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Fiction

The Necromancer in Love

The young necromancer is a blight on the social landscape, because when his sweetheart meets with an untimely interruption of service (don’t they all? don’t they always?), he’s bound to do something the rest of us regret.

Class, listen. This is important. Put down your pencils, close your laptops, shut off your recorders and listen; we’ll get back to histopathology later. The information in this class can be misused, and we need to talk about that.

The necromancer is a person much like yourselves. Naive, desperate, he clutches at emotional straws while he sobs on his girlfriend’s blouse. She isn’t dead, he thinks, and there’s more than just denial in this thought. It’s the mitochondria, right? The power plants of the cell, these little bastards are obligate aerobes; a few minutes without oxygen will unravel them permanently.

All right, there are tissue-specific differences. Some tissues can be totally ischemic for hours and recover on reperfusion. Sadly, the brain and heart are not among these tissues, and when the power plants go belly up they also spill proteins that can trigger apoptosis, or cellular suicide. But executing that program also takes energy, which, under the circumstances, the cell doesn’t have. The influx of sodium and calcium ions, coupled with the efflux of potassium ions, has also caused neurons to swell but not burst. It’s a bit of a mess.

But aside from these niggling problems, the cell—every cell—is intact! The nucleus, the cytoskeletal transport networks, the endoplasmic reticulum dripping with ribosomal protein factories . . . that stuff won’t rot for at least a day, even at room temperature. It isn’t dead at all, any more than a city in the grip of a power failure is dead. Mitochondria take in oxygen, glucose, and a low-energy phosphate molecule called ADP. You’ve all had Biochem 210, right? You know mitochondria exhale CO2 and a high-energy phosphate called ATP, which is fuel for everything else. If you don’t know that, I suggest you start making alternate career plans.

Anyway. Everything else in the body is idled, sleeping, waiting for the kiss of energy to return it to life. And it will, vows the young man. By all he’s ever held dear, it will.

Young, naive, he begins with the basics: a bath of the fuel itself in a saturated solution of lactated ringers. Smelling like Gatorade and beef bouillon, it flows over that beautiful face, that beloved body now stripped of its tattered clothing. When she floats, as of course she must, he ties her down with weights.

And nothing happens. Hear that? Nothing happens; this thin, slimy broth doesn’t penetrate her openings, doesn’t pierce her skin and flow through. How could it? Reluctant, torn with anguish, the young man violates her with tubes, forcing the stuff inside her. And still nothing happens, because the osmotic potential of the ATP is insufficient to drive it across a trillion cell membranes.

Finally, he begins to really think about the problem. He pressurizes the tank to three atmospheres, then backs it off slightly when its groaning and creaking start to freak him out. Gut-shot with a popped rivet, he’ll be of no use to her, right? Next he switches on an ultrasonic cleaner, hoping the combination of vibration and pressure might force the ATP across some membranes.

Again nothing happens, but it’s a different sort of nothing. Are there subtle changes in her pallor, her rigor, her elan vital? Does she look perhaps a bit less like a doll, more like a living creature in some deep, deep coma? Through the murky white fluid it’s hard to say, and even in his raging grief he knows better than to trust his own judgment. He knows that much, yes.

But he’s encouraged, and from where the rest of us are standing, that’s a problem. No leash can hold him now.

For an hour he lets the potion work its way into her, and then he pops the tank seals and lifts her out. Apologizing, he hangs her from chains. First upside down, to drain the fluid from her lungs and stomach, and then in even less dignified ways, believing he must be thorough. There are so many places these chemicals don’t belong!

When it’s done he hoses her down with cold water and straps her to a table. The final touch: an electrical shock to kick-start the excitable membranes of the heart and nervous system. It’s not a gentle thing—two hundred joules, minimum, probably a lot more—and it leaves visible burns on her chest and forehead.

Does he really expect this to work? If you asked him, he’d certainly say so. “God, it has to. It ought to, yes. I’m not aware of any reason why it wouldn’t.”

