological.  The soup of chemicals, hormones and whatnot were easy enough to measure and reproduce, so I wasn’t worried about that side of the equation.  The complicated bit was the electrical end.  You see, the electricity moving around up there is what really makes us what we are.  Chemistry might do the memory side of things, but the exact way our brains access those memories, experience them, misremember them, and so on, is completely electrical.  The ongoing pattern of those impulses, in their entirety, is what I dubbed brain waves.  It sounds like a ridiculous term from old science fiction, but what else would I call it?”

     “I suppose the exact name is irrelevant.  So, if I understand, you intend to transfer to this new medium, right?”

     “Yes, that’s it.  It’s just trickier than it sounds.”

     “Mike, forget tricky, it sounds bloody impossible.”

     “I’d be happy to show you reams of notes and experiment results until your head hurts.  I’ve run the numbers and it is possible.  The tricky part isn’t even related to the transfer of the electrical part, it’s getting it safely installed into the new location.  If I can manage that, I’m laughing.”

     Morgan was not looking convinced.  “I know you’ve been working on this for a long time, and it’s a little outside of my field, but have you thought some peer review might be in order?  What if you missing something, or have it wrong?  Mike, you could die from this.”

     I laughed nervously, before I realised it.  I hoped he didn’t take it badly, like I was being condescending.  “Morgan…I know, and it doesn’t matter.  I’m dead, anyway.  I’ve been taking a couple of off-market drugs to delay the effects of Mortitis, to buy myself the time I needed; but the truth is that I’ve pushed myself about as far as I can.  Whether I go today, or in a couple of years, doesn’t matter to me.  At least I have a good chance this way, a chance I can control.”

     “I’m not sure what to say, Mike,” was his flat response.  “This seems so unreal.  Have you thought about the implications of what is done with you afterward?  I mean, assume your idea succeeds and your brain waves settle nicely in this new medium.  What becomes of you?  Will you just be a brain in a jar, or what?  Have you rigged up a biomechanical body to interface with it, or will you just contemplate for eternity in your jar?”

     “I think you’re starting to catch up with the concept of what I’m doing.  That’s good.  I have a friend in the engineering department who cobbled together a basic apparatus that is mobile, has appendages, audio-visual inputs, and all that; it even has speakers and screen display.  It was originally a prototype for the removal of bombs, toxic waste and other bad stuff.  It runs off a battery with solar recharge.  I’ve rigged up the connections in a way that mimics my current bodily controls as closely as possible, but it will be hard to say if I can control it from the new medium.”

     “Holy fuck,” Morgan swore, “you really have covered all of your bases.”

     “As well as I was able to, considering the time constraints,” I said.  “The new medium is extremely complex.  Without being able to make an exact duplicate of my current brain, I had to add non-biological parts.  The non-biological stuff is there to pick up any slack from the biological side of the construct.  I don’t want my brain waves won’t go screwy when they land in there.  I wish we had more time to cover all the details, but the shop is closing soon and I’ve stretched myself thin.”

     Morgan leaned toward me, conspiratorially, as though the place was bugged, and whispered, “Mike, there might be time to do a lightning review of all this; we could do it in a few days, I’m sure.  If there’s anything to your work here, the university might just buy out Regeneratix and you can complete this properly.”

     “Wishful thinking, Morgan,” I said.  “The reality is that my good will with the university and Regeneratix burned to the ground a while ago.  The situation started going badly about two years ago.  I had danced around, before that, but shit was starting to hit the fan and my dodging was harder and harder to do.  I kept at it, knowing I could stretch out the time to get finished.  When you approached me this summer, I was strained and needed to force things; and I have forced them quite substantially.  If the university approached Regeneratix, at this point, they would be suspicious as hell; the project would die in its tracks while they fought it out.  What would be more fun, yet, would be the fact I would probably die before anything moved forward.”

     “There must be a way,” Morgan kept on beating the horse.  “Perhaps another corporate sponsor would buy out the whole lot, losses and all.  I have pretty good corporate contacts and it wouldn’t take much convincing to get them on board.”

     “That doesn’t change the Regeneratix side of it.  They might even be more suspicious if another private company got involved.  Besides, you’re forgetting the most important thing about this: I’m about to engage in unsanctioned human experimentation.  This project has never even been registered, Morgan.  We’d both be dead and buried before an ethics panel gave approval, assuming they allowed the project to be registered post-commencement.”

     “What are you going to do if I refuse to help you?” Morgan asked.  This was another one I had prepared for.

