George Lazenby stared intently at the diagnostic monitor mounted on the wall.
He swallowed down the rising wave of unease which rose within him, the clouding veil of uncertainty creeping over his conscious mind as he searched the results for any sign of defect or anomaly.
To his dismay, there was none to be found. At least, not yet.
“You seem disconcerted Doctor,” a smooth, silky voice remarked from behind him.
He froze as his mind raced to find the words to explain away his intense concern.
“Is this not the result we spoke of those many years ago when I first funded your research?” the voice enquired softly, yet seemed much closer than it had before.
He turned about with a conscious effort to mask his concern behind a professional, austere expression.
“It is,” he replied and quickly licked his lips which felt parched and dry.
His patient broke into a broad, satisfied smile.
“Mr Van Harmann, I must allude to some concern over your intent to leave.”
The smile quickly dissipated and a frown clouded the patient’s face.
“The results I have from our initial tests show that …”
He fell into silence as his patient made tutting noises and lifted a finger to theatrically wag back and forth in clear view, the man’s frown easing as he shook his head slightly.
“Tests, tests, tests,” Van Harmann muttered reproachfully as he took a few steps across to where George stood and rested his already upraised hand upon the doctor’s left shoulder.
George flashed a glance at the hand, then his gaze tracked along the man’s arm to eventually meet the level stare he was in receipt of.
“You scientist types are always harping on about tests when the bold among us grasp opportunity when it rears its head and move on with the business of taking advantage of matters.”
“There’s still a chance of rejection,” George protested but felt the hand on his shoulder grip a little tighter.
“I am sure your work is exemplary doctor,” Van Harmann soothed. “Have we not enjoyed success in the past with our test subjects?”
George nodded in reluctant agreement.
It was too soon. Van Harmann intended to leave. He had to make the man understand the risks.
“Indeed we have, but they were restricted to this controlled environment where we could intercede should anything untoward happen. We know too little about the long-term prospects for this experiment and I would strongly advise against your intention to consider this transition permanent. At least for now.”
The hand sharply withdrew from his shoulder as Van Harmann glared at him for a moment in silence, then turned away and stalked across the laboratory toward the upright, long rectangular casket that dominated the centre of the room.
“I have very little choice to do otherwise,” Van Harmann snarled back at him as he worked the catch which held the transparent lid closed. The catch snapped open and he hauled the lid open ferociously as one would throw open a door in a fit of rage. He turned on his heel to face Doctor Lazenby across the laboratory and pointed sharply at the figure strapped to the upright gurney within the casket.
“Is this what you wish me to return to?” he growled.
George shook his head slightly and swallowed hard, his eyes averted from the grisly image.
“Look at it doctor. Take a good look at the injuries I had to endure and try to imagine the excruciating pain which screamed through my mind as I fought to make it to safety. To here.”
George glanced up to the disfigured duplicate of the man who now stood beside the casket.
No. Not the duplicate. The original. The figure strapped to the gurney in the casket was Augustus Van Harmann, yet the horrific injuries to his face and neck badly marred the handsome appearance he had once sported.
“When you came to me with this proposal all those years ago, I recall you had already been turned away by the Venusian Science Council due to ethical quandaries over your research methods. Yet I saw the potential in your work and allowed you to work uninterrupted in this facility, with all the necessary funding and raw material required to bring this outcome to fruition.”
“But the accelerated cloning process…the digital transference of consciousness…we are still in such early stages…”
Van Harmann brought both hands up before him and seemed to examine their backs, then turned them about to glare intently at his palms before he levelled his gaze at George once more.
“I would say your work has been a complete success,” he remarked haughtily, “and your concerns are unfounded as I feel wonderful. Indeed, the dull ache in my right knee no longer exists.”
George stepped forward in a last desperate hope to make his patient see sense.
Van Harmann was right, of course. He would never have achieved this stage without the man’s patronage but all of his efforts to date would come to nothing if anything happened to the man who now sought to continue on with business as if he’d not undertaken such a highly experimental procedure.
It was essential to his work, to the project, that Van Harmann was kept alive.
“I’m not suggesting that you revert to your old body as a matter of permanence, but only that we are allowed to conduct more tests to make sure that this new one is fit enough to sustain you. There’s so much we still don’t know…”
He watched with rising desperation as Van Harmann shrugged and walked over to the long workbench that adorned one whole wall of the laboratory, seemingly quite intrigued by the vast array of instruments that were laid out upon its surface.
“When I came to you originally I had a theory, and it’s true that my work would never have come this far without your help. The process of creating a digital version of a living mind is not new to our level of technological achievement and it is well documented that those digital recreations have aided in many aspects of society after their mortal bodies have been disposed of. Why, even the head of Aries is a testament to that fact.”
Van Harmann visibly stiffened and flashed him a ferocious glare.