Why, then, does he shriek and pull away when she opens her eyes? Maybe it’s just the look on her face—of shock, of bewildered agony and mute, animal fear. Has every pain nerve lit up? Has he created some unthinkable biohell inside that mortal shell? Her own scream is silent, and though she gasps in a single breath, the muscles of her face soon slacken, their fuel supply . . . depleted. She only absorbed a few seconds’ worth. Not even long enough to lay down a memory of what’s happened here.

“Holy crap,” says the young necromancer, his heart thumping so hard he can hear it clicking wetly in his throat. He’s seen her sad, excited, sleepy, bursting with pride and elation. He’s seen her drunk and asleep and even dead, but until this moment he’s never seen her in pain.

He takes her cold hand, presses his cheek against it earnestly. Gasping, sobbing, his eyes spilling over with tears. “I’m sorry, babe. I’m so . . . I’m sorry.”

This is going to be harder than he thought.

***

In every case, this much is certain: the necromancer has medical training, like all of you, and unquestioned access to certain materials. He’s known well enough by his peers that he can move around without drawing attention, but not so popular that people randomly poke their noses into his business.

Maybe he’s flunked out of his residency for cutting too many corners, for doing too many things his own way. Some of you should be paying attention to this! If he were truly brilliant his teachers might have cut him more slack, but he’s a creature of passion whose intellect runs hot and cold, or flickers like an old neon sign. Determination can only take him so far, and when he falls in love—really falls, for the first time in his life—something has to give. Spilled dreams pile up at his feet; he can’t bear any further loss, or believes he can’t. Won’t try, at any rate, and that’s the problem.

Maybe he works nights as a coroner’s assistant and days at a biotechnology company. He really does live alone in a big house, or else in one of those spacious, unfinished lofts you don’t see much anymore. The kind that actually are converted industrial space, not mahogany fakes custom built for urban yuppies.

His hobbies include sculpture and metalwork, and usually some kind of hands-on electrical thing. Could be ham radio, could be TiVo hacking, could be some exotic breed of digital photography. Thermal IR, Kirlian auras, something like that. Everyone has neighbors, everyone is seen, but this man’s neighbors are accustomed to strange comings and goings, to loud noises and flashes of light.

“Oh, that guy,” they say. “Yeah, he’s always doing stuff like that.”

Truthfully, whatever unease they feel about it is tempered with admiration and even envy, because the young necromancer is exactly the sort of rugged, handy, easy individualist every American is supposed to be, but few actually are. Sometimes he makes even his teachers feel inadequate, which is part of his problem. Eccentric and smug—not a good combination. Again, yes, some of you out there should be paying particular attention!

Computer people would call him a hacker. Scholars would call him dilettante. To soldiers he’d be “goofball” or “yardbird” or “wiseass,” and in politics or business he’d be a wildcard, a loose cannon. Not insulting terms, per se, but not trusting ones either.

Still. “He’s got a real pretty girlfriend,” the neighbors will tell you. “Must be doing something right.”

Yes, the girl is always pretty, always charming, always possessed of that peculiar mix of innocence and sexual precocity that no man can resist. Human nature, right? If she were dumpy and timid he’d get over it, but this one is the one; he’ll never do better, and he knows it.

Tragedies are always born of love.

***

It must feel strange to go out and leave her alone. His best girl naked, strapped to a table, not breathing! But he needs supplies, needs access to high-end equipment. Needs to show his face at work to avoid raising suspicion.

He’s cool about it, too, or he wouldn’t get far, and we wouldn’t still be talking about him. He nods to his colleagues, says a few words to them here and there, maybe not smiling but certainly not catatonic with grief. He passes muster; nobody spares him a second glance, even when he pulls a bacterial sample vial out of cryostorage, thaws it, throws a few bugs under the microscope and starts jabbing them with micropipettes, injecting God knows what.

Satisfied after a bit of chemical testing, he puts the engineered bacteria in a petri dish filled not with nutrient agar, but with a growth medium composed of living cells. You’re familiar? Yes? He tapes it shut, pulls it out through the glovebox airlock and slips it in his pocket, warm as any incubator. Rifling through cabinets, he pilfers drugs, needles, electronically operated valves, all sorts of things. He stuffs it all in a red nylon lunchbox and then, telling his disinterested coworkers he’s not feeling well, leaves early.