     “I have automated everything to operate without assistance, if need be,” I said, starting to destroy my new coffee cup.  “I’ve programmed everything to respond as best as possible, regardless of how strangely the experiment goes.  It would be better to have a more intuitive operator available, but the pressure is on and I’m out of time.  One way or the other, I’m doing this.”

     “Morgan, we’ve never really discussed any spiritual aspects of this,” he changed course.  “Are you a believer in something greater?”

     “I’m actually Christian,” I admitted, “but I don’t practice and I have some…reservations about what the church preaches.  When I first decided to do this, I went as far as seeing a priest about it.  It was quite enlightening.”

     “What did he have to say?”

     “He was a guy I grew up with.  We were good friends through our youth, and kept in touch over the years.  He explained to me that I was about to attempt the impossible, that I was wasting my time.”

     “I take it he is not science-minded,” Morgan said.  “Typical, kneejerk reaction from a theologian.”

     “Normally, I would agree with you, however, this guy is not like the psychopaths with PureLife.  He’s actually quite educated, though not in the sciences, and he explained a lot; mind you, I can’t say I agreed with him much.”

     “So it wasn’t the usual, blasphemous abomination reaction?” Morgan said, only half in jest.

     “You’ve obviously met a few PureLifers over the years,” I laughed with him.  “No, he told me I wouldn’t extend my life at all.  He said, ‘Once your body is divested of life, the means of that divestment being unimportant, you will pass away with your soul.’  There’s a lot more to it than that, but the essential part is that my consciousness is a function of my soul; and without my soul I will no longer have that consciousness.  This guy is a Roman Catholic, and they think creation is something only possible through God, and anything man made cannot house a soul.  So, in short, I may transfer some bits and pieces of myself to my creation, but I will effectively cease to be; I will become a computerised facsimile of myself, at best.”

     “So you’re knowingly giving up your soul?” Morgan asked.

     “Not exactly.  The risk, from how I see it, is that I simply die from the experience.  The potential upside, if I’m successful, is that I leave a fragment of my intellect behind.  Either way, my soul is as safe as I can make it.”

     “I didn’t think you were religious, Mike,” Morgan said with a curious look.  “What brought on the check in with a priest?”

     “I’m really not very religious or spiritual, at all.  I don’t know why I asked about it.  I suppose it was just something to check into.  My friend, the priest, is a really great guy.  If I hadn’t have known him personally, I’m sure I wouldn’t have bothered.  Are you a believing type, Morgan?”

     “Strictly speaking, I am not,” he replied.  “I can’t prove or disprove the spiritual side of the universe, so I’m not sure of much.  The notion of a great and powerful creator isn’t so crazy to me after looking through enough microscopic images, and that isn’t the norm among scientists.  I mean, how could a microscopic life form possibly come to terms with us, right?  Not possible, the scale is beyond anything they could reason out.  So how unlikely is it that there’s someone looking down at us in the same way?  A messed up look at God, I guess, but it’s how I see it.”

     “I’ve tried to cover my bases as much as I can, anyway,” I was getting impatient to start working.  If Morgan was going to walk away, it was even more important that I begin.  There was only one thing more.  “Morgan, there’s only one more thing to cover, and then it’s up to you.  If this experiment fails outright, and you are involved, I have programmed the security system to erase all recordings.  I can show you where the storage device is and how to destroy it; after that, there is no chance of recovering any trace of your presence here.  Even if I proceed without you, I will do the same thing to remove the evidence of your visits.  That’s as close as I can come to keeping you secure.  If you have ethical issues with all of this, I can’t do anything for you.  This is an as is situation.”

     “Shit, Mike, I wish you had given me more time to decide.  Today could be the last day of your life, and I could be involved with that.  It’s not like asking me to water your plants while you’re out of town.”

     “I understand, Morgan,” I said, getting to my feet.  “Will it make any difference if I show you the lab?  I’ve made quite a few changes.”

     Morgan was stressed, and I felt bad for putting him in this situation.  He had that aged look to him again.  “Okay, Mike, let’s check it out.”

Electric Soul, Part II

Part IPart IIIPart IV

(Near future sci-fi stuff, in case you missed it last time. I was very tempted to break this into more than three parts due to the length. Part I is posted below.)

Director of Operations Office, Regeneratix, 11:20am, Thursday, June 26, 2087

“Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike,” Bert Sanderson said, looking at me from across his rather expansive desk.  “Did you know that I lost a hundred dollars the second you walked through the main doors?  I had a bet going with Wells in accounts that you’d never show your face here, again.”

