Californian Michael Shea often mixes science fiction with horror in his writings to produce (paradoxically) literate, rational terror. His novel Nifft the Lean (1982) is set in the future, yet it is a horrific future. “The Autopsy” uses a similar mix of sf and horror. This story—in which Dr. Carl Winters, a fifty-seven-year-old pathologist, arrives at a mountain town to perform autopsies on the victims of a suspicious mining explosion—is about the business of death; and so be warned that it is in some ways a grim tale. However, it is ultimately a positive, even touching story. You won’t soon forget Dr. Winters and what he finds in a defunct ice plant on the edge of the town known as Bailey.
* * *
Dr. Winters stepped out of the tiny Greyhound station and into the midnight street that smelt of pines and the river, though the street was in the heart of the town. But then, it was a town of only five main streets in breadth, and these extended scarcely a mile and a half along the rim of the gorge. Deep in that gorge though the river ran, its blurred roar flowed, perfectly distinct, between the banks of dark shop windows. The station’s window showed the only light, save for a luminous clock face several doors down and a little neon beer logo two blocks farther on. When he had walked a short distance, Dr. Winters set his suitcase down, pocketed his hands, and looked at the stars—thick as cobblestones in the black gulf.
“A mountain hamlet—a mining town,” he said. “Stars. No moon. We are in Bailey.”
He was talking to his cancer. It was in his stomach. Since learning of it, he had developed this habit of wry communion with it. He meant to show courtesy to this uninvited guest, Death. It would not find him churlish, for that would make its victory absolute. Except, of course, that its victory would be absolute, with or without his ironies.
He picked up his suitcase and walked on. The starlight made faint mirrors of the windows’ blackness and showed him the man who passed: lizard-lean, white-haired (at fifty-seven), a man traveling on death’s business, carrying his own death in him, and even bearing death’s wardrobe in his suitcase. For this was filled—aside from his medical kit and some scant necessities—with mortuary bags. The sheriff had told him on the phone of the improvisations that presently enveloped the corpses, and so the doctor had packed these, laying them in his case with bitter amusement, checking the last one’s breadth against his chest before the mirror, as a woman will gauge a dress before donning it, and telling his cancer: “Oh, yes, that’s plenty roomy enough for both of us!”
The case was heavy and he stopped frequently to rest and scan the sky. What a night’s work to do, probing soulless filth, eyes earthward, beneath such a ceiling of stars! It had taken five days to dig them out. The autumnal equinox had passed, but the weather here had been uniformly hot. And warmer still, no doubt, so deep in the earth.
He entered the courthouse by a side door. His heels knocked on the linoleum corridor. A door at the end of it, on which was lettered NATE CRAVEN, COUNTY SHERIFF, opened well before he reached it, and his friend stepped out to meet him.
“Dammit, Carl, you’re still so thin they could use you for a whip. Gimme that. You’re in too good a shape already. You don’t need the exercise.”
The case hung weightless from his hand, imparting no tilt at all to his bull shoulders. Despite his implied self-derogation, he was only moderately paunched for a man his age and size. He had a rough-hewn face and the bulk of brow, nose, and jaw made his greenish eyes look small until one engaged them and felt the snap and penetration of their intelligence. He half filled two cups from a coffee urn and topped both off with bourbon from a bottle in his desk. When they had finished these, they had finished trading news of mutual friends. The sheriff mixed another round, and sipped from his in a silence clearly prefatory to the work at hand.
“They talk about rough justice,” he said. “I’ve sure seen it now. One of those . . . patients of yours that you’ll be working on? He was a killer. ‘Killer’ don’t even half say it, really. You could say that he got justly executed in that blast. That much was justice for damn sure. But rough as hell on those other nine. And the rough don’t just stop with their being dead either. That kiss-ass boss of yours! He’s breaking his goddamned back touching his toes for Fordham Mutual. How much of the picture did he give you?”
“You refer, I take it, to the estimable Coroner Waddleton of Fordham County.” Dr. Winters paused to sip his drink. With a delicate flaring of his nostrils he communicated all the disgust, contempt, and amusement he had felt in his four years as pathologist in Waddleton’s office. The sheriff laughed.
“Clear pictures seldom emerge from anything the coroner says,” the doctor continued. “He took your name in vain. Vigorously and repeatedly. These expressions formed his opening remarks. He then developed the theme of our office’s strict responsibility to the letter of the law, and of the workmen’s compensation law in particular. Death benefits accrue only to the dependents of decedents whose death arise out of the course of their employment, not merely in the course of it. Victims of a maniacal assault, though they die on the job, are by no means necessarily compensable under the law. We then contemplated the tragic injustice of an insurance company—any insurance company—having to pay benefits to unentitled persons, solely through the laxity and incompetence of investigating officers. Your name came up again.”
