Aphelion Issue 274, Volume 26
July 2022
 
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The Individual Is Nothing

by John Rovito


Alton Gruder woke from a dreamless sleep to discover that his mind was longer his own.

Not that there was any outward manifestation of the change. His brain, like that of every other human, was still comprised of 100 billion cells, more than ten times as many cells as there are people on the planet. But for Alton Gruder, an infinitesimal subset of those cells, a mere thousandth of a percent, had now been digitally overwritten, the soma of each cell somehow embedded not with his own DNA but with the consciousness of another sentient being.

Alton Gruder had no idea how this had occurred, nor did he know the identities of the multitude that now existed deep inside him. All he knew was that he had been chosen, first to shelter then to transfer these incorporeal creatures into human bodies so they might live again.

The individual is nothing. It is the race that matters.

In the beginning Alton Gruder failed to understand. In the beginning he thought it was merely a dream, the tiny voice inside his head speaking to him like a devil from the shadows, luring him with the promise of power and immortality. Then one voice was replaced by a thousand and then a million voices all of them plaintively calling out for freedom and release.

Very quickly it became impossible for Alton Gruder to think, to sleep, to find respite from the incessant clamor. He felt he was going mad and contemplated suicide until slowly the din subsided and once more there was only the one voice, this time explaining in minute detail what he must do.

The individual is nothing. It is the race that matters and Alton Gruder was now caretaker to an entire race, a species unto himself, charged with a singular purpose. Alton Gruder listened intently and wanted to believe, if only to prove to himself that he wasn't crazy. He had spent his entire life alone, marginal, always on the outside. Perhaps now...

But it was all too vague, too hallucinatory. Who were these beings that resided within him: refugees from a dying star, vestiges of the past come back to life, or merely phantasms, ghostly figments of his imagination gone wild?

And then one morning he -- we woke to find that the doubts were gone, his mind cleansed. No longer burdened by uncertainty, Alton Gruder quit his job as a research chemist, sold his home in Madison Wisconsin and moved to the Township of Edison, New Jersey. His parents were dead and he had never married. His friends were nothing more than passing acquaintances, none of whom would miss or remember him after a few weeks. He was totally innocuous and anonymous and perfectly suited to the task at hand.

Alton Gruder considered that task as he sat at the kitchen table, sipped his coffee and ran a finger down the newspaper obituaries. He was searching as he did each day for recently deceased men and women, all of a certain age. What he needed was academics, physicians, lawyers and scientists, architects, computer programmers and other professionals, humans he would resurrect to a reality far richer than any they had heretofore known.

####

Marty Baker looked out the 23rd floor window of New York City's Federal Plaza and listened patiently as Jean Morris, the FBI's top profiler, sat behind her desk and recounted the Bureau's recent findings.

"Seventeen abductions -- or whatever you call stealing a corpse. Can't call it grave-robbing, because the bodies hadn't been buried yet. Three in New York, ten on Long Island, another four out in Jersey. In each case a funeral home is broken into and a body inside removed. So what does that tell us?"

"Lock your doors at night?" replied Baker sardonically.

Morris' eyes narrowed but she ignored the remark and continued. "That this latest occurrence is not an isolated incident, that people's civil rights have been violated, and that the Bureau has every right not only to be involved but to take the lead on this case. Incidents in multiple states makes it a federal case."

Baker, a Manhattan Borough Police Detective, was not inclined to argue. He knew he was in over his head and needed the Bureau's help. What he didn't need was Morris and her know- it-all attitude. He'd worked with the woman before -- tracking down a serial killer who was stalking the Upper East Side bars -- and the two had clashed repeatedly. What Baker never considered was that their difficulties lay not with Morris but with his own ego and personality, that he was immune to advice or the opinions of others, continually breaking the rules, cutting corners, standing apart from every team or organization of which he had ever been a part.

"So, have you run up a profile?" asked Baker turning from the window and its distant view of the Hudson River.