     Bert had a large office with every modern amenity possible.  It was all flash and display, of course, but that was a reflection of Bert; he was a showy, shallow type who liked his own hype.  He should have been born a peacock; instead, he was the Director of Operations for Regeneratix Canada.  He wasn’t all bad, just mostly.  My earliest dealings with Regeneratix were with Bert’s predecessor, Ralph Darington, who was remarkably similar to Bert, so my connection to him was sort of forced.  I believe he was a junior executive in the company at the time I hooked up with them, but I never clicked with him the same as I did with Ralph, who was a little less annoying.  Anyway, Bert could be colourful, at the best of times, but our relations had grown strained and broken.  The odd message he would send seemed to seethe with aggressive language and accusation; what made it worse was that he only knew half of my wrongdoings.

     I was distracted by the movement of fish in the wall-sized tank behind him.  They were all recovery creatures, used as a showcase for the healing technology of the future that was Regeneratix’s stock and trade.  What I was working on for them represented an attempt to break into a different area, and I expected they were disappointed.

     “Well, I figured it was overdue,” I said, hoping that I would be better off cutting the crap and getting straight to business.  “I have something to run by you.  I think you’ll approve.”

     “Really?” Bert laughed.  “A thousand messages, mailings and attempted visits later, and you have something to run by me?  Well, this should be pretty damn good, Mikey.  I’m almost thinking I should have a few drinks first, but I might die of old age before I hear your voice, again.  So lay it on, I’m a captive audience.”

     “Okay,” I continued on, without responding to his bull.  “The project has had several hiccups along the way, as you know, but I’m almost at the point of wrapping it up.  The early results threw me off, but I’ve isolated all the issues and dealt with them.  I know I’ve told you this before, so I won’t go over the details.”

     “Whoa there!” Bert chirped up suddenly.  “I just want to cut you off for a second, in case you’re about to waste our time here.  Everything you’re about to run by me, just now, is it going to answer this question: do you, or do you not, have a fully operational bio-processor that comes anywhere close to the specifications in our original designs?  That’s easy, right?  You’re a smart guy, so just answer me that question.”

     Stupid bastard, I thought.  I wanted to bounce his smug face off his giant desk, but I had years of experience in keeping my cool through stuff like this.  “The short answer is yes.  Would you like me to go on?”

     “That’s great news!” he piped up with more mock enthusiasm.  “So, before you go on, do you have test results?  Maybe we could go see them together?  I’m sure I could find a brainiac or two who would ride shotgun.  Whatchya say to that?”

     “I would say that in October, I will be happy to do that.”

     “Oh, now it’s October,” he jumped in again.  “Well, that’s great.  Here I was thinking it would be next year.  I guess your predictions are getting tighter, at least.”

     “I’m willing to go a step further, if you want to hear it.”

     He was interested, even if he was suspicious as hell.  I felt slightly better.  If I had his interest at this point, even slightly, then he wouldn’t be able to say no to the juicy little offer I was going to pitch.  He wouldn’t say no because the offer was too good to be true, and it was.  The reality was that someone needed to be screwed in this equation, and I didn’t have the heart to throw the university under the bus.  Greedy, corporate pukes like Bert were simply part of a money machine that only cared about the bottom line.  Where I was at, it really was just a detail that mattered less and less; all I needed was to be left alone until the end of October.

     “I do want to hear it,” he growled.  “But first, I want you to hear something.  This fucking project of yours has been a massive pain in the ass.  It’s been an embarrassment for too long.  I won’t go over the fun and excitement we’ve had since you shut us out, because I’m sure you have a good idea.  What you might not have as good an idea about is the flurry of activity in our legal department.  We actually have an amazing case, right now, but the legal guys want it rock solid.  They want it rock solid because I threatened to cut their fucking balls off if we didn’t have your head on a platter when the dust settled.  You see where this is going?”

     “Yeah, I follow,” I said, “and I know you’re pissed.  I don’t blame you.  But I have something for your legal department.  If you like, I can just present it directly to your legal monkeys.”

     “What, and miss the chance to have the first look at it?  No chance.  Hand it over.”  I gave him the pack of papers.  I had them drawn up about a year before, for a situation just like this, when my back was to the wall.  After Morgan dropped by, I knew what I had to do and got my attorney on it.  Rolly Paluamalau was an old buddy from before my own university days.  He was an odd duck, but he was an amazing lawyer and had my stuff ready in two days.  I couldn’t have made it as far as I did without that guy.