Craven uttered a bark of mirth and fury. “The impartial public servant! Ha! The impartial brown-nose, flimflam and bullshit man is what he is. Ten to one, Fordham Mutual will slip out of it without his help, and those widows won’t see a goddamn nickel.” Words were an insufficient vent; the sheriff turned and spat into his wastebasket. He drained his cup, and sighed. “I beg your pardon, Carl. We’ve been five days digging those men out and the last two days sifting half that mountain for explosive traces, with those insurance investigators hanging on our elbows, and the most they could say was that there was ‘strong presumptive evidence’ of a bomb. Well, I don’t budge for that because I don’t have to. Waddleton can shove his ‘extraordinary circumstances.’ If you don’t find anything in those bodies, then that’s all the autopsy there is to it, and they get buried right here where their families want ’em.”
The doctor was smiling at his friend. He finished his cup and spoke with his previous wry detachment, as if the sheriff had not interrupted.
“The honorable coroner then spoke with remarkable volubility on the subject of autopsy consent forms and the malicious subversion of private citizens by vested officers of the law. He had, as it happened, a sheaf of such forms on his desk, all signed, all with a rider clause typed in above the signatures. A cogent paragraph. It had, among its other qualities, the property of turning the coroner’s face purple when he read it aloud. He read it aloud to me three times. It appeared that the survivors’ consent was contingent on two conditions: that the autopsy be performed in locem mortis, that is to say in Bailey, and that only if the coroner’s pathologist found concrete evidence of homicide should the decedents be subject either to removal from Bailey or to further necropsy. It was well written. I remember wondering who wrote it.”
The sheriff nodded musingly. He took Dr. Winters’s empty cup, set it by his own, filled both two thirds with bourbon, and added a splash of coffee to the doctor’s. The two friends exchanged a level stare, rather like poker players in the clinch. The sheriff regarded his cup, sipped from it.
“In locem mortis. What-all does that mean exactly?”
“ ‘In the place of death’. ”
“Oh. Freshen that up for you?”
“I’ve just started it, thank you.”
Both men laughed, paused, and laughed again, some might have said immoderately.
“He all but told me that I had to find something to compel a second autopsy,” the doctor said at length. “He would have sold his soul—or taken out a second mortgage on it—for a mobile X-ray unit. He’s right, of course. If those bodies have trapped any bomb fragments, that would be the surest and quickest way of finding them. It still amazes me your Dr. Parsons could let his X ray go unfixed for so long.”
“He sets bones, stitches wounds, writes prescriptions, and sends anything tricky down the mountain. Just barely manages that. Drunks don’t get much done.”
“He’s gotten that bad?”
“He hangs on and no more. Waddleton was right there, not deputizing him pathologist. I doubt he could find a cannonball in a dead rat. I wouldn’t say it where it could hurt him, as long as he’s still managing, but everyone here knows it. His patients sort of look after him half the time. But Waddleton would have sent you, no matter who was here. Nothing but his best for party contributors like Fordham Mutual.”
The doctor looked at his hands and shrugged. “So. There’s a killer in the batch. Was there a bomb?”
Slowly, the sheriff planted his elbows on the desk and pressed his hands against his temples, as if the question had raised a turbulence of memories. For the first time the doctor—half harkening throughout to the never- quite-muted stirrings of the death within him—saw his friend’s exhaustion: the tremor of hand, the bruised look under the eyes.
“I’m going to give you what I have, Carl. I told you I don’t think you’ll find a damn thing in those bodies. You’re probably going to end up assuming what I do about it, but assuming is as far as anyone’s going to get with this one. It is truly one of those nightmare specials that the good Lord tortures lawmen with and then hides the answers to forever.
“All right then. About two months ago, we had a man disappear—Ronald Hanley. Mine worker, rock steady, family man. He didn’t come home one night, and we never found a trace of him. Okay, that happens sometimes. About a week later, the lady that ran the Laundromat, Sharon Starker, she disappeared, no trace. We got edgy then. I made an announcement on the local radio about a possible weirdo at large, spelled out special precautions everybody should take. We put both our squad cars on the night beat, and by day we set to work knocking on every door in town collecting alibis for the two times of disappearance.
“No good. Maybe you’re fooled by this uniform and think I’m a law officer, protector of the people, and all that? A natural mistake. A lot of people were fooled. In less than seven weeks, six people vanished, just like that. Me and my deputies might as well have stayed in bed round the clock, for all the good we did.” The sheriff drained his cup.