“How dare you mention that false effigy…”
“Please, please,” George quickly spluttered and held out his hands in a placating gesture, “I meant nothing by it. I’m simply trying to explain that our science in the digitisation field seemed to reach those heights and then stall due to protestations from lifers. Those people who wish to drag us back within the mortal boundaries that define our very existence.”
Van Harmann huffed and returned to his examination of the items laid out before him.
“You’ve allowed me to continue that field into the realms of cheating our natural clock. To prepare new bodies into which we can download those very digital engrams. Think of the possibilities if we’d possessed this technology at the time of Einstein, or Hawking. Think of what discoveries those great minds would’ve made had they been able to step beyond the clammy grasp of death.”
“I am still unclear as to what this all has to do with my return to that mutilated corpse,” Van Harmann muttered as he turned from the workbench and gestured toward his old body in the casket. “Although I am not unaware of the dangers posed to your work should I cease to exist. The spotlight of morality would certainly be unpleasant for you to endure as your achievements were exposed and your good self imprisoned for unsanctioned research on live subjects.”
Van Harmann strolled back toward the casket and stared at the horrendously scarred face he’d once worn.
“Aries would undoubtedly catalogue and store your research for its own, to be continued when they’d tilted opinion in their favour and most certainly without any involvement from you. No, my good doctor, you will most probably end your days fighting for scraps of food deep within the tunnels of Thule where they will imprison you for the painful remainder of your natural life.”
George licked his lips slowly as a frown furnished his brow.
It did seem that Van Harmann understood the dangers to the entire project if its patron was to die, especially if it became apparent that his death was as a result of an experimental procedure.
He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was missing a vital detail.
The Martian stood by the casket always made him feel uncomfortable, yet now as he looked upon the rejuvenated form of Van Harmann he couldn’t help but shudder slightly as an eerie sense of menace crept over him. Something was horribly wrong.
His mouth fell open in utter horror as Van Harmann casually reached out and sliced open the throat of his former body, the scalpel he had appropriated from the workbench slicing deep into the soft tissue.
“Sadly, I believe my old form has developed a defect which prevents any prospect of return,” the Martian remarked in a tone that was altogether too calm and casual.
Warning tones sounded from the life support systems that were attached to the casket as they struggled to stabilise the stricken body within.
“What have you done?” George yelled as he ran forward to try to stem the flow of blood that oozed from the deep gash but Van Harmann intercepted him.
He gripped the scientist’s arm tightly as he swept around him in a fluid movement, the hand wielding the bloodied scalpel now coming to rest against George’s throat as Van Harmann came up close behind him, the Martian’s mouth mere inches from his ear.
“Calm yourself Doctor. I’ve done nothing more than dispose of something that was no longer necessary.”
George swallowed hard as he was held tight in the Martian’s threatening grasp. The fine edge of the scalpel pressed in against his flesh, biting slightly as he tried to hold as still as possible.
“I need you to continue your work, Doctor Lazenby. Despite all your concerns I am quite fit and well, but feel the need for you to prepare further duplicates of this body I now wear using the techniques you have so cleverly perfected. Should dire circumstances befall me, I can rest assured that you will use your skills to repeat this procedure and return me to life.”
George nodded slowly and steadily, relief flooding through him as the threatening bite of the scalpel blade withdrew from his throat and Van Harmann released him from the tight embrace.
His right hand caressed the spot on his neck almost instinctively as he sucked in a few deep breaths.
There was blood on his palm as he drew his hand away.
He swung about and stared incredulously at Van Harmann, only to receive a wry grin in reply.
“As long as you remain necessary my good Doctor, that is the most harm I shall inflict and I will ensure your work and good self remain away from the spotlights of the Science Council. We’re doing great things here, Doctor Lazenby. Never lose sight of that.”
He nodded subtly as he watched Van Harmann leave the laboratory.
The slight cut on his throat stung as if to act as a reminder of what lay in store should he disobey.
He turned slowly and stared into the lifeless body of Van Harmann strapped within the casket, his mind filled with the horror he’d watched unfold as the Martian callously disposed of his old self as casually as he would an item of clothing that had outlived its usefulness.
The argument made by the Lifers sprang into his mind, that people lost some part of themselves once they’d become digital entities. Although he scoffed at their claims of a soul and it being the unique element that no technology could replicate, he had to confess that he’d noted a change in the man who’d sponsored all his work to date.
Maybe there was something that was left behind?
Some element of humanity that didn’t translate into a horde of 1’s and 0’s within the digital realm.
He reached out and closed the lid of the casket slowly, staring into the corpse of the man he’d known. The man who’d made him uneasy but never filled him with such dread as he’d felt from the new version.
Maybe they still had much to learn before anyone else used the technology.
Before anyone else was duplicated like Van Harmann.
He turned away slowly.
He had much work ahead of him.
George Lazenby stared intently at the diagnostic monitor mounted on the wall.