Story by Brooks Shropshire
Illustration by Greg Chapman
“…I am the last…I will tell the audient void,”—H.P. Lovecraft; Nyarlathotep
As a young boy my father made it a goal to impart upon me certain grains of wisdom that his father gave to him and that, he hoped, I would pass along to my own children. Much of what he told me was astute— the rare tutelage of time—but in my clouded youth, I disregarded the most critical thing he ever told me: that true respect is equal parts fear and admiration. At the time I still harbored those foolish ideas of Maslow and chalked up my father’s views as the fear of a man who time turned cynical. That network of humanist ideals I once thought so strong began its decay when I met Dr. Heinrich Josef Helslatter. What started as a subtle degradation of my pyramid of positivity, became a full-scale leveling. Now I sit amongst the rubble, scorning my idiocrasy for having ever allowed its construction.
Do not let me mislead about the nature of my relationship with Dr. Helslatter—Henry was my close friend, and I was an exalted witness to his studies. He has, thank God, since found new parties to appreciate his genius. I am certain he lets me live purely out of curious sentiment, but I have a persistent fear he will make use of me. I do not say kill, for Dr. Helslatter has never killed a man for the usual murderous motives; those are far too wasteful of a cadaver, and Henry is nothing if not efficient.
I met Dr. Helslatter in dripping heat of the Congolese rainforest, where the only safe harbor from sweltering humidity and mosquito clouds was Camp Mahamba. At the time the American military had been deployed to the Congo to halt a terrorist insurgency. A braver man in my youth, I signed up to report on Camp Mahamba with that old newspaper, The Metro Telegram. Mahamba acted as a medical facility by the river, not far from Kisangani, where fierce combat brought the angel of death to the horizon.
To say that the military wasn’t fond of having a journalist on site is a grave understatement. As a result, most of them avoided me as if I were a malarial mosquito. Henry was the only doctor who spoke more than three words to me during my stint.
I recall our first interaction in stunning clarity. I had just been condescended by a surgeon for inquiring into the nature of his work at the camp when Helslatter approached.
“For men in a profession relying so heavily on science, they aren’t fond of questions.” He had a sardonic, unmistakably German voice, unanchored by the leaden contempt of Zaire.
“It makes me wonder what they are hiding.”
“It appears their manners,” he offered a gloved hand, “Dr. Heinrich Josef Helslatter. Call me Henry.”
I looked up at the man. He seemed a congenial fellow. From his sandy undercut to his squared jaw I’d almost call him handsome—such a pathetic word. His eyes were green, and though at the time they were kind, their natural state had a crocodilian coolness. His gaze exuded cunning, full of predatory efficacy. He wore an old black uniform, reminiscent of his nation’s past.
I took his hand in a firm grip. “Francis Plover. Pleasure to meet you, Henry.
“You sound like an American, but you don’t look like one, Herr Plover.”
“My father’s Egyptian, my mother Israeli, but I was born in Boston. Are you here with the United Nations?”
Talking to Henry was always so…easy.
Helslatter smoothed a stray hair with two fingers. “The Congolese government contracted me.”
He offered a warm grin. Helslatter only really smiled when he was working—when his face became a rhapsody of cold elation.
Understand me—Helslatter is a scientific prodigy, a mind like Einstein with the creativity of Tesla and the morality of Mengele. He has the pseudo-congeniality of the political types—so frigid he’s warm. His degree is in biochemistry, but he has a genius not only in his chosen field, but with microbiology, virology, genetics, and physiology. If he were fixated on the extension of life, as opposed to its perversion, mortality would cease. At Camp Mahamba, Helslatter was the most skilled surgeon, much to the chagrin of the older sawbones, who after years more experience, were fathoms beneath him. If they knew how he became an artist with that scalpel, they would harbor no envy.
I became an advent watcher of Helslatter’s work, practically ignoring the other doctors entirely.
“I see you’ve taken quite the liking to my work, Herr Plover,” he said, stitching a wounded Marine as his unblinking stare mesmerized me.
“I think your work would make an excellent addition to my article for the Telegram.”
Polite as ever Helslatter thanked me by bowing his head, “I would appreciate it, Francis, if you didn’t mention me by name in this story of yours. I’m sheepish towards publicity.”
“Why of course Henry.”
“Excellent. Say, Plover, you strike me as erudite—the sort who can admire all forms of intellectual endeavor. Am I erroneous in my assumption?”
“I should hope not.”
“Perfect. If it interests you, I have some projects I think may pique your curiosity. Nothing as intricate as what I do back home in Marburg, but far more riveting than anything you would find in university labs. The government allotted me a makeshift laboratory on the western end of camp. My shift ends at eleven. Would you accompany me tonight? Everything must be off the record, of course.”