“Anyway, at last we got lucky. Don’t get me wrong now. We didn’t go all hog wild and actually prevent a crime or anything. But we did find a body—except it wasn’t the body of any of the seven people that had disappeared. We’d took to combing the woods nearest town, with temporary deputies from the miners to help. Well, one of those boys was out there with us last week. It was hot—like it’s been for a while now —and it was real quiet. He heard this buzzing noise and looked around for it, and he saw a bee swarm up in the crotch of a tree. Except he was smart enough to know that that’s not usual around here—beehives. So it wasn’t bees. It was bluebottle flies, a goddamned big cloud of them, all over a bundle that was wrapped in a tarp.”
The sheriff studied his knuckles. He had, in his eventful life, occasionally met men literate enough to understand his last name and rash enough to be openly amused by it, and the knuckles—scarred knobs—were eloquent of his reactions. He looked back into his old friend’s eyes.
“We got that thing down and unwrapped it. Billy Lee Davis, one of my deputies, he was in Vietnam, been near some bad, bad things and held on. Billy Lee blew his lunch all over the ground when we unwrapped that thing. It was a man. Some of a man. We knew he’d stood six-two because all the bones were there, and he’d probably weighed between two fifteen and two twenty-five, but he folded up no bigger than a big- size laundry package. Still had his face, both shoulders, and the left arm, but all the rest was clean. It wasn’t animal work. It was knife work, all the edges neat as butcher cuts. Except butchered meat, even when you drain it all you can, will bleed a good deal afterward, and there wasn’t one goddamned drop of blood on the tarp, nor in that meat. It was just as pale as fish meat.”
Deep in his body’s center, the doctor’s cancer touched him. Not a ravening attack—it sank one fang of pain, questioningly, into new, untasted flesh, probing the scope for its appetite there. He disguised his tremor with a shake of the head.
“A cache, then.”
The sheriff nodded. “Like you might keep a pot roast in the icebox for making lunches. I took some pictures of his face, then we put him back and erased our traces. Two of the miners I’d deputized did a lot of hunting, were woods-smart. So I left them on the first watch. We worked out positions and cover for them, and drove back.
“We got right on tracing him, sent out descriptions to every town within a hundred miles. He was no one I’d ever seen in Bailey, nor anyone else either, it began to look like, after we’d combed the town all day with the photos. Then, out of the blue, Billy Lee Davis smacks himself on the forehead and says, ‘Sheriff, I seen this man somewhere in town, and not long ago!’
“He’d been shook all day since throwing up, and then all of a sudden he just snapped to. Was dead sure. Except he couldn’t remember where or when. We went over and over it and he tried and tried. It got to where I wanted to grab him by the ankles and hang him upside down and shake him till it dropped out of him. But it was no damn use. Just after dark we went back to that tree—we’d worked out a place to hide the cars and a route to it through the woods. When we were close we walkie-talkied the men we’d left for an all-clear to come up. No answer at all. And when we got there, all that was left of our trap was the tree. No body, no tarp, no special assistant deputies. Nothing.”
This time Dr. Winters poured the coffee and bourbon. “Too much coffee,” the sheriff muttered, but drank anyway. “Part of me wanted to chew nails and break necks. And part of me was scared shitless. When we got back I got on the radio station again and made an emergency broadcast and then had the man at the station rebroadcast it every hour. Told everyone to do everything in groups of three, to stay together at night in threes at least, to go out little as possible, keep armed, and keep checking up on each other. It had such a damn-fool sound to it, but just pairing up was no protection if half of one of those pairs was the killer. I deputized more men and put them on the streets to beef up the night patrol.
“It was next morning that things broke. The sheriff of Rakehell called—he’s over in the next county. He said our corpse sounded a lot like a man named Abel Dougherty, a mill hand with Con Wood over there. I left Billy Lee in charge and drove right out.
“This Dougherty had a crippled older sister he always checked back to by phone whenever he left town for long, a habit no one knew about, probably embarrassed him. Sheriff Peck there only found out about it when the woman called him, said her brother’d been four days gone for vacation and not rung her once. Without that Peck might not’ve thought of Dougherty just from our description, though the photo I showed him clinched it, and one would’ve reached him by mail soon enough. Well, he’d hardly set it down again, when a call came through for me. It was Billy Lee. He’d remembered.
“When he’d seen Dougherty was the Sunday night three days before we found him. Where he’d seen him was the Trucker’s Tavern outside the north end of town. The man had made a stir by being jolly drunk and latching on to a miner who was drinking there, man named Joe Allen, who’d started at the mine about two months back. Dougherty kept telling him that he wasn’t Joe Allen, but Dougherty’s old buddy named Sykes that had worked with him at Con Wood for a coon’s age, and what the hell kind of joke was this, come have a beer old buddy and tell me why you took off so sudden and what the hell you been doing with yourself.