Morris got up from her desk and started to pace, a teacher about to instruct a recalcitrant student. "We had a similar case about five years back; an insurance salesman from Stamford who liked to sleep with the bodies of dead women. Kept them in a deep freeze he'd set up in his basement. What he did was go down each night, thaw one out, then take her upstairs to his bedroom so they could cuddle up nice and comfy."

"Sounds romantic," quipped Baker who amused himself by summoning up an image of Morris as one of those women. She definitely fit the profile, he thought; cold enough to chill an iceberg. "Is that what you think is happening here?"

"This is different."

"In what way? No foreplay?"

Morris' jaw tightened. "Enough with the jokes, okay? Whoever is breaking into these funeral homes isn't driven any type of deviant attraction."

"What then, fun and games?"

Morris realized it was impossible to curb Baker's wisecracks and so she finally stopped trying. "Necrophiliacs, people who think they're vampires or zombies or some other manifestation of the walking dead ... all of them are looking for a soul mate, someone to share their distorted vision of reality. But this guy -- and by the way, it's always a guy -- he's not like the others. Not one or two, but seventeen bodies, men and women. Something else is going on here. I assume you read the report: every one of the bodies in question was removed before the embalming process was started. Which leads back to my original question: What does that tell us?"

This time Baker dispensed with the wisecracks. "That he's harvesting internal organs."

Jean Morris nodded her agreement. "The problem is that without circulation to move blood through the body, rigor mortis sets in quickly, just a few hours after death. A few hours after that, the bacteria and enzymes present in the pancreas begin to attack the other internal organs. Once the process starts, it's irreversible."

Morris pointed to the screen on her laptop computer. "This is a scatter diagram one of our data analysts came up with. It plots the location of each break-in. Take a look. Our guy's all over the place. In some cases, the distance between two points is nearly seventy-five miles. Which means he's probably driving a van or truck fitted out with some kind of refrigeration. Otherwise the organs inside those bodies would degenerate before he gets back to wherever he's storing them."

Baker walked over, placed his hands on Morris' desk and bent down for a closer look. What he saw was that the points on the scatter diagram all fell within a roughly elliptical area.

"What about a common denominator?"

Without answering, Morris hit one of the computer keys and the diagram instantly reconfigured itself so that the plot points now displayed as a large circle. At its center was a second smaller circle outlined in red.

Morris pointed to the red circle. "This version takes travel time into account -- speed limits and traffic patterns on the dates when the bodies were taken. If I had to guess, I'd say he's somewhere here, in Central Jersey over by where the Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway intersect. That way, he's got easy access to wherever he wants to go."

####

Alton Gruder bent down, cupped his hands and splashed cold water onto his face. It had been a long night, a journey of nearly one hundred miles, and he was bleary-eyed and exhausted. After drying himself with a small hand towel, he stared into the bathroom mirror. What he saw was a face he did not recognize. It was the face of a stranger: the skull too large, the nose too broad and bovine, the eyes without subtlety or grace, the empty look of one who neither thinks nor questions, a farm animal content to labor mindlessly under its master's yoke. Gruder was aware of none of this, only his fatigue and the knowledge that his day's work was just starting.

Back in the repository, the lights were dimmed, all except the tiny spots that illuminated the bodies, six men and two women, all between twenty-four and thirty-five years of age. Each person sat naked on a plastic chair, his or her skin tinged slightly green, a sign that Gruder had appropriated them before any permanent damage had been done to the brain and other internal organs. The sitting bodies were now encased in cryonic glass cylinders, a unique blend of chemicals and gases taking them through final stages of rejuvenation.