     “It’s fairly involved, but the short version is that you get full rights to all of my findings and work, including the final product, and I will leave up an offer to work for you that is damn near slavery.”

     Bert was quicker than I had thought; he had already covered the document while listening to me.  “Mikey, Mikey,” he said, returning to pure sarcasm, “you sure like to sweeten a deal, I’ll give you that.  Tell me, though, where did you get a figure like two hundred thousand a year from?”

     “Easy, really.  I did a little looking, and it seems the going rate for someone of my qualifications is around eight hundred thousand.  So, I did some more looking and found out that if you factor in the damage I’ve done to my reputation in the last few years, assuming my work falls short, I’m still worth about four.  So, I work another twenty years and Regeneratix recoups a few million.”

     “Getting a few million back over a few years…I dunno, Mikey,” he said, wheels turning just below the outward veneer.  “That falls a little short of the mark, in case you haven’t kept track.”

     “I thought of that,” I wound up for the whammy, now.  If this didn’t get me until November, nothing would.  “I also thought about the alternatives.  If the project falls flat, not that it will, but if it does, the university will get their equipment back.  The court might tie up access for a while, but Regeneratix won’t keep it, and I think you know that already.  There’s no point in working your legal team to death over a lost cause.  In that case, you sue me and get next to nothing because I have drained my personal finances into my work.  If you push me too hard, I promise my notes and whatnot will be posted on public domain networks the same day.  I would be happy to do time for that, too.  So that’s scenario one.”

     I took a quick breath, surprised that the smartass hadn’t interrupted.  “The second scenario is that my work is a wild success.  Regeneratix instantly becomes the world leader in bio-computation.  I know my competition, Bert, and they’re so far behind me it’s not even funny.  Your only concern, at that point, is keeping out of a monopoly suit.  The university won’t care much about the academic loss, as long as they get their equipment back, free and clear.  That’s the good scenario.”

     “So you’re suggesting I take your word that you’ll soften our losses with a long service.  Is that right?  Why should I trust you?”

     “Bert,” I asked, “what choice do we have?  I’m offering Regeneratix a contractual guarantee that softens the blow, which is a hell of a lot better than getting nothing.  In that case, I’d be perfectly happy to have the job, even for that pay.  I know I’ve stalled for a long time, and you have no reason to trust me, but this is a contractual deal that puts a time limit down.  I’ve put it in writing, this time.”

     The wheels were turning and Bert was hooked.  He would never give me the satisfaction of an answer on the spot, so I rose to leave.

     “You know I have to run this by legal?” he asked.

     “Yes,” I said, “but you know the offer, so it’s up to you.  I’ve already signed your copy, and left a registered copy with my lawyer.  If you decide to go ahead, contact him.”

     “I’m still trying to think of a good reason why I shouldn’t just shut you down and take a chance that legal gets a piece of the equipment.  You got any contracts to cover that?”

     “No,” I responded gently, “but you’d lose the chance to soften the loss or win big, if I strike gold.  You finally have my deadline in black and white, Bert.  I have nothing left to offer you.”  And that was essentially true.  I walked out of his office knowing I had him and knowing Regeneratix Canada’s legal crew wouldn’t be going home early.

#

The Lab, 2:11pm, Friday, June 27, 2087

Rolly called in the middle of a tissue scan.  Most calls never came through to the lab, but I had programmed a chosen few into the system that would alert me.  It was a bitch to interrupt the scan; however, things were in the balance and I couldn’t afford to let the call pass.  Rolly was an awesome guy, who I owed a million times over.

     “Hey, Rolly, how are things?”

     “Very, very strange, my genius friend, very strange indeed,” Rolly boomed back with that giant, Polynesian voice of his.  “You sure get into business with some strange people.”

Rolly was one of those people who are always happy, no matter what.  You could see it on his face and posture, and really couldn’t help but hear it in his voice; my phone system was automatically programmed to drop the incoming volume a little from Rolly’s number.  I first met him at a party in Aurora that had spilled over from a pre-university mixer.  Rolly is as big as his voice and didn’t need any help taking care of himself.  At the time, I wondered if he weren’t on a football scholarship or something.  Anyway, some drunken guy, who was almost as big as Rolly, knocks him over from behind and makes a slurred racial comment, hoping for a supportive laugh from the crowd.  I had been chatting with a group of people, including Rolly, when this happened.  I was drunk, and my need for immediate justice high, so I suckered the drunken guy; and by some miracle, knocked him flat.  If I threw that punch a million times I probably wouldn’t have scratched him, but that night he dropped.  Rolly never, ever forgot that night and we have remained friends, ever since.  He passed his bar and worked for a few firms over the years before opening his own office.  He charged me next to nothing and didn’t care that I took forever to pay.  All for one drunken punch in his defense.