Before he goes home, though, he stops off at a medical supply store to pick up a few more items, things they don’t have at work or that he can’t just smuggle out under his jacket. A respirator, for example. A few liters of PolyHeme blood substitute tagged For Veterinary Use Only. An automated chest compressor we used to call the Pumper. Have you worked with those at all? Like a seat belt threaded through an electric laundry wringer. We see a lot less of them than we used to—part of the growing disillusionment with chest compression. Anyway, he gets more than he needs, much more than his revised plans actually call for. He’s partly impulse shopping, partly just making sure he’s ready for anything. He wasn’t a Boy Scout, but he does admire the ethic.

When he gets back home, his girlfriend looks exactly the same as when he left: cold, livid, extinguished. Shouldn’t she?

Grimly, he begins his work: harvesting the bacterial colonies, dissolving them in saline, injecting her with them. Crudely restarting her heart, her lungs, forcing the blood to circulate, to spread the pathogens around.

What are mitochondria, after all? Aerobic bacteria, swallowed by some larger cell a billion years ago and somehow, randomly, put to work rather than digested. And from there sprang all the plants and animals of the world, eh? All the amoebas and slime molds, all the fungi and protozoa.

Maybe we swallowed the wrong bug. Silly, fragile little things, they die without oxygen, but there are similar bacteria still alive in the world that don’t: the rickettsia, which burrow right into eukaryotic cells—living or dead—and set up shop. What if scrub typhus or Rocky Mountain spotted fever had its ATP production genes replicated ten times over? What if it found traction in a viable corpse? What if growth factors helped it multiply, spreading through all the cells of the body? Or most of the cells, or even some?

Only one way to find out, he thinks.

“Soon, baby. Just hang on a little while longer.”

***

Is there a soul, and if so, at what point does it depart the body? Can it be prevented? Chained? Pickled in place with formaldehyde? Make no mistake, we live in an Age of Horrors, where all kinds of things have become crudely possible. In thirty years’ time, necromancy may be a staple of emergency medicine. There may be textbooks and courses in it, warning against the unintended consequences of this or that. How to preserve the original personality, how to ward off impulse dysplasia and silence the Hungry Ghosts, how to avoid unleashing a zombie plague upon the land . . . death may one day take its place with “vapors” and “dropsy” and other quaint little disorders people simply don’t get anymore.

But we’re not there yet, hmm? Indeed, today’s education system errs on the side of suppression, of saying too little, of encouraging each young necromancer to believe he’s the first, the smartest, the only. And so we see the same patterns unfolding, again and again.

Don’t take notes, just listen.

Other things we know before we even meet him: he’s between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four. He plays chess but not football, although he’s usually strong enough, and often quite agile. He may well keep an online dream diary, and show a keen interest in lucid dreaming and dream control. As a child he was given to sleepwalking—a disorder which sometimes lasts into adulthood—and he probably still takes sleep medications of some kind.

He’s never homosexual, and rarely a smoker, but he has been convicted of, or pled guilty to, one criminal offense. Rarely two, for some reason. In more than fifty percent of cases, he also plays a musical instrument.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics home page logs fourteen instances of necromancy across the United States, mostly hidden away under “felony desecration of a corpse,” with a smattering of reckless endangerments and some panicky overtones of attempted bioterrorism. Not so many, you might say, but the trend is definitely up, with six more cases expected this year alone.

Other things we know about her: she’s between the ages of nineteen and thirty, though never more than two years older or seven years younger than he is. She’s probably blonde or redhead, although it may come out of a bottle. She looks good in a tight sweater, and has the sort of infectious laugh that makes people in restaurants turn around and look.

Typical quote from him: “No croutons, babe. They interrupt the texture.” Typical quote from her: “Because they shot him, sweetie.”

They’ve been dating for less than six months—past the third-date and eight-week barriers, but not long enough to see each other at their worst. The honeymoon is decidedly not over. Not yet. And that’s the problem.

