|THE LAST ARCHIVE|
by Simon Bleaken
Bathed in the harsh white glare of a surgical lighthead, Adam O’Donoghue screamed as spinning metal drill tips bore into his skull with a shrill whine. He fought against the growing paralysis of his body and the thick restraints that likewise held him immobile. Those restraints seemed like overkill considering the cocktail of drugs he had been given, drugs that had turned his limbs to lead weights, yet left him fully conscious and alert to every agonising sensation. As the drills continued their work, Adam’s body jerked.
“Steady,” the gaunt face of Doctor Thanner cautioned, pressing a restraining hand on Adam’s chest. Blood sprayed in the air, casting a sanguine sheen across the mask and visor the doctor wore. He turned to the surgical assistant lurking at his left shoulder. “Increase the dose of halsrezine for the next subject. Subjects are retaining far too much mobility. We don’t want another accident.”
Adam screamed again, fingers digging into the surgical bed with enough force to tear nails. Blood trickled down his face, soaking the collar of the grey jumpsuit he wore. Foaming spittle frothed at his lips.
“You’re doing so well,” Thanner flashed a cold smile. “You must forgive that I couldn’t sedate you for this. I need fully conscious subjects to gauge the results accurately.”
The medical computer beeped and the drills ceased, retracting bloody bits now encrusted with bone shavings. With a faint whirring two green electrodes were carefully fed into the cranial holes and the computer confirmed that a successful connection had been made with the brain.
Adam was silent now. He lay still, save for the occasional faint shiver running through his body, the odd twitch of a foot or finger. His eyes were open, glazed and sightless. Foaming drool hung from his chin like a frothy white goatee, and the crotch of his jumpsuit had darkened where his bladder had voided.
“We require a stronger connection or we’re going to lose this one too.” Thanner sighed irritably, checking the readings. “Fetch the bone saw.”
“There might be another way,” the assistant spoke up sheepishly. “It’s, uh, something of an oversight.”
“Hurndell?” Thanner raised an eyebrow, his lips pressed into an impatient white line.
“It seems there is a sister—a twin, here, at the Archive,” Hurndell’s quavering tone was somewhere between grovelling and terror. “I apologise, I know you expressly asked to be notified if…”
“A twin?” Thanner mused, narrow mouth twitching into a smile. “That would be perfect. Fetch her.”
“So, you no longer require the saw?”
Thanner’s face, when he smiled fully from behind the blood-spattered visor, was ghoulish. “Until the sister arrives, we’ll carry on as planned.”
It was always dark on Nyx. Outside the high walls of the Archive, the pitted rust-red landscape shifted ominously in eternal twilight, lit only by the few solar emissions that broke like shimmering aurorae through the churning clouds roiling in the sky. Occasionally the twin moons Thanatos and Erebus were visible, circling high in the heavens like pale eyes, but it was rare when such a spectacle was permitted. The twilight that blanketed the landscape likewise concealed the squirming forms that occasionally crawled into view, drawn weakly towards the bright windows of the Archive like moths to a flame, seeking the promise of warmth and food, their dying bodies ravaged by the toxic atmosphere eating away at them, and their faces weeping masses of open sores.
Deep inside the protective walls of the Archive, within the mess hall on the fourth level, Jenny O’Donoghue sighed, running a hand through her hair. A headache was forming; lack of sleep and food coupled with the stresses of the long shifts she had been assigned. She cast a disgusted glance at the cold cup of coffee substitute and the congealed pile of protein matter #75 on the tray, and decided she’d rather endure the headache and the hunger. The coffee substitute was bitter and gritty and left an unpleasant residue in her mouth, and the slimy protein matter was like swallowing cheese-flavoured vomit.
She hated the Archive. The lights were too bright, the food virtually inedible, and the standard issue shapeless grey jumpsuits were itchy, unflattering and smelled of the astringent detergents they were washed in. But, it was still better than life in the processing stations, where those tasked with mining the rich mineral wealth of this desolate world worked and lived. Those stations were often improperly shielded and poorly maintained, and those assigned there generally burned out fast. Any whose bodies succumbed or fell ill to atmospheric poisoning were exiled to the surface. As horrible as that sounded, it was still a mercy compared to the incurable lingering death that awaited them if they remained—or so the daily Government announcements assured everyone. It would be at least two decades before the surface of Nyx would be habitable, but none of those toiling in the under-levels would be alive to see that.