     “Very true, Rolly,” I laughed back.  “Lately, it seems to be getting worse.”

     “Well, I can’t help you with that part, Mike, but I can’t chit chat too much.  I’ve got one of your strange people on the other line, right now.  Some guy named Bert, sounds like a jackass.  Anyway, he says he’s ready to go with your deal, but he has to talk to you right now, or it’s no dice.”

     “That’s strange,” I pondered.  “Do you think there’s a legal angle to it, like recording my verbal agreement or something?”

     “It wouldn’t mean anything if he did,” Rolly said.  “Sounds more like he’s got something personal to say.  I tried to put him off but I can tell you he won’t sign without some chit chat.  It’s your call on this.  There is no legal harm, either way.”

     “All right, Rolly, put him through then,” I said, trying to switch gears from science to Bert.

     “Okay, Mike,” Rolly said, “Call me back if you want, I’m around for a few more hours.”

     The line switched over to Regeneratix.  “Hi Bert, what can I do for you?”

     “You could tell me you’ve figured out how to change lead into gold,” he opened sarcastically, “or maybe found the meaning of life.  Right now I’ll settle for your word on something.”

     This was strange.  I had abused and abased my word for a while now, so I couldn’t figure out where he was going, or why he cared.  Bert was too sly to take my word, anymore.

     “All right, Bert, what is it?”

     “I’m ready to go ahead with your offer.  I’ve got enough support from the board to move forward, even though it feels wrong.  I’m the only guy left to kibosh this thing, and I’ll kibosh the fuck out of it if I don’t get your word on something.”

     “Okay, go ahead.”

     “It’s going to work, right?” he asked.  “When you’re done, you’ll plug it in and it’ll work.  I have your word on that?”

     “This project has gone on for about ten years, Bert,” I said, sounding more tired than I intended, “I can’t remember the last time I took a full day off.  My social life doesn’t exist.  I’m broke and my academic career is a wreck.  I didn’t do that to myself for a maybe.  Bert, you wanted my word that it will work out, now you’ve got it.”

#

The Lab, 9:14am, Monday, June 30, 2087

“Good morning, Morgan,” I was positively beaming into the vid-phone.  I felt good, even though I was being rushed to complete the project of my life.  I had bought off Regeneratix with a meaningless offer and I had a goal, a real deadline; it was the first, real deadline in a long time.  I was happy to have avoided losing it all right away, which was almost the case.

     The weekend was comprised of several tests and retests, before breaking down a condensed schedule into roughly fourteen weeks.  It would be tough sledding, but I allowed for almost a week of buffer.  Barring the worst, I would be ready to initiate the final experiment on schedule.  I could have called just about any science grunt in my field to help me with the final run, maybe even have automated it, but I preferred Morgan’s good judgement and experience; besides, I couldn’t necessarily trust anyone else.

     “Hi Mike.  Long time, no see,” Morgan was smiling, too.

     “How does your October look, again?” I asked.

     “Pretty busy, but what did you have in mind?”

     “The third week of it,” I said, taking a sip of coffee.  Even the coffee seemed to taste better than usual.  It was definitely a good day.

     Mike looked a little shocked and set his scheduler to vertical display, flipping the screen ahead to October.  A myriad of notes dotted the days on the display.  He had a full schedule.  “Give me a second, here…” he mumbled as he scanned through his appointments.

     “Listen, Morgan, if it helps at all, I don’t actually need you for the full week.  I just need you available during that week.  I won’t need you for more than a day.  Two, at the most.”

     “I see,” he said.  “That doesn’t entirely help, but I do have some flexibility.  I can put off some of this, and probably get away with cancelling a thing or two.  How much notice will you give me?”

     “Unfortunately, I can’t say for sure.  Let’s just say a maximum of a day, unless I’m ahead of schedule.  I’ll have a better idea in early October.”

     “The best I can do,” Morgan offered, “is forty-eight hours notice, unless you can give me more time.  It’s a busy stretch.”

     “Okay, forty-eight hours will do fine,” I said.  “I’ll try to keep you in the loop as things progress.  Thanks, Morgan.”