“Allen took it laughing. Dougherty’d clap him on the shoulder, Allen’d clap him right back and make every kind of joke about it, say ‘Give this man another beer, I’m standing in for a long-lost friend of his.’ Dougherty was so big and loud and stubborn, Billy Lee was worried about a fight starting, and he wasn’t the only one worried. But this Joe Allen was a natural good ol’ boy, handled it perfect. We’d checked him out weeks back along with everyone else, and he was real popular with the other miners. Finally Dougherty swore he was going to take him on to another bar to help celebrate the vacation Dougherty was starting out on. Joe Allen got up grinning, said goddammit, he couldn’t accommodate Dougherty by being this fellow Sykes, but he could sure as hell have a glass with any serious drinking man that was treating. He went out with him, and gave everyone a wink as he left, to the general satisfaction of the audience.”
Craven paused. Dr. Winters met his eyes and knew his thought, two images: the jolly wink that roused the room to laughter, and the thing in the tarp aboil with bright blue flies.
“It was plain enough for me,” the sheriff said. “I told Billy Lee to search Allen’s room at the Skettles’ boardinghouse and then go straight to the mine and take him. We could fine-polish things once we had him. Since I was already in Rakehell, I saw to some of the loose ends before I started back. I went with Sheriff Peck down to Con Wood and we found a picture of Eddie Sykes in the personnel files. I’d seen Joe Allen often enough, and it was his picture in that file.
“We found out Sykes lived alone, was an on-again off-again worker, private in his comings and goings, and hadn’t been around for a while. But one of the sawyers there could be pretty sure of when Sykes left Rakehell because he’d gone to Sykes’s cabin the morning after a big meteor shower they had out there about nine weeks back, since some thought the shower might have reached the ground, and not far from Sykes’s side of the mountain. He wasn’t in that morning, and the sawyer hadn’t seen him since.
“It looked sewed up. It was sewed up. After all those weeks, I was less than a mile out of Bailey, had the pedal floored. Full of rage and revenge. I felt . . . like a bullet, like I was one big thirty-caliber slug that was going to go right through that blood-sucking cannibal, tear the whole truth right out of his heart, enough to hang him a hundred times. That was the closest I got. So close that I heard it when it all blew to shit.
“I sound squirrelly. I know I do. Maybe all this gave me something I’ll never shake off. We had to put together what happened. Billy Lee didn’t have my other deputy with him. Travis was out with some men on the mountain dragnetting around that tree for clues. By luck, he was back at the car when Billy Lee was trying to raise him. He said he’d just been through Allen’s room and had gotten something we could maybe hold him on. It was a sphere, half again big as a basketball, heavy, made of something that wasn’t metal or glass but was a little like both. He could half-see into it and it looked to be full of some kind of circuitry and components. If someone tried to spring Allen, we could make a theft rap out of this thing, or say we suspected it was a bomb. Jesus! Anyway, he said it was the only strange thing he found, but it was plenty strange. He told Travis to get up to the mine for backup. He’d be there first and should already have Allen by the time Travis arrived.
“Tierney, the shift boss up there, had an assistant that told us the rest. Billy Lee parked behind the offices where the men in the yard wouldn’t see the car. He went upstairs to arrange the arrest with Tierney. They got half a dozen men together. Just as they came out of the building, they saw Allen take off running from the squad car with the sphere under his arm.
“The whole compound’s fenced in and Tierney’d already phoned to have all the gates shut. Allen zigged and zagged some but caught on quick to the trap. The sphere slowed him, but he still had a good lead. He hesitated a minute and then ran straight for the main shaft. A cage was just going down with a crew, and he risked every bone in him jumping down after it, but he got safe on top. By the time they got to the switches, the cage was down to the second level, and Allen and the crew had got out. Tierney got it back up. Billy Lee ordered the rest back to get weapons and follow, and him and Tierney rode the cage right back down. And about two minutes later half the goddamned mine blew up.”
The sheriff stopped as if cut off, his lips parted to say more, his eyes registering for perhaps the hundredth time his amazement that there was no more, that the weeks of death and mystification ended here, with this split-second recapitulation: more death, more answerless dark, sealing all.
“Wrap it up and go to bed. I don’t need your help. You’re dead on your feet.”
“I’m not on my feet. And I’m coming along.”
“Give me a picture of the victims’ position relative to the blast. I’m going to work and you’re going to bed.”
The sheriff shook his head absently. “They’re mining in shrinkage stopes. The adits—levels—branch off lateral from the vertical shaft. From one level they hollow out overhand up to the one above. Scoop out big chambers and let most of the broken rock stay inside so they can stand on the heaps to cut the ceilings higher. They leave sections of support wall between stopes, and those men were buried several stopes in from the shaft. The cave-in killed them. The mountain just folded them up in their own hill of tailings. No kind of fragments reached them. I’m dead sure. The only ones they found were of some standard charges that the main blast set off, and those didn’t even get close. The big one blew out where the adit joined the shaft, right where, and right when Billy Lee and Tierney got out of the cage. And there is nothing left there, Carl. No sphere, no cage, no Tierney, no Billy Lee Davis. Just rock blown fine as flour.”