Curse my impaired judgment—that damned fog of fascination which has put me through all this squalor. I said yes! I said yes! Only God knows why he invited me into his lab, but I suppose his brilliance was isolating, and he desired someone to admire his work. Why he should, no man can explain, for he doesn’t need the support of inferiors.
I can’t express how thrilled I was to enter the laboratory—his workshop of divinity. Helslatter had an obsession, a yearning for a murkier knowledge bordering on the esoteric. What was fantasy to the tepid ‘scientists’ of higher-academia was a shimmering reality to Helslatter. It was ingenuity in the no man’s land we classify as madness because we are too damn stupid to realize its brilliance. Only men like Dr. Helslatter have the cognitive aptitude to understand what our minds must reject. A twinge of fear, even a deluge of it, is an obligation we must offer with reverence to radiant minds like his.
I lurched outside to lurk around the western end of Camp Mahamba, concerned that the military police might take my nocturnal wanderings as grounds to make an arrest. Fear of reprimand conquered my dread of the Congolese night, which in turn were suppressed with dreams of Helslatter’s lab. Nighttime in the jungles of Zaire is full of mocking mystery, where only the faint glow from your flashlight can comfort you from the howl of belligerent primates, screeching on the ear like the cries of primal men. I held tight to a stone medallion I bought off a Luba priest from Kisangani.
When I finally took shelter from the spirits my soul projected onto the jungle, I was standing before a metal door, knocking three times as Helslatter instructed. The door swung open to a cold room, sterile, pristine, clothed in silvers and whites.
He cordially thanked me for visiting him in the lab and said that if I enjoyed what I saw, I could return at any time—but if any of the work upset my stomach, I was free to leave. The thought that I needed his permission to exit never crossed my mind. I thanked him, of course, but with words too mundane to recall. The astonishment upon my face spoke the volumes my tongue failed to compose.
His lab was crude but impressive, with a small chemistry station, sink, microscope, and tables with odd instruments I knew not the purpose of. Shelved walls were lined with all sorts of specimens: avian, insectoid, botanical, mammalian. Three shelves had been devoted to jars of eyes—many of which were suffering malformation by various chemical treatments he had given them.
A stale odor drew my attention to a corpse lying on an operating table. The dead man had a dusky complexion, contrasting sharply with the silver chantry he slept on. He was Congolese, perhaps Bantu. Henry paid the seamier soldiers to bring relatively undamaged bodies back from the battlefield for him.
“My God, Heinrich, who’s the coffin-stuffer?” I shifted my stance.
“The cadaver?” his eyebrows furled into a sharp V, “It’s part of a project demanding organic material for—preferably human.”
“The Congolese government is paying you to do this?”
“No, no my friend. What they have paid me to do is a trifling matter undeserving of my explanation.”
In this place, he spoke with an insidious air. Insidious, but not evil—evil is a derisory concept in regard to Dr. Helslatter. He had an expression of intellectualism so beyond his contemporaries, that it was as if his voice—his mind—transcended the mortal coil, ambivalent to all those below him. And we are all beneath him.
Helslatter went on to explain the body was for his study in genetic alteration—manipulating gene expression, inserting alleles through chemical treatments and the restructuring of the genetic code. What science he used, I am not entirely sure. He would tell me “not to inquire into processes I couldn’t fathom.” Helslatter was right of course.
Helslatter removed the kidney, weighing it on the scale before injecting fluorescent solutions of strange compounds. His gloved hands groped the specimen gently, packaging it into a small jar. Next were the skin cells, tested in odd machines the like of which I had never seen. One must wonder how he could accomplish anything great with necrotic tissue.
I thought about the cadaver, how it had been dragged from that adumbral rainforest, where desolate combat ended his life. I visualized IED’S blasting hot, sticky, chunks of scarlet and sharp shards of white like fireworks into the air.
Henry grasped a peculiar instrument, placing it over the corpse’s eyes. With a push of a button, he completely removed the eye and its stem straight from the man’s skull and dropped the specimen into a jar.
“The eyes, Plover, those are my life’s work—the experiments I cannot do here without attracting attention.” Henry looked up, his own eyes stalking above the red river of the open corpse, “What do you know of twins?”
I told him I had heard strange rumors about them having a link, something about feeling the pain of their counterpart or sharing a near-telepathic connection.
“Very good.” His voice was a thick gas set aflame, “I can tell you now that this is no myth.”
Henry moved over to a cage with two identical rats. Gloves still bloody, Helslatter injected both with an orange solution and then proceeded to inject one rat with a red liquid. Not long after, the rat who had been given the red syringe writhed and twitched in sporadic, thrashing motions. I felt the hair on my neck prick. In that instant, the rat’s twin began to wail, until they both died.
“What…what did I just see?”