Nyx wasn’t much of a home, but it was the best that those who couldn’t afford to live on the wealthy colonised worlds could hope for. Terraformers got free food and board, the only catch being they had to work hard for their supper, in conditions often lethal in the long run. The Archives were a relatively new enterprise though, a Government sanctioned project for all worker-class citizens with an above average IQ. Three such Archives had been constructed on worlds currently undergoing terraforming: Nyx, Apate and Moros. The placement of the Archives was an obvious ploy to keep unnecessary worker-class citizens from the rich core worlds; the elite wanted their worlds to remain exclusive, with strict controls on the levels of workers permitted there. But, that aside, most agreed the goals of the project were worthy ones; to restore and catalogue the sum of human knowledge and history, to keep the fading past from becoming entirely lost. Once, long ago, that knowledge had been readily accessible via books and computers, just waiting for the tips of curious fingers or the probing of enquiring minds. The Great War had changed all that, decimating the Earth and many of her colonies. The survivors and their descendants, now several generations along, were desperately trying to piece together all that had been lost from surviving fragments, like a crazy jigsaw puzzle with no easy edges to define it.
There were some in the Archive who wondered whether the undertaking was worth it, questioning just how much value it would bring to their current existence. Jenny, however, felt it was one of the few good decisions the Government had made. The future was built and shaped by the past. She believed they could only see where they were going if they remembered where they had come from. It also helped with the survivor guilt she felt when thinking about those not lucky enough to get into the Archive, those now toiling in extreme conditions that were slowly poisoning them, those with halved life expectancies, or none at all, like the ravaged corpses crawling the wilderness outside, not yet aware they were already dead.
A klaxon sounded, marking the start of the afternoon shift, and Jenny wondered idly where Adam was. She hadn’t seen her brother since her last rotation had ended. She assumed he must be working overtime, if so, then he’d foolishly bought into the rumour that it would grant him access to Tier Two accommodation, including real coffee, milk and fruit. Tier Two living sounded wonderful, the trouble was, Jenny was pretty sure it was just a lie, something designed to squeeze more productivity out of an already fatigued workforce. After all, they’d never met anyone who had ever achieved it. Every now and then people left the Archive, of course. There were frequent routine transfers to other facilities, or at least that’s what they were told. Lately, rumours had started that no transports had left Nyx in quite some time, even though half a dozen workers had allegedly been transferred in the last two months alone.
Her train of thought was interrupted as she realised that two people had stopped next to her table. Glancing up, she found herself confronted by the grim, sallow faces of two Facilitators, their darker grey jumpsuits etched with green at the collars and cuffs. Behind them two stocky Protectors watched sullenly from across the room, intimidating in their scuffed blue combat clothing and with tasers in easy reach at their belts.
“You will accompany us, Miss O’Donoghue,” the first Facilitator said flatly.
“Where are we going?” Jenny asked.
“You’ll find out when we arrive.”
“Have I done something wrong?”
She opened her mouth to ask another question, but saw the second Facilitator gesture towards the Protectors who started to advance across the room. At that, Jenny quickly rose, doing her best to offer a reassuring smile. “Lead the way.”
The feeling of being a condemned prisoner marching to the gallows hung over her during the walk through the echoing, labyrinthine hallways. She ignored the whispering, concerned faces that peered from doorways as they passed. She was determined to hide her terror, to refuse to give anyone the satisfaction of seeing it on her face—or worse yet, to allow her dignity to fall away and become an object of pity. Finally, after what seemed an endless march through those stark hallways, they stopped outside a non-descript metal door on the eighth floor.
“Inside,” the Facilitator barked, swiping his ID tag across the sensor, and Jenny obeyed as the doors slid open. She expected the others to follow her in, but the door closed quickly at her back, leaving her in an ante-chamber filled with the low thrumming drone of computers and equipment.
“O’Donoghue?” A voice asked. Jenny started, then realised there was a tall reedy man dressed in surgical scrubs standing beside a door on the far side of the room.
“Yes,” she forced the word out of a throat that felt too dry to function.
“Follow me,” he said, moving through the doorway and motioning for her to follow.