     Morgan made a quick series of notes on his schedule as he spoke.  “No problem, Mike.  I’m sure it will be interesting.  I’d chat more, but I’m about to give a tour to some undergrads-to-be.”

     “Yikes, how did you get roped into that?”

     No lectures in a long time means I have to do crap like that, now and then,” Morgan sighed.  “My alternative was to review the chemical storage inventory, so I chose the three hour tour, instead.”

     “Good call, Morgan, and thanks again.  I’ll be in touch.”

#

The Lab, 11:08pm, August 27, 2087

     “Hello?” I mumbled into the phone.

     “Is this Doctor Michael Hawlorne?” a cold, flat voice responded.  I had been sleeping when the call came through.  My phone didn’t alert me unless it was a call from a preset list, so I was surprised I didn’t recognise the voice; the bigger surprise was the use of Doctor as my title, because nobody called me that.  Phone hacks were still possible, and this smelled like one.

     “I think you have the wrong number, mister,” I said, still a bit muddled.

     “Dr. Hawlorne,” the caller went on without acknowledging, “you probably don’t know who I am, but I suspect you know the group I represent.”  It was one of those psychos from PureLife, I could just tell.  No one else opened up with creepy shit like that.  I was a little dozy, so I didn’t hang up right away.  “I realise that previous contact from PureLife may have been threatening or peculiar, by your standards.  I must apologise for their behaviour.  Things have changed, and I thought I should discuss that with you.”

     “Did you know this was a secure line?” I asked.  “And did you realise it’s eleven o’clock?”

     “You are correct on both counts,” the crazy voice went on, “and I hope you understand the nature and timing is not my preference, but you are difficult to reach and I felt the need to give you an update on how PureLife will behave in the future.”

     “Awesome,” I blurted out, perhaps too rudely.

     “Dr. Hawlorne, your work with bodily tissues remains a transgression in our eyes.  That fact has stayed the same.  What has changed is our approach to dealing with it.  Your laboratory cannot be permitted to continue with the blasphemy of the flesh, but I felt it was best to warn you of our action plan.  Our intent is to punish the sin and not the sinner.”

     “Punish?” I replied, awake enough to be pissed off and too dopey to hang up.  “This might just be the weirdest threat yet.  I thought you said things have changed?  Sounds like they’ve got worse.”

     “On the contrary, Dr. Hawlorne.  For now, I will be brief.  You have until the end of September to close down your lab or we will take physical action against it.  It was important you be warned so you could save yourself from harm.”

     “The end of September, eh?” I was about to add another name to my fuck you pile.  More than any of the rest, even the money whores at Regeneratix, the band of PureLife shitheads had it coming.  “Seeing how you’re being reasonable and all, what if I made you a deal?  Something that would help us both, perhaps?  Or are you just like your predecessors, really?”

     There was a pause.  The self-assured, self-righteous dick was off balance for the first time in the conversation.  I’m sure that my speaking to him, almost respectfully, was unexpected.  Some of these protesting types got it into their head that they were going to be reasonable, honourable or decent, unlike their previous leaders.  If I was lucky, I could shame this one into a deal.  The pause grew awkward.

     “All right, Doctor Hawlorne,” he finally spoke up, “I will hear your proposal.”

     “You are clearly in charge of things, so you understand what deadlines and other obligations are like, right?”

     “I’m not sure I follow the general line of thought, but I understand.”

     “Good,” I went on, “that’s the first thing you need to follow.  Are you familiar with my connection to Regeneratix?”

     “I am.”

     “Okay, then I’ll explain it all,” I said.  “Regeneratix has been pushing me to get my work done too soon.  They are threatening to put someone else in charge.  What’s worse for your cause is they have been pushing me to take a far less ethical approach.  My work is generally against your beliefs, I know, but if you knew what Regeneratix was planning, you might be happier with me than a Regeneratix replacement.”

     “You are not making sense, Doctor Hawlorne.”

     “Sorry, I can be longwinded,” I apologised.  “What I’m trying to say is that Regeneratix has ticked me off.  They are giving me unrealistic deadlines and pressing me toward unsavoury uses of the project.  If you’ve read my paper on bio-ethics, you’ll understand my view of things.”  He probably hadn’t read anything I’d published, including the paper on bio-ethics, but it always threw a wrench into their thinking.

     “Please get to the point, Doctor Hawlorne.”