Helslatter’s teeth reflected off the steel bars of the rat cage, “That Plover, is my passion. I hypothesize that twins possess this heightened sense of empathy via an unknown energy they can tap into. For years I have been working on biochemical solutions that might facilitate access to the energy between twins. That was the orange solution, a sort of amplification fluid, to put it into terms you can understand.”
“And the red?”
“A neurotoxin I designed for your government’s intelligence agencies. It causes a positive feedback loop by encouraging sporadic movement, then punishing movement with excruciating pain. From that point, pain will increase as motion increases, and motion increases with pain.”
“It’s brilliant…” I was shocked, stupefied, but not in horror. Oh, damn me! Not in horror!
“The eyes, Plover, the eyes of the Gemini can see this energy, and I will scour the human genome to harvest it.”
At the end, of it my mind drifted back to that cadaver, or what remained after Helslatter finished. When he had scraped all the treasure from their fleshy prison, Dr. Helslatter wrapped the remnants in butcher’s paper and brought the packets to the river. There Sobek’s primordial children of the Nile monitored the shore yearningly—just as Helslatter himself surveilled the new soldiers unloading at Mahamba. When the scent of blood hit the water, those antediluvian reptiles—those horrible crocodiles—delighted upon the carnage.
Two years after the night that made me an acolyte to Helslatter’s studies I solemnly left the Congo and returned to my native Boston. Freed from the jaws of Mahamba, I continued my mundane life but found happiness in marriage to a woman named Belle. Her father disapproved of my Jewish heritage, but we didn’t care—we were in love, and that is all that mattered. Though I thought of Helslatter often, I hardly spoke to Belle about him until I learned that Mahamba’s Angel would be flying to America, carrying with him the ghosts of his experiments.
Once a week Heinrich would host us for dinner, and we would laugh mirthfully, even though I knew Henry felt no jubilation from the company of friends.
At the next dinner, Belle and I sprung the question that is responsible for my miserable condition. Fate cursed both of us with sterility, and though we could have adopted we wanted a child of our own blood. And so, we asked if Henry might use his fringe-science to give us a child. He replied it would be his honor to assist us, and after three weeks of work, Belle was pregnant with twin girls.
In nine months, she gave birth to our beautiful daughters, Alice and Cleopatra. Never had there been two girls sweeter, more loving, or beautiful as they— intelligent too! By God they were smart. Always at the top of their classes. Walking in the first year of life, talking by the next. Developmentally they were perfect children, yet they developed exceedingly strange characteristics.
They seemed to always know the location of the other when separated, and what the other was thinking. When they were five I took the twins to a circus downtown, and in front of the lion’s cage they started to protest, echoing one another’s words that:
“He’s hungry! He’s in pain! Make it stop daddy! He’s getting angry!”
If only that were the strangest occurrence. When they were nine Cleo broke her right arm climbing an oak tree in the park, and Alice let out a wail of pain at the very moment Cleo fell. For the entire time that Cleo was in a cast, Alice was unable to move her right arm—so severe was her imagined pain we had a cast made for her as well. I asked Henry, and he told me not to be concerned, and that she was just an empathetic child. Like a damn fool, I trusted him. But how could I not? A father only wants to love his children. Unfortunately, my love could not save them from the forlorn events that occurred a week before their ‘disappearance’.
A piercing wail of anguish woke me from slumber, like shards of glass thrown into my eyes. It was a shriek of ghastly dolor, the likes of which were heard when morphine ran out in Mahamba. I crashed into my daughters’ room, and upon looking at them, dropped to my knees.
Cleo and Alice mirrored each other in suffering convulsions, writhing and rolling. I prayed to God for the first time since my youth—prayed for him to take their pain and deliver it unto me. They spun in a death roll of vile excruciation, crying Yahweh’s name for mercy that never came. All I could do was ask Belle to call Henry.
Helslatter rushed in, carrying a bag of instruments, dressed in that black uniform of his. He calmly assaulted Belle and me with the typical questions about what was happening, and what had happened. He spoke to us, but he never took his reptile eyes off the girls. He removed two small syringes which he identified as a sedative before administering it to my daughters.
“I won’t lie to you Francis, I’m not entirely sure what’s wrong,” he lied so seamlessly, “I’m going to need blood samples to run some tests. If it happens again inject them with these, then call me.” he finished, holding out two syringes of the sedative.
A week from that awful night I took the girls to a park on the outskirts of Boston. I only looked away for two minutes—two goddamn minutes to gawk at a car accident—and my girls were gone. No screams, no sign of abduction. Just gone. After two weeks of searching, I came to Helslatter in hopes his strange work would bring me out of my depression. Well, that it did. It hurled me from depression into something far worse—this terror that binds my admiration.
Helslatter had his typical, unchanging, cold fury of passion that reared itself in his lab. He led me down into a section I had never been to while I droned about my despair.
“Silence your paltry sniveling Francis. You’re in the presence of highest achievement.” He lacked any of the compassion he faked so expertly.