Dr. Winters nodded and, after a moment, stood up.
“Come on, Nate. I’ve got to get started. I’ll be lucky to have even a few of them done before morning. Drop me off and go to sleep, till then at least. You’ll still be there to witness most of the work.”
The sheriff rose, took up the doctor’s suitcase, and led him out of the office without a word, concession in his silence.
The patrol car was behind the building. The doctor saw a crueller beauty in the stars than he had an hour before. They got in, and Craven swung them out onto the empty street. The doctor opened the window and harkened, but the motor’s surge drowned out the river sound. Before the thrust of their headlights, ranks of old-fashioned parking meters sprouted shadows tall across the sidewalks, shadows which shrank and were cut down by the lights’ passage. The sheriff said: “All those extra dead. For nothing! Not even to . . . feed him! If it was a bomb, and he made it, he’d know how powerful it was. He wouldn’t try some stupid escape stunt with it. And how did he even know the thing was there? We worked it out that Allen was just ending a shift, but he wasn’t even up out of the ground before Billy Lee’d parked out of sight.”
“Let it rest, Nate. I want to hear more, but after you’ve slept. I know you. All the photos will be there, and the report complete, all the evidence neatly boxed and carefully described. When I’ve looked things over I’ll know exactly how to proceed by myself.”
Bailey had neither hospital nor morgue, and the bodies were in a defunct ice plant on the edge of town. A generator had been brought down from the mine, lighting improvised, and the refrigeration system reactivated. Dr. Parsons’s office, and the tiny examining room that served the sheriff s station in place of a morgue, had furnished this makeshift with all the equipment that Dr. Winters would need beyond what he carried with him. A quarter-mile outside the main body of the town, they drew up to it. Tree-flanked, unneighbored by any other structure, it was a double building; the smaller half—the office—was illuminated. The bodies would be in the big, windowless refrigerator segment. Craven pulled up beside a second squad car parked near the office door. A short, rake-thin man wearing a large white Stetson got out of the car and came over. Craven rolled down his window.
“Trav. This here’s Dr. Winters.”
“ ‘Lo, Nate. Dr. Winters. Everything’s shipshape inside. Felt more comfortable out here. Last of those newshounds left two hours ago.”
“They sure do hang on. You take off now, Trav. Get some sleep and be back at sunup. What temperature we getting?”
The pale Stetson, far clearer in the starlight than the shadow face beneath it, wagged dubiously. “Thirty-six. She won’t get lower—some kind of leak.”
“That should be cold enough,” the doctor said.
Travis drove off and the sheriff unlocked the padlock on the office door. Waiting behind him, Dr. Winters heard the river again—a cold balm, a whisper of freedom—and overlying this, the stutter and soft snarl of the generator behind the building, a gnawing, remorseless sound that somehow fed the obscure anguish which the other soothed. They went in.
The preparations had been thoughtful and complete. “You can wheel ’em out of the fridge on this and do the examining in here,” the sheriff said, indicating a table and a gurney. “You should find all the gear you need on this big table here, and you can write up your reports on that desk. The phone’s not hooked up—there’s a pay phone at that last gas station if you have to call me.”
The doctor nodded, checking over the material on the larger table: scalpels, post-mortem and cartilage knives, intestine scissors, rib shears, forceps, probes, mallet and chisels, a blade saw and electric bone saw, scale, jars for specimens, needles and suture, sterilizer, gloves. . . . Beside this array were a few boxes and envelopes with descriptive sheets attached, containing the photographs and such evidentiary objects as had been found associated with the bodies.
“Excellent,” he muttered.
“The overhead light’s fluorescent, full spectrum or whatever they call it. Better for colors. There’s a pint of decent bourbon in that top desk drawer. Ready to look at ’em?”
The sheriff unbarred and slid back the big metal door to the refrigeration chamber. Icy, tainted air boiled out of the doorway. The light within was dimmer than that provided in the office—a yellow gloom wherein ten oblong heaps lay on trestles.
The two stood silent for a time, their stillness a kind of unpremeditated homage paid the eternal mystery at its threshold. As if the cold room were in fact a shrine, the doctor found a peculiar awe in the row of veiled forms. The awful unison of their dying, the titan’s grave that had been made for them, conferred on them a stern authority, death’s chosen ones. His stomach hurt, and he found he had his hand pressed to his abdomen. He glanced at Craven and was relieved to see that his friend, staring wearily at the bodies, had missed the gesture.