***

Even an armchair medical sleuth can see the Achilles heel of the necromancer’s plan right away: rickettsia infections are easily transmitted. Through close (though rarely necrophilic) contact with his dear departed, the necromancer is almost certain to suffer the bite of a chigger, a flea, a body louse in need of a warmer host. He contracts the illness himself, yes, unless he’s taken steps to prevent it, or to treat it at the first sign of rash or fever or headache. And even if he somehow doesn’t catch it, she’s a carrier—a rich reservoir of the disease organism for whom a “cure” would be fatal. Or refatal, if you prefer.

So.

She sits up: groggy and confused. Gasps in a first uncertain breath, looks around her, looks at him. Tries to speak, and right away he can tell there’s something wrong. Her voice is slurred, her lips drooping, her words unintelligible. She looks like a stroke victim and sounds like a mentally challenged drunk.

Wheezing, she gets off the table and shambles toward the door, ignoring his calls, his cries, his imprecations. Even the iron grip of his hands, attempting to restrain her.

Sometimes she gets away. Sometimes she infects others, with a mix of symptoms that don’t occur in nature. Sometimes these other victims die right in front of their baffled doctors, only to rise again in an hour or two, like something out of a bad movie. Zombies, yes, the emerging contagion no one is talking about.

Don’t write this down. Don’t record this. You didn’t hear it from me.

In any case, one thing she doesn’t do is regain full consciousness. He grasps the reason, and communicates it to himself silently, in the voice of Scotty from Star Trek: “She needs more power, Laddie.”

You don’t know Scotty? All right, never mind.

The other thing she doesn’t do is protect herself against the rickettsia’s harmful effects, or against invading pathogens of any sort, or against the steady seep of her own hungry gut bacteria. How could she? As her immune system comes online the first thing it does is attack the pathogens keeping it alive. By the time he catches her, restrains her, straps her to the table for a thorough examination, he imagines he can already see the first signs of secondary infection, smell the first hints of carrion on her breath, feel the bruised-apple softness of injuries that will never heal. Acting in what he believes is her best interest, he’s managed to turn his beloved into a deranged leper.

Weeping, possibly even howling in despair, he shoots her up with broad-spectrum antibiotics and apoptosis inhibitors, and drowns her in iced saline.

Sometimes he stops there. Sometimes she kills him and eats him. Sometimes he succumbs to the infection and loses interest in Earthly affairs. Love doesn’t always conquer all! But these halfway Harrys are no more noble, no less deranged than their brothers in sin, and this isn’t their story.

Our necromancer—damn him!—dries his tears, wipes his hands, straightens his spine and gets back to work.

***

The stages of grieving are anger, depression, denial, bargaining, and acceptance. Arguably, the necromancer experiences all but the last of these, all smooshed together into a single driving impulse: to do something about it. Our boy has had enough of failure.

In the ice water bath he can keep the body for a good long while—long enough to make some calls, do some web research, thumb through back issues of Nature, The Lancet, NEMS Kinematic Review and my personal favorite, the Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow and Metabolism, beloved of brain-death researchers everywhere. There are several overlapping problems in need of solution here; he needs a lot of information.

He puts in longer, more convincing appearances at work. He has to buy groceries, do laundry, pay bills. You think mad scientists don’t have bills to pay? He waits in line at the DMV, just like you.

He also manages, somehow, to charm away suspicion. The police never search his basement or his attic or the back room of his loft for the missing woman. A week passes, then a month, and finally the better part of a season. He falls into a routine of self-maintenance—how could he not?—and despite his best efforts he begins to forget the angle of her smile, the furrow of her brow, the exact lilting tone of her giggle. Memory is not a hard drive or a box of old photographs; it’s designed to show the past through the distorting lens of the present. In his dreams she smells of rot; her footprints are fetid black sponge marks along the floor. If he didn’t take sleep medications before, he does so now. If he had the scrip already, he triples his dosage and still wakes up screaming, sweating, his stomach in knots.