Jenny hesitated for only a second before complying. As she stepped inside she noticed the edges of the room were dimly lit, but a bright surgical light cast a dazzling white circle onto the heart of the room, and upon a figure lying in a bed there. Two men in scrubs—one of whom was the man she had followed inside—were standing off to one side, both watching her with interest.
“We’ve reviewed your test scores,” the reedy man announced, his fingers danced over a nearby computer console and the screen above it lit up with information. “You scored very highly on the aptitude and intelligence tests. We should have recruited you for the project long ago. An oversight that will be dealt with,” he added, casting a contemptuous glare at the other man.
“I don’t under…” Jenny began, but fell silent when she realised who was lying in the bed. It was Adam, motionless, still held in the embrace of the now redundant restraints. His face was a mask of streaked blood, and the open top of his skull bristled with wires and cables, all plugged directly into the pale mass of his quivering brain. Two connectors had been drilled directly into the side of his head and these fed into to a large whirring computer on the far side of the room. A smell vaguely like cooking meat pervaded the air.
“Adam!” Jenny raced to his side, eyes wide. “What have you done to him?”
“Oh, just a little side project of the Archive,” the reedy man smiled, showing too many teeth. “One we require your assistance with. My name is Doctor Samael Thanner, and…”
“His head!” Jenny bolted around the bed in a frantic panic, gripping her brother’s limp arm as she stared in horror at the wires sprouting out of the opened skull before her. “You can’t do this!”
Thanner sighed impatiently. “Do try to be calm.”
“Calm?” Jenny’s body shook with shock and fury. “You bastard! Look what you’ve done! I’ll…”
Her words were cut short as Hurndell stepped up behind her and clamped a cloth soaked in an anaesthetic agent over her mouth and nose. As she slumped to the floor Thanner’s toothy smile flashed again.
“Thank goodness for that. Let’s get her ready for when she wakes up, shall we?”
At first, Jenny couldn’t understand why she was unable to move. There was pain too, stabbing through her head like burning knives. She blinked groggily as the room slipped into focus from the bright blur it had been moments before, and then she remembered. Adam. Panic jolted through her, she tried to sit up, but her muscles refused to obey and something heavy lay across her chest, pinning her down.
“Back with us, I see?” Thanner crooned, leaning over her, all teeth and staring eyes.
“Wha…?” Her throat felt like sandpaper. Even the act of speaking turned the pain in her skull into a raging inferno.
“What have I done?” Thanner’s smiled widened. His eyes sparkled like ice crystals. “I have connected your mind to your brother’s. He’s in the bed to your right, though still unconscious. Think of it like wiring two supercomputers together. Twins are such remarkable specimens.”
Her breathing and heart-rate quickened, eyes widened.
“Oh no, not like that,” he waved a hand with a chuckle. “Your cranium is intact, well, mostly. Two little holes, you’ll barely notice them. And,” he seemed to grow particularly animated, his face glowing with excitement, “we are getting some fascinating readings already.”
“You…” she had to force the words past her lips. “Drilled…?”
“Think of it, you are both at the forefront of a bold new venture for the human race. You will give birth to a whole new branch of science.”
She fought past the anguish and the panic, the slick, greasy terror now slithering up from deep within and the blazing white points of hot fire burning at her temples. “Why?” she croaked hoarsely.
“To unlock dormant potential, of course,” the grin widened until it seemed those lips would split. “We stand at the threshold of the next stage in human evolution.”
“You’re… crazy,” she rasped.
“Don’t confuse genius for madness, just because you are too limited to see the greater picture,” he said, the grin fading. “Carl Jung postulated that all members of the same species have access to an inherited genetic memory, one that holds our deep-seated instincts, knowledge and beliefs. He called it the Collective Unconscious, or the Objective Pysche. It is a part of our deepest unconscious mind, not something shaped by individual personal experience.”
“What does… that have to do with preserving history?” Jenny frowned. She regretted it instantly as pain flooded her skull; it felt like her head might crack in two.
“Did you know spiders are born knowing how to spin webs?”
“I believe the unconscious human brain holds more than anyone has ever truly realised. I believe it a genetic store of our memories and history too, of every impulse and piece of knowledge we have ever learned or experienced. Our understanding of the human brain is woefully under-developed. I plan to change that, and to liberate its potential.”