Alton Gruder turned from the cylinders to the new body he had acquired several hours earlier from a funeral home in Camden. As with his other acquisitions, this one had proven easy. After negating the building's rudimentary surveillance system, he had carefully lifted the dead body from the embalming table and placed it inside the refrigerated van he had purchased when he'd first moved to the area six months earlier. The ride back from Camden had been tiring but uneventful, the occasional police car taking little note as he travelled inconspicuously in the slow lane, five miles under the speed limit. The body was now secured to a stainless-steel gurney, the top portion of which had been raised up at a forty-five degree angle so that the torso approximated a sitting position. A second gurney stood next to the first, its upper section at the same angle.

Over the past three months, Gruder had removed seventeen bodies from the funeral homes. Only nine had proven receptive to cellular transfer. The others, because of properties unique to their biochemistry, had rejected the process and been discarded. Gruder needed today's transfer to be successful in order to complete the first phase of his assignment. He understood that it was logistically impossible for him to personally acquire one million bodies. Instead, the plan was to rejuvenate ten, imbuing each with the consciousness of not one but multiple entities. The ten would then be sent to different parts of the country where each would acquire ten additional bodies, and so on in a geometric progression that would result in the digital rebirth of the entire population in less than a year.

####

Marty Baker drove slowly. He was looking for a truck or other large vehicle that could be used to transport a dead body. He agreed with Morris that the vehicle would probably need to house some kind of freezer to prevent a body from decomposing. Not that he'd shared any of this. Instead, he listened politely while she requested additional agents be assigned to the case. After he left her office, he rented a car and without informing Morris or anyone else, drove out to Jersey to where the scatter diagram suggested the guy might be. He'd spent the last two hours roaming through Rahway and Linden then up into Woodbridge. Rather than waste time in residential areas, he focused on the periphery, near the highways and the warehouses where a large unmarked vehicle would go unnoticed. So far he'd found nothing.

Baker checked his watch. It was nearly eleven thirty. Another half hour and he'd stop for lunch and recalibrate but for now he decided to take a look over by Ford's, an industrial complex adjacent to Route 440. After another half hour he'd still found nothing. He was about to turn round to a deli he'd passed about a quarter mile back when he saw it, a white van with commercial plates, its rear windows blacked out. The van was parked in front of an abandoned gas station, its windows also painted black. Baker parked the rental a block up, walked back and peered into the van's front window. A pinewood partition separated the driver's seat from the rest of the cab. Baker could see nothing inside and turned his attention to the garage.

####

The repository was bathed in a silver blue light that hummed like the strings of a hammered dulcimer. Marty Baker cracked open the door from the garage's outer office and looked sidelong into the large dimly lit space. What he saw was Alton Gruder lying motionless atop a stainless steel gurney, his naked body propped up at a forty-five degree angle. A tiny circular hole had been drilled into the center of Gruder's forehead. A thin red wire extended from the incision into a flat-panel computer.

A second red wire then extended from the opposite end of the computer into a similar breach on the forehead of a dead man, also naked, strapped atop the gurney beside him. What Baker could not see was that the connection between the two men extended deep into the aon terminals of their brains, the terminals charged with an electrochemical signal that was at this moment transferring tens of thousands of synthetic cells from Alton Gruder into the body beside him. Of those cells, one would imbue the host body with a new consciousness and identity. The other cells would remain dormant until a future time when the process would be repeated.

Baker drew out his gun, a double-action Smith & Wesson automatic, gripped it with both hands and stepped into the room scanning left to right, looking for movement, trying to comprehend what was going on. Carefully measuring his steps, he approached the two men on the gurneys then stopped abruptly as Alton Gruder sat up, opened his eyes and stared directly at him. Baker thrust his gun forward.

"No sudden moves, understand?"

Gruder said nothing, continuing to stare straight ahead, his eyes seemingly without thought or purpose. Baker needed to call for backup and reached for his cell phone. Nothing. He'd forgotten to charge it. No phone meant he'd need to secure Gruder to the gurney. He took a step closer and waved his gun across Gruder's line of vision.