“Nate. Help me uncover them.”
Starting at opposite ends of the row, they stripped the tarps off and piled them in a corner. Both were brusque now, not pausing over the revelation of the swelled, pulpy faces—most three-lipped with the gaseous burgeoning of their tongues—and the fat, livid hands sprouting from the filthy sleeves. But at one of the bodies Craven stopped. The doctor saw him look, and his mouth twist. Then he flung the tarp on the heap and moved to the next trestle.
When they came out Dr. Winters took out the bottle and glasses Craven had put in the desk, and they had a drink together. The sheriff made as if he would speak, but shook his head and sighed.
“I will get some sleep, Carl. I’m getting crazy thoughts with this thing.” The doctor wanted to ask those thoughts. Instead, he laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder.
“Go home, Sheriff Craven. Take off the badge and lie down. The dead won’t run off on you. We’ll all still be here in the morning.”
When the sound of the patrol car faded, the doctor stood listening to the generator’s growl and the silence of the dead, resurgent now. Both the sound and the silence seemed to mock him. The after-echo of his last words made him uneasy. He said to his cancer: “What about it, dear colleague? We will still be here tomorrow? All of us?”
He smiled, but felt an odd discomfort, as if he had ventured a jest in company and roused a hostile silence. He went to the refrigerator door, rolled it back, and viewed the corpses in their ordered rank, with their strange tribunal air. “What, sirs?” he murmured. “Do you judge me? Just who is to examine whom tonight, if I may ask?”
He went back into the office, where his first step was to examine the photographs made by the sheriff, in order to see how the dead had lain at their uncovering. The earth had seized them with terrible suddenness. Some crouched, some partly stood, others sprawled in crazy, free-fall postures. Each successive photo showed more of the jumble as the shovels continued their work between shots. The doctor studied them closely, noting the identifications inked on the bodies as they came completely into view.
One man, Roger Willet, had died some yards from the main cluster. It appeared he had just straggled into the stope from the adit at the moment of the explosion. He should thus have received, more directly than any of the others, the shockwaves of the blast. If bomb fragments were to be found in any of the corpses, Mr. Willet’s seemed likeliest to contain them. Dr. Winters pulled on a pair of surgical gloves.
He lay at one end of the line of trestles. He wore a thermal shirt and overalls that were strikingly new beneath the filth of burial . Their tough fabrics jarred with that of his flesh—blue, swollen, seeming easily torn or burst, like ripe fruit. In life Willet had grease-combed his hair. Now it was a sculpture of dust, spikes, and whorls shaped by the head’s last grindings against the mountain that clenched it.
Rigor had come and gone—Willet rolled laxly onto the gurney. As the doctor wheeled him past the others, he felt a slight self-consciousness. The sense of some judgment flowing from the dead assembly—unlike most such vagrant emotional embellishments of experience—had an odd tenacity in him. This stubborn unease began to irritate him with himself, and he moved more briskly.
He put Willet on the examining table and cut the clothes off him with shears, storing the pieces in an evidence box. The overalls were soiled with agonal waste expulsions. The doctor stared a moment with unwilling pity at his naked subject.
“You won’t ride down to Fordham in any case,” he said to the corpse. “Not unless I find something pretty damned obvious.” He pulled his gloves tighter and arranged his implements.
Waddleton had said more to him than he had reported to the sheriff. The doctor was to find, and forcefully to record that he had found, strong “indications” absolutely requiring the decedents’ removal to Fordham for X ray and an exhaustive second post mortem. The doctor’s continued employment with the coroner’s office depended entirely on his compliance in this. He had received this stipulation with a silence Waddleton had not thought it necessary to break. His present resolution was all but made at that moment. Let the obvious be taken as such. If the others showed as plainly as Willet did the external signs of death by asphyxiation, they would receive no more than a thorough external exam. Willet he would examine internally as well, merely to establish in depth for this one what should appear obvious in all. Otherwise, only when the external exam revealed a clearly anomalous feature—and clear and suggestive it must be—would he look deeper.
He rinsed the caked hair in a basin, poured the sediment into a flask, and labeled it. Starting with the scalp, he began a minute scrutiny of the body’s surfaces, recording his observations as he went.
The characteristic signs of asphyxial death were evident, despite the complicating effects of autolysis and putrefaction. The eyeballs’ bulge and the tongue’s protrusion were by now at least partly due to gas pressure as well as the mode of death, but the latter organ was clamped between locked teeth, leaving little doubt as to that mode. The coloration of degenerative change—a greenish-yellow tint, a darkening and mapping- out of superficial veins—was marked, but not sufficient to obscure the blue of syanosis on the face and neck, nor the pinpoint hemorrhages freckling neck, chest, and shoulders. From the mouth and nose the doctor scraped matter he was confident was the blood-tinged mucus typically ejected in the airless agony.