     “Here’s my side of the offer,” I said.  “I will make sure my current research doesn’t find its way into military or other hands.  I will also provide you a complete list of the projects in the Regeneratix database, including the locations and contacts for all of them.  I’m not happy with some of their work, so I can only imagine the outrage you will feel.”

     A slight moment of hesitation; fishy had taken the hook.  “An interesting offer, but what is it that I can offer you for that information?”

     “A small reprieve would be enough, one that would be helpful to you, anyway.  Leave me and my lab alone until November.  That’s the Regeneratix deadline.  If I don’t get the project done, the next guy will be less scrupulous.  You wanted to stop me at the end of September, and all I’m asking is for another month.  That month will get you the naughty and nice list from Regeneratix, if you’re interested.”

     Another pause.  “Give me a moment, Doctor Hawlorne.”  Consulting with his fellow nutcases, no doubt.  It didn’t matter much, either way.  PureLife had threatened action before and was sure to do so again.  It would be nice to screw them over, though; a firm kick in the teeth for all the love and affection over the years.

     “Doctor Hawlorne,” Captain PureLife came back, “what assurance do you offer for your side of this…bargain?”

     “How about this?” I said, feeling giddy inside.  “You give me a call on the first of October, perhaps at a more reasonable hour.  If my lab is still running, I will send you one location and project that you don’t currently know about.  How does that sound?”

     There was no hesitation, this time.  “I look forward to speaking with you on October first, Doctor Hawlorne.”

     So will I, I thought, so will I.

#

Old Henry’s Pub ‘n’ Grub, 8:31pm, October 19, 2087

“Mike, is there any particular reason why you’ve chosen this…place?” Morgan was laughing.

     “There is, Morgan,” I replied cheerfully.  “It was the last place I could remember going out to eat before I went into my little seclusion.  I admit it has lost some of the charm I remembered, but the beer is still cheap and the ambiance, well…”

     Morgan and I looked over the place.  Of course, I had already been there for ten minutes, but the second look was amusing.  The place was one of those originally a sports bar turned family restaurant turned karaoke bar turned cookie cutter franchise bar turned pseudo-authentic pub kind of places; and it had seen better days.  Most of the tables had been carved into with all the eloquence of a typical, knife-wielding patron.  Luckily, I had found a spot in the corner with a less mutilated table and balanced chairs.  The lighting was fairly low, probably hiding certain failings from the cleanup crew.  The walls had been painted a burgundy colour with a line of wooden trim about halfway up.  The bar had a matching set of brass rails along the top edge and foot rest.  The mirrored wall behind the bar, sporting innumerable types of alcohol, had lost a bit of shine from years of cleaning.  A couple of illuminated beer advertisements cut through the dim haze of synthetic tobacco smoke.  Some of the patrons looked like the type to rob you on the street.

     “It’s not the nicest place,” Morgan said, testing his chair before sitting down.

     “Yeah, I guess so.  Did you want to go somewhere else?”

     “No,” he said, smiling, “I’m probably overdue for a place like this.”

     The waitress had made her way over, and I hoped she hadn’t listened to our conversation.  She was a cute, young blonde with a bit too much makeup and a provocative outfit; late October seemed a bit cold for a short skirt and tight tee shirt.  A girl like that was clearly aware of how gratuities worked.  She was easy on the eyes, but I couldn’t help noticing the crooked nose.  It looked like it had been broken.

     “Can I getchya somethin’, honey?” she asked Morgan, barely a second after he was seated.

     Morgan took a quick look her way, and I could tell he noticed the nose, too.  “I’ll, uh…have one of those,” he said, pointing to my beer.

     “You got it, darlin.’” she said in her perky little voice.  She was pleasant to look at as she walked back to the bar.  Broken nose and all, I found her attractive in a fleeting, meaningless way.  Too much time in a lab, I guess.

     “What the hell are you drinking, exactly?” Morgan whispered.

     “I believe she called it Jagerhundt,” I said, trying to pronounce the name in German.  “I just asked for the best stuff they had and she brought me this.  It’s actually pretty good, but I’m not much of a judge.  This is my first alcoholic beverage in…shit, it must be three years.”

     “That’s quite an endorsement; you should have gone into marketing.”

     “And it’s a good thing you stayed out of comedy,” I said, trying hard not to watch the waitress returning.

     “There y’are,” she declared with a wink, “I think you’ll like it.”  I didn’t even bother trying not to watch her leave.  Morgan stayed quiet as I watched her go.

     “I have to admit I’m really excited,” he said.  “Whatever you’ve been working on must be amazing.”