"Can you hear me?" Baker said in a voice loud enough to be heard above the room's continuing hum. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Again there was no response. Baker stepped to the side and pulled at the straps that secured the second man's arms and legs. The straps were thick leather and notched tightly. Baker turned back to Gruder. Okay, he thought, what I need is to tie this guy down then find a telephone. He remembered the deli a half mile back. Someone there would have a phone. Baker looked around one more time to make sure there was nobody else in the room then reached for the buckled strap hanging from the side of the gurney. As he did, Gruder suddenly lunged forward and grabbed his hands.

The pain was instantaneous, the electrical charge from Gruder's body shooting up Baker's arms like a hot metal poker. Baker tried to break free, but Gruder was too powerful.

Gruder swung his legs to the floor and stood up, the red wire still attached to his forehead, and forced Baker to his knees.

Baker continued to struggle but his arms were becoming numb, weaker, his vision blurred, unable to resist the unmovable force that was pressing down upon him.

And then it all went black as Gruder raised his fist and without emotion struck Baker twice across the side of his temple. For several minutes, Gruder stared down at Baker's limp body until finally he realized what he must do. Carefully, he raised Baker up and onto the gurney, secured the detective's head with 3-pin skull clamp then inserted a lumbar drain in his lower back. A fully appointed craniotomy kit with an assortment of scissors, clips and forceps was organized on an adjacent table. From the kit, he took a small pneumatic drill no larger than a ballpoint pen. Gruder activated the drill and with a surgeon's precision slowly bored a tiny hole into Marty Baker's skull.

####

A confluence of birds glides effortlessly above the Pacific, their broad wings tracing elliptical patterns across the wakening horizon. Marty Baker watches from his deck and tries to identify the species. The black caps and coral red bills suggest that they're Caspian Terns yet the light is too faint for him to be certain. Ten more minutes and the sun will be up but by then the flock will have moved down along the coastline diving for fish and the day's first meal.

Baker leans back and takes a sip of his coffee. There's a hum and he turns to the cell phone vibrating on the table beside him. The message is from Alton Gruder. Baker and Gruder are partners, cofounders of Trans Global Capital, a financial holding company that in less than three years has built up over one trillion dollars in assets.

Baker makes a mental note to call Gruder after the morning linkup then turns back to the birds that have disappeared from view. He's disappointed but it doesn't matter. There's still the sky and the cascading blues. Before California he'd never experienced blue. His native world had been a coal-gray cinder with life only possible far underground.

How right the brethren were to come as they did. Never warlike, had they arrived as invaders they would almost certainly have been defeated. Assimilation was a far better strategy.

A few more minutes and Baker reaches into the pocket of his terry cloth robe and retrieves a thin red wire. He attaches one end of the wire into the USB port of his cell phone, then the other into the synthetic patch of skin that masks the tiny incision on his forehead. Baker dials into the network and waits until gradually his mind reaches out, a single node in an infinite web of possibility, a hundred languages melding into one, every member sharing an endless stream of information discovery experience all of it accessed, filtered and stored.

One item stands out. An auction of debt in New York City has failed to attract the requisite bidders. The brethren immediately recognize the significance: the financial world has been pushed to capacity.

It takes only seconds to agree on the required action: to stockpile cash, to limit their exposure, to place the remainder of their assets in safe havens until the danger has passed. Analysis indicates that the coming debt crisis will result in a systemic non-linear change which will not only collapse the global markets but dramatically restructure the existing order. When this occurs -- and projections are that it will happen within the next eighteen to twenty four months -- the brethren will have captured sufficient power to enforce their rule for the next millennium.

Both Marty Baker and Alton Gruder listen and concur. The collective knowledge of the group has proven far more effective than any army or weapon. It is through knowledge that the alien world onto which the brethren have been cast will ultimately be assumed.

The individual is nothing. It is the race that matters. And their race will win.

THE END


© 2012 John Rovito

Bio: John Rovito lives in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

E-mail: John Rovito

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