But he hasn’t been idle during this time. In the burgeoning literature of the nanotech industry he’s found whole classes of machinery powered by ATP, whole companies dedicated to supplying it in various ways. There’s even a mitochondrion-sized device called a Freitas cell that uses nanopellets of gadolinium—a radioisotope chemically similar to uranium, but lighter—to power an endless reconstitution of ADP into ATP. Tireless, robust, far simpler in design than the mitochondria they could reasonably be expected to replace. They’ll do.

For ten thousand dollars the necromancer buys a hundred trillion of these, suspended in a solvent called toluene in a little vial of brown glass. He does other things as well, which I won’t describe here for fear of spreading the memes in unnecessary detail. This is a warning, not a how-to session.

Long story short? Too late, yes, I know. But there comes a moment when she opens her eyes again. Looks at him, looks around her, feels the shackles holding her down. Remembers the moments leading up to her death, compares them against her current surroundings. Does the math.

“What have you done?” she asks him, with a cool, contemptuous anger. She speaks his name, then repeats the question.

Her voice is all wrong: strong yet oddly squeaky. She has no need to breathe. She could live a hundred years in a coffin without a single whiff of oxygen. Her eyes are wrong as well: too wide, too vivid, too glittery-cold. Her mind as sharp as a razor back behind them somewhere. If looks could kill . . .

“Darling,” he tries.

But her flesh is stronger, too. If she feels pain, she masters it, bursting her restraints or possibly wriggling out of them, heedless of the skin on her wrists and ankles.

Does he try to reason with her? Crack a joke? Pull a gun? Even if he fires it, even if he punctures the heart, it won’t stop her. She doesn’t need a circulation, either. Ironically, a silver bullet lodged inside her might slowly poison the tiny power plants. A lithium bullet would work even better, or any of hundreds of organic toxins, especially in the brain. It hardly matters at that moment, though, because he’s laid no real plans for putting her out of commission again. Not his sweet treasure! Not this time!

“I love you,” he says. “Look what I’ve done, look at all I’ve sacrificed. For you. For us!”

But what’s he really thinking? That they can get married, raise children? Are they even still members of the same species?

“Fool,” she tells him, striking him dead with a backhand swat. “How many times have I told you not to cling?” And then of course she breaks through the wall to begin her rampage. Hell hath no fury, indeed.

***

The arc of each necromancer’s tragedy seems preordained; even with differences as great as the similarities, the similarities are vast . . . and troubling. And I will ask each of you to consider this, and to look at your classmates and within yourselves for any symptoms of the disorder.

You are here for one reason: to help and heal and do no harm, so please believe me—especially you men, yes, are you listening? Believe me when I say that women don’t come back to you once they’ve left. It’s a problem mere science will never correct, and one that requires a bit of gentlemanly restraint. No slashing tires! No cheating death!

That’s all for now, yes. Read chapter six tonight, submit a summary in the morning, and never speak of this again, to me or anyone else. One day we’ll have the power to take on death with the finesse it truly demands, but I caution you: Even then, the gift of love itself will remain fragile, and perhaps not so easily resurrected.

Sleep well for your exams. I’ll see you in the morning. Young man? Yes, you. Mr. Taylor, isn’t it? Please come with me. I’m afraid I have some bad news.

© 2007 by Wil McCarthy.
Originally published in Jim Baen’s Universe.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Wil McCarthy

Wil McCarthyWil McCarthy is a former contributing editor for WIRED magazine and science columnist for the SyFy channel (previously SciFi channel), where his popular “Lab Notes” column ran from 1999 through 2009. A lifetime member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, he has been nominated for the Nebula, Locus, Seiun, AnLab, Colorado Book, Theodore Sturgeon and Philip K. Dick awards, and contributed to projects that won a Webbie, an Eppie, a Game Developers’ Choice Award, and a General Excellence National Magazine Award. In addition, his imaginary world of “P2” (from the novel Lost in Transmission) was rated one of the 10 best science fiction planets of all time by Discover magazine. He holds 13 U.S. patents, and is currently the president and chief technology officer of RavenBrick LLC, a smart materials company. He can be found online at www.wilmccarthy.com and www.ravenbrick.com.