He began to find a kind of comedy in his work. What a buffoon death made of a man! A blue, popeyed, three-lipped thing. And there was himself, his curious, solicitous intimacy with this clownish carrion. Excuse me, Mr. Willet, while I probe this laceration. How does it feel when I do this? Nothing? Nothing at all? Fine, now what about these nails. Split them clawing at the earth, did you? Yes. A nice blood blister under this thumbnail I see—got it on the job a few days before your accident no doubt? Remarkable calluses here, still quite tough. . . .
The doctor looked for an unanalytic moment at the hands—puffed, dark paws, gestureless, having renounced all touch and grasp. He felt the wastage of the man concentrated in the hands. The painful futility of the body’s fine articulation when it is seen in death—this poignancy he had long learned not to acknowledge when he worked. But now he let it move him a little. This Roger Willet, plodding to his work one afternoon, had suddenly been scrapped, crushed to a nonfunctional heap of perishable materials. It simply happened that his life had chanced to move too close to the passage of a more powerful life, one of those inexorable and hungry lives that leave human wreckage—known or undiscovered—in their wakes. Bad luck, Mr. Willet. Naturally, we feel very sorry about this. But this Joe Allen, your coworker. Apparently he was some sort of . . . cannibal. It’s complicated. We don’t understand it all. But the fact is we have to dismantle you now to a certain extent. There’s really no hope of your using these parts of yourself again, I’m afraid. Ready now?
The doctor proceeded to the internal exam with a vague eagerness for Willet’s fragmentation, for the disarticulation of that sadness in his natural form. He grasped Willet by the jaw and took up the post-mortem knife. He sank its point beneath the chin and began the long, gently sawing incision that opened Willet from throat to groin.
In the painstaking separation of the body’s laminae, Dr. Winters found absorption and pleasure. And yet throughout he felt, marginal but insistent, the movement of a stream of irrelevant images. These were of the building that contained him, and of the night containing it. As from outside, he saw the plant—bleached planks, iron roofing—and the trees crowding it, all in starlight, a ghost-town image. And he saw the refrigerator vault beyond the wall as from within, feeling the stillness of murdered men in a cold yellow light. And at length a question formed itself, darting in and out of the weave of his concentration as the images did: Why did he still feel, like some stir of the air, that sense of mute vigilance surrounding his action, furtively touching his nerves with its inquiry as he worked? He shrugged, overtly angry now. Who else was attending but Death? Wasn’t he Death’s hireling, and this Death’s place? Then let the master look on.
Peeling back Willet’s cover of hemorrhage-stippled skin, Dr. Winters read the corpse with an increasing dispassion, a mortuary text. He confined his inspection to the lungs and mediastinum and found there unequivocal testimony to Willet’s asphyxial death. The pleurae of the lungs exhibited the expected ecchymoses—bruised spots in the glassy, enveloping membrane. Beneath, the polyhedral surface lobules of the lungs themselves were bubbled and blistered—the expected interstitial emphysema. The lungs, on section, were intensely and bloodily congested. The left half of the heart he found contracted and empty, while the right was overdistended and engorged with dark blood, as were the large veins of the upper mediastinum. It was a classic picture of death by suffocation, and at length the doctor, with needle and suture, closed up the text again.
He returned the corpse to the gurney and draped one of his mortuary bags over it in the manner of a shroud. When he had help in the morning, he would weigh the bodies on a platform scale the office contained and afterward bag them properly. He came to the refrigerator door, and hesitated. He stared at the door, not moving, not understanding why.
Run. Get out, now.
The thought was his own, but it came to him so urgently, he turned around as if someone behind him had spoken. Across the room a thin man in smock and gloves, his eyes shadows, glared at the doctor from the black windows. Behind the man was a shrouded cart, behind that, a wide metal door.
Quietly, wonderingly, the doctor asked, “Run from what?” The eyeless man in the glass was still half crouched, afraid.
Then, a moment later, the man straightened, threw back his head, and laughed. The doctor walked to the desk and sat down shoulder to shoulder with him. He pulled out the bottle and they had a drink together, regarding each other with identical bemused smiles. Then the doctor said, “Let me pour you another. You need it old fellow. It makes a man himself again.”
Nevertheless, his reentry of the vault was difficult, toilsome, each step seeming to require a new summoning of the will to move. In the freezing half light, all movement felt like defiance. His body lagged behind his craving to be quick, to be done with this molestation of the gathered dead. He returned Willet to his pallet and took his neighbor. The name on the tag wired to his boot was Ed Moses. Dr. Winters wheeled him back to the office and closed the big door behind him.