“We’re ready to begin administering the compound,” Hurndell interrupted.
“Ah, excellent. You’ll like this next part,” Thanner beamed excitedly. “This experimental compound will unlock the evolutionary bolts restricting your brain.”
Whatever drugs they had pumped into her system hadn’t entirely paralysed her, she realised, as she flexed her fingers. She tried to shift her position, bracing herself for the pain, and found she could wriggle ever so slightly. Her gaze drifted to the surgical tray and the scalpel lying on it. It might be in reach, if only she could distract them, delay them from starting their experiment.
“I’ve heard… we only use ten percent of our brains…” she rasped. Either she was getting used to the pain, or natural endorphins were kicking in, because it was getting easier to speak.
“Nonsense,” he flicked a hand in a dismissive gesture as he turned to one of the display screens. “That theory has long been discarded. But that doesn’t mean the brain isn’t still mysterious or deeply misunderstood, nor does it negate the possibility that it holds far more than we ever imagined.”
She flexed her left hand and gently tried to move it. “You’re insane. Do you know that?”
“Growth is never insane, it is necessary for survival.”
“Like this? It’s… barbaric.” Her fingertips brushed the edge of the tray. She flicked her eyes back, but Thanner was still checking the medical readouts and oblivious to her actions.
“We hope minds with above average IQs might more easily access the store of unconscious human knowledge and experience.”
She struggled to stretch her fingers further, if she moved too much they would notice. “I thought we were archiving historical data.”
“That’s our secondary purpose, yes, but this is the true work.”
Her fingertips brushed the handle of the scalpel, and then the entire tray was whisked away without warning. Jenny glanced up to see Hurndell standing there. She had been so busy watching Thanner she had forgotten all about him.
“She was reaching for a scalpel,” he warned.
“Imbecile!” Thanner hissed like an angry cat. “I expressly told you to adjust the levels of halsrezine. We cannot have the patients squirming around like this.” Thanner marched over to the bed and glared down at Jenny. “I only require your brain. I can make the paralysis of your body permanent, if you insist.”
“You’ll discard us anyway, when you’re done. Like those zombies outside.”
“On the contrary, if this is successful, I envisage a long and useful career ahead of you.”
“As what, your prize freaks?”
“It’s clear there is no reasoning with you,” Thanner sighed. “Hurndell, administer the compound to both subjects now. I’ll monitor from here.”
Over Thanner’s shoulder, Jenny saw Hurndell seated at the controls of a softly flashing computer terminal, inputting instructions. At the same time she became aware of a faint hissing sound, as something was administered through one of the thin tubes connected to her brain.
“You may feel some discomfort,” Thanner advised.
The next moment the pain within her skull was mirrored by her entire body as the compound entered her. She threw back her head and screamed. The anguish was beyond anything she had known before—a white-hot agony like lava flowing through her veins, searing nerve endings to ash and consuming all rational awareness as it spread throughout her body. She bucked and thrashed, held fast by the straps that now cut into her body, hard enough to draw blood. Foaming froth bubbled from her lips and blood trickled in thin streams from her nostrils.
“Increase the dose by another three percent,” Thanner ordered.
“But, doctor—these readings!” Hurndell glanced up from screens now blinking red warning icons at him, whilst overhead an alarm sounded piercingly. “We have to stop…”
“Nonsense, we can’t back out now.”
“…or at least administer some pain relief? I’m worried we’ll trigger a myocardial infarction or a stroke. Their bodies simply can’t take this!”
Thanner cast a sharp glance at his anxious assistant, his thin brows knitted together in irritation. “Pain relief would impair the process. Keep going.”
Jenny thrashed again, her spine bucking off the bed as the tendons in her neck stuck out like cables. Her eyes were open, bulging, but were glazed and utterly sightless. Her foaming mouth yawned open in a soundless scream. Several teeth oozed wetly down her chin and onto the floor.
“Doctor, I really think you should see these readings!” Hurndell’s voice was rising anxiously.
Jenny bucked again. One of the thick restraints snapped with a sound like a gunshot. Thanner scurried back, eyebrows lifting in astonishment.
“Something’s wrong!” Hurndell called, his eyes wide in his face.
Thanner darted over, pushing Hurndell roughly aside as he stared at the readings that were flashing across the screens. “Not possible,” he muttered, his cold eyes darting from one screen to the next in disbelief. “This was not anticipated…”
“What was in that compound?” Hurndell asked fearfully.
