24/4/2011

“So are you guys really in the army?” Alex asked as we stepped into the building.

“Nah, we’re just two wild and crazy guys fresh out of high school,” James replied from behind me, his confidence returned now that he was in his natural element of talking to hot chicks. I was staring up at the machine that dominated the open space that filled most of the building.

It was about ten metres long, a rough cylinder made out of gleaming pipes and spheres. A hatch had opened in the side, and some sort of pod was swung out on an arm. I probably don’t need to describe the pod, really. The professor always was a bit of a traditionalist about these sorts of things. The lid was crystal or glass, a transparent half-cylinder covering the liquid-filled interior. Two metal bands strapped across the top, one approximately halfway along its length, the other closer to one end. In other words, they were at genital and nipple height on the body inside, for the benefit of any cameras.

“OK, what the hell is this all about?” I asked, projecting my voice into the centre of the building. It would probably seem odd to someone who didn’t know the professor that I wasn’t worried about the guy in the tank. Well, I was, but I knew there would be some sort of explanation. Prolonged exposure to the professor is an excellent method of immunization against surprise.

“Dude… think he’s dead?” James said, tilting his head to the coldly-lit tube.

“No. I’m… not entirely sure he was ever alive.”

“Technically false, Mr Masters, but certainly a step in the right direction. Our dear Mr Darwin might not be breathing, but his heart is making thirty beats per minute and on a cellular level he is positively lively.” The professor was wiping his hands on a forest green silk handkerchief, and tottering towards us. His appearance of decrepitude was largely an act, of course, but probably not for our benefit; a grey suit stuffed with some sort of bureaucrat was walking a few steps behind him.

“What exactly are these gentlemen wearing, Corporal?” the suit’s occupant said, as though – a happy thought – Alex had been personally responsible for dressing us.

“Hawaiian shirts and board shorts, sir,” she replied, her husky voice suddenly underlain with steel, and I think a little contempt, though that might just have been me projecting.

“Oh, do lay off, Crenshaw. Are you really that much of a civilian? They’re wearing brightly coloured shirts – decorated with guns and knives, I see-“

“Thought it might be appropriate, professor,” James piped up, as though he’d been the one who’d found them.

“…and it is, after all, the height of summer, when only someone with a stick so far up their ass all their food has a distinct woody flavour would possibly consider wearing a suit, and only a CIA desk jockey trying to look professional in the field would do so with a walkie-talkie in his pocket to make it look like he has a gun.” The professor, you see, was regarded as something of an asset for the whole of the Western World, which meant that he could be as abrasive and rude as he liked, a situation which suited him immensely. “Now, shall we explain to them what this is all about?”

“Let me guess. Human cloning?” James was being flip, to reinforce his own confidence, but he also had to know what effect it would have on me…

“Can’t be. First off, that can be done without all this… machinery, and secondly, you’d get a foetus, not a full-grown adult.” Pedantic was the case they gave me.

“OK, smartass, what do you think it is?” He grinned at me, the one-sided corner-grin he used for challenging people.

“Uh… well…”

“Come on, now, Will, spit it out,” the professor encouraged me. “Don’t be shy.”

I looked again at the device. Sure, it looked complex enough for it, but did we know enough to make it happen? I kept my eyes fixed on a ring-shaped device near the top of the tangle as I spoke, steadying myself by avoiding the eyes of others.

“I think it’s a resurrection machine.”

No one laughed, and that was when I knew I was right. I looked down from the machine. Alex was leaning against a corner of it with her arms crossed, looking at me with perhaps a hint of respect. James, of course, had realised it was true as soon as he saw the others’ reactions, and was looking at the machine now with renewed interest, though still glancing from time to time down to where Alex was standing. The professor was congratulating me, in that calm, affable, old-world way he has, and Crenshaw interrupted him to ask me how I knew. All of this happened in a bit of a blur. I mean… a resurrection machine?

“You called the guy in the tank Mr Darwin, professor, and… well, he looks like the young portrait of Charles Darwin.” As I finished speaking, the professor chuckled.

“Trust you to know the face of a man dead more than a century, Will. Though, of course, you resemble him a fair bit yourself, so perhaps that gave you an edge.”

“So… it actually works?”

“Well, we won’t actually know for certain for another three weeks, but all indications are that it does indeed work quite well. With luck, we should be decanting Mr Darwin by the end of January.”

I looked down into the tank. The fluid was circulating gently, and the thin, sandy-blond hair covering the scalp of the… body… was swaying like willow branches in the breeze.

“He does look kind of like you,” Alex told me. It was true, though my hair was a little thicker and my cheeks a little less plump.

“Oh, yes. I didn’t actually have a copy of Darwin’s genes lying around, so I used yours, since you look quite a bit like him in any case. It only took a little tweaking to give him a body he’d be familiar with. I hope you don’t mind?” The professor was casual about it. Someone who didn’t know him might think he was almost being mocking. I straightened up and looked at him, not really sure what to say. He makes these assumptions… but if he’d asked, I’d have said yes.

“Ok, let’s take a little break and compare notes. Start from the top, kind of thing, so that I actually have some idea what’s going on.” James gave his disarming grin, the one that almost makes me think he might actually be innocent in some cases, which gives you some idea of the effect it has on people who don’t know him.

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