A subservient fool, I complied, my small ire for his callous demeanor consumed by that which surrounded me. The steel door hissed open as if forced by the small cloud of vapor that dissipated into the hallway
The lab which I was now privy to hold some of the most bizarre subjects of his civilized barbarism. The east wall was host to those precious eyes he studied so intensely, but where they were normally neat in jars, these had been tacked to a board, left to rot. He stocked the sanctuary with state-of-the-art equipment, funded by the selling of weapons both conventional and biological. Strange instruments hooked into the membranous flesh of mutant things suspended in tanks of odd liquid—the artificial womb of bedevilment. I had no sooner seen the creatures that I felt an innate sense of loathing.
At times he used animals for his projects, but only because it was too much of a struggle to acquire humans. Gerbils, cats, rats, each placed in glass chambers and exposed to varying viruses, with unspeakable mutations on their pitiful physiology.
Posted onto the walls were photographs of old experiments. Portraits of mutilated humans chained to walls and made subjects to experiments which defied explanation. According to Heinrich, the mutilations were punishments for having struggled against the “Will of Discovery.” Worst of all he had pictures of twins: twins starved, twins cut open, twins joined with wires and tubes, eyeless and withering.
“Onward, Plover.” He directed me with a single finger.
Before we left, I saw a map posted before his desk, showing the outline of the Congo’s recent Ebola outbreak. Rumors said the virus wiped out the insurgents threatening the government.
‘Onward,’ meant on to see that which has sent me into this fetid depression. I prostrated myself to the floor, I suppose it is the only proper thing to do in a holy temple.
“My God,” I uttered.
Helslatter sneered, a man without God. But I cannot blame him, God himself must be an atheist.
On that altar were my two darling daughters, broken flesh as cold as Helslatter’s Sobek eyes. I wish I could say my children had been autopsied, but they were mauled. Torn asunder like Osiris, their rotting ebony flesh morphed into a languorous green, heralding my rebirth as this squalid creature who sits writing.
I wept before the shell of my angels, and in scorn turned around to assault my host with violent words, but my voice would not follow orders. I thought I might raise my fist against him, but the dead thing on the wall stopped me.
Shrill brass pounded my ears, as malformed angels of a New Heaven trumpeted that power over this world had been arrested from impotent Jehovah. The creature was the only proof needed of this cosmic coup. Wet, broken skin bubbled up like little volcanoes, trickling steaming pus. Though its features told me it was dead, it did not appear is if it should have ever been alive at all. Its forearms grew to half of its gargantuan height, falling at sharp hips, with five eagle talons, greased in the tallow of my daughters. If it was the patchwork of one animal, or a thousand, it would be impossible to tell.
It had eerily familiar, repulsing human qualities in the face—a short nose like that of my own, and deep, dark, almost hollow eyes shadowed by cavernous sockets.
“Meet your son, Francis.”
His words were apathetic, antiseptic, nevertheless, they were the constrictor of my sanity. Through the bewildered scoria of my surroundings, Heinrich’s sobering words injected the truth into my wretched eyes. Of course, it was my son—Helslatter gave us triplets, not twins.
Oh, benighted misery! Oh, Cleo! Oh, Alice! If you could reach out from the afterlife, I pray you’d smite me! How he did it all, I will never be capable of understanding, though he coldly explained it to me. He would suppress their connection with drugs, turning off regions of the brain… all too much for me to grasp. He even kidnapped a woman to be the surrogate mother of my son.
“Great things have been done here Plover, you and your wife should be honored that your blood has been the vessel of progress. I’ve surpassed the flawed fraudulence of Mengele; his pathetic attempts at science are but a candle in my solar radiance!”
“You let this thing, you let it kill my daughters…” I suppose it was a question.
“I feared you would be too dim to recognize genius.”
But that’s just it, I did see the brilliance in it all. It was admiration that suppressed my outrage. I should have strangled him, but his abuse of my family in such splendid science only stoked my frightened admiration.
Now I sit here in a motel, recording my testament as the muffled protests of Helslatter’s next subjects inflame my self-loathing. They cry, but they are fortunate to be woven into the tapestry of his divine science. In exchange for bringing him fresh specimens, he has promised to bring back my children—even my son. My daughters were born of the man I was, but my son was born of the monstrous husk I am. How can I blame him for bearing the sins of his father? I write this now as a confession, for if I am blessed, Helslatter will grant me merciful death after he revives my children.
— ♦♦♦ —
Don Fedora and his long-suffering wife, Vicky, are at it again. Haven’t you ever wanted to speak with the ancient dead? I don’t mean the table-thumping, bell-ringing business that charlatans do to fool a grieving spouse: I mean to go down into the vaults, hear the breath again from lifeless lips, hear it speak of things, things they’ve done and seen?”