On the table Adam and Jenny continued to convulse wildly. Their sightless eyes bulged and twitched. Their entire skin had taken on a slick, glistening look, and was becoming loose and fluid, like melting wax.
“What did we administer?” Hurndell demanded again. “Tell me!”
“Just an experimental compound, derived from several sources,” Thanner informed him, his eyes never leaving the readouts. “Mostly biochemical extracts, including some alien genetic material too. But this reaction is far stronger than anything we should be witnessing. Look at the structure of their polynucleotide chains! Why, the very atoms themselves appear to be mutating!”
“Yes, the sample included material extracted from blood parasites harvested in the tropical jungles of Peitho, and genetic material extracted from the worms of Suadela. Both species are able to alter and re-shape host DNA. It was then further modified to allow it to unlock the dormant…” Thanner broke off, staring at the screens in sudden realization. “The dormant elements,” he said softly, his former hubris fading as terror replaced it. “I fear we may have miscalculated.”
The flesh of the two people lying on the beds had started to bubble into thick white blisters that rose up from their semi-liquid flesh like expanding balloons. Strange half-formed appendages were now sprouting out of the twisting, glistening flesh, and strange thorny barbs were tearing up through the fabric of their clothing. In places the dripping skin looked scaly and reptilian.
“But, look at the speed of it,” Thanner gasped, his face a mask of shock. “How can the human body sustain and fuel such a rapid transformation? The cell growth and organ division alone should be impossible to maintain.”
Hurndell backed slowly towards the door. “What’s happening to them?”
“What we’re seeing is atavism running out of control. I believe the compound is somehow activating all of the dormant genetic material within the hosts. But on a scale and with a speed that should be physically impossible. Surely, such a reaction has to burn out soon, the body could never survive.”
The bubbling mass of cells that had been Jenny O’Donoghue poured onto the floor, flowing past the restraints, leaving the soaked and torn remnants of her clothing behind. She howled and screamed insanely, her sightless human eyes replaced by a single compound eye that peeled wetly open in what had previously been her forehead. With one swift motion she threw herself forward and lashed out with her arm—but the oddly boneless and plastically fluid limb that now whipped across the room to coil around Thanner’s thigh bore very little resemblance to its former state. Thanner screamed, tried to recoil, and then watched in horror as the alien limb fused with the flesh and cloth of his leg. He could actually feel those alien cells spreading beneath his skin, converting and combining with the new matter it encountered.
“It’s seeking… new genetic material!” Thanner called, as though still documenting his experiment. His flesh was liquefying just like the alien horror now quivering and bubbling on the laboratory floor before him. Dark pulsing veins crawled up the surface of his body, spreading over his arms and neck. “I’m being absorbed, combined… we’re fusing into…”
But Hurndell wasn’t listening. He turned, opened the lab door with a swipe of his access card—and then fell screaming onto his face as the seething mass of churning flesh that had been Adam flowed over him from behind.
Flickers of awareness flashed through the multi-lobed brain of the entity that had once been both Jenny and Adam O’Donoghue, but which now contained the minds and memories of half a dozen absorbed beings too. It oozed rapidly through the long hallways of the Archive, slipping groping tendrils through vent shafts and into access crawl-spaces and squeezing its growing bulk through the dormitories, rest rooms, libraries and mess halls, and breaking through locked doors where it found them. Any fleeing figures that tried to run or hide were swiftly snatched up as it hunted out fresh genetic material within the many levels of the Archive, driven by an instinct and a hunger that it couldn’t sate.
A few of the figures tried to slow it down with weapons—axes, projectile weapons and laser cutters, but the shifting amorphous flesh proved impervious to all forms of attack, and those bearing the weapons were soon rapidly incorporated into the entity themselves.
Deep inside the bulk of the developing gestalt consciousness, the tiny part that had once been Thanner was pleased, though he no longer possessed enough individual awareness to recognise himself as such. With each new individual they absorbed their knowledge, and understanding was growing rapidly, becoming a living collective repository for all of the knowledge, awareness and history of all those consumed.
It may not have been the planned method of expanding, collecting and preserving the knowledge of the species, but it was proving unexpectedly efficient all the same.