     “It is, Morgan.  I’m also excited, and the final test has yet to be conducted.  Even if it fails, I regret nothing; the advances I’ve made will be passed along.”

     “You make it sound like you’re ninety, Mike,” Morgan sipped his beer, his face still deciding if he liked it.  “I know your career is in a pinch, but you have lots of time to recover.  And maybe a fresh start will is just what you need.”

     I couldn’t tell him yet, so I smiled and drank.  I knew I would have to be a little careful with how I worded things until I aired it all out.  “I suppose.”

     “So, while we’re on the topic of work, what is it you need me to do?” he inquired.

     “Not a lot, really,” I explained.  “Mostly, I need you to observe and record.  Depending on how the test progresses, I might need you to monitor some of the equipment and make minor adjustments to the settings.  It will be straightforward.”

     “Very mysterious, Mike,” he chuckled.  “How long will the test take?”

     “That’s completely open-ended.  If the experiment goes poorly at the beginning, we will be finished very early, like an hour or less.  If the experiment is a wild success, we will be tied up for the whole day, and possibly beyond.  Don’t worry, though, I will try to have you home for supper.”

     “That’s okay, Mike,” Morgan assured me, “you have me for all of tomorrow, even through supper.  My schedule has been easier to rearrange that I thought.”

     “Oh, how’s that?” I asked, even though I had suspicions of why.

     “Well, you remember that Chinese lab that was driving me forward?  It turns out they were doing work, very unofficially, for none other than your precious Regeneratix.  Nobody would have known, except that those PureLifers got wind of it and burned the place down.  So it’s not that I’m coasting, but the immediate pressure is off.”

     “That’s good news,” I said, hiding my smile by taking a slug of beer.  “Those PureLife types must have good sources.  You are probably the only one doing meaningful research in that specific area.”

     “Basically, yes, but to change the subject, why have you asked me here tonight?  I thought we’d be reviewing some notes or covering my side of things for tomorrow.  Now you’re telling me I’m mostly observing.  What’s really going on here?”

     Morgan was a shrewd cookie; he already suspected there was more to my research.

     “I need to leave a couple of things with you, Morgan,” I said.  “Before I go too far, I also need you to sign this for me.  There’s nothing freaky about it, just something to cover my bases, down the road.”  I handed the envelope to him.

     “Hard copy.  Very official.”  Mike pulled out the contents and squinted his way through reading them over in the poor light.

     “The nondisclosure thing is legal crap for Regeneratix, really.  Because you’re not a permanent employee of the lab, I need you to sign it.  It covers me against another of the million pieces of legal shrapnel I’ll have to dodge.  The other paper authorises you to deal with my lawyer, in case of emergency.”

     “Emergency?” he raised an eyebrow.  “Like what, the sky falling?”

     “Or tripping and falling on a sharp pencil; that sort of thing.”

     “Interesting,” he mumbled.

     “There’s also another envelope there, but don’t open it.  It’s a compilation of notes regarding cellular regeneration and stabilization in neural systems, and a hodgepodge of other stuff you might find useful in your own research.  If things go badly for me, it’s all yours.”

     “Wouldn’t it all be Regeneratix property by then?” Morgan asked.  He looked like a kid at Christmas who had been given the wrong present, knew it, but wanted to open it, anyway.

     “That stuff is fringe material, not quite worth a patent,” I said.  “You could put it to use without citing it because anyone could have discovered the information with enough work.  Anyway, it might not be that useful to you, so don’t thank me yet.”

     “Okay,” he said, producing a pen and signing the agreement, “are there any other things you wanted to go over before we adjourn?”

     “Not specifically.  I have a few odds and ends to update you on.  I’ve modified some of the equipment, mainly to keep it on par with the current stuff, so I’ll need to go over that with you.  It’s nothing too outrageous.  My testing method is peculiar, by current standards, but it works.”

     “Has Regeneratix given you specific expectations,” he asked, finishing his JagerHundt, “or are you working to your own standard?”

     “A little bit of both.  There are some tangential aspects to my final product that definitely fall outside of my corporate arrangement, but that’s okay.  Considering my current situation and the adjustments I’ve had to make, they can fuck themselves if they don’t like it.”

     That got both of us laughing.  It felt like old times, and that was good.

     “You boys like another one?” our waitress asked on her approach.  She moved nicely and I couldn’t help but smile appreciatively.

     “I think we would,” I said, ignoring Morgan’s protesting look.