With Moses his work gained momentum. He expected to perform no further internal necropsies. He thought of his employer, rejoicing now in his seeming submission to Waddleton’s ultimatum. The impact would be dire. He pictured the coroner in shock, a sheaf of pathologist’s reports in one hand, and smiled.
Waddleton could probably make a plausible case for incomplete examination. Still, a pathologist’s discretionary powers were not well defined. Many good ones would approve the adequacy of the doctor’s method, given his working conditions. The inevitable litigation with a coalition of compensation claimants would be strenuous and protracted. Win or lose, Waddleton’s venal devotion to the insurance company’s interest would be abundantly displayed. Further, immediately on his dismissal the doctor would formally disclose its occult cause to the press. A libel action would ensue, which he would have as little cause to fear as he had to fear his firing. Both his savings and the lawsuit would long outlast his life.
Externally, Ed Moses exhibited a condition as typically asphyxial as Willet’s had been, with no slightest mark of fragment entry. The doctor finished his report and returned Moses to the vault, his movements brisk and precise. His unease was all but gone. That queasy stirring of the air—had he really felt it? It had been, perhaps, some new reverberation of the death at work in him, a psychic shudder of response to the cancer’s stealthy probing for his life. He brought out the body next to Moses in the line.
Walter Lou Jackson was big, six-two from heel to crown, and would surely weigh out at more than two hundred pounds. He had writhed mightily against his million-ton coffin with an agonal strength that had torn his face and hands. Death had mauled him like a lion. The doctor set to work.
His hands were fully themselves now—fleet, exact, intricately testing the corpse’s character as other fingers might explore a keyboard for its latent melodies. And the doctor watched them with an old pleasure, one of the few that had never failed him, his mind at one remove from their busy intelligence. All the hard deaths! A worldful of them, time without end. Lives wrenched kicking from their snug meat frames. Walter Lou Jackson had died very hard. Joe Allen brought this on you, Mr. Jackson. We think it was part of his attempt to escape the law.
But what a botched flight! The unreason of it—more than baffling—was eerie in its colossal futility. Beyond question, Allen had been cunning. A ghoul with a psychopath’s social finesse. A good old boy who could make a tavernful of men laugh with delight while he cut his victim from their midst, make them applaud his exit with the prey, who stepped jovially into the darkness with murder at his side clapping him on the shoulder. Intelligent, certainly, with a strange technical sophistication as well, suggested by the sphere. Then what of the lunacy yet more strongly suggested by the same object? In the sphere was concentrated all the lethal mystery of Bailey’s long nightmare.
Why the explosion? Its location implied an ambush for Allen’s pursuers, a purposeful detonation. Had he aimed at a limited cave-in from which he schemed some inconceivable escape? Folly enough in this—far more if, as seemed sure, Allen had made the bomb himself, for then he would have to know its power was grossly inordinate to the need.
But if it was not a bomb, had a different function and only incidentally an explosive potential, Allen might underestimate the blast. It appeared the object was somehow remotely monitored by him, for the timing of events showed he had gone straight for it the instant he emerged from the shaft—shunned the bus waiting to take his shift back to town and made a beeline across the compound for a patrol car that was hidden from his view by the office building. This suggested something more complex than a mere explosive device, something, perhaps, whose destruction was itself more Allen’s aim than the explosion produced thereby.
The fact that he risked the sphere’s retrieval at all pointed to this interpretation. For the moment he sensed its presence at the mine, he must have guessed that the murder investigation had led to its discovery and removal from his room. But then, knowing himself already liable to the extreme penalty, why should Allen go to such lengths to recapture evidence incriminatory of a lesser offense, possession of an explosive device?
Then grant that the sphere was something more, something instrumental to his murders that could guarantee a conviction he might otherwise evade. Still, his gambit made no sense. Since the sphere—and thus the lawmen he could assume to have taken it—were already at the mine office, he must expect the compound to be sealed at any moment. Meanwhile, the gate was open,* escape into the mountains a strong possibility for a man capable of stalking and destroying two experienced and well-armed woodsmen lying in ambush for him. Why had he all but insured his capture to weaken a case against himself that his escape would have rendered irrelevant? Dr. Winters saw his fingers, like a hunting pack round a covert, converge on a small puncture wound below Walter Lou Jackson’s xiphoid process, between the eighth ribs.
His left hand touched its borders, the fingers’ inquiry quick and tender. The right hand introduced a probe, and both together eased it into the wound. It inched unobstructed deep into the body, curving upward through the diaphragm toward the heart. The doctor’s own heart accelerated. He watched his hands move to record the observation, watched them pause, watched them return to their survey of the corpse, leaving pen and page untouched.
Inspection revealed no further anomaly. All else he observed the doctor recorded faithfully, wondering throughout at the distress he felt. When he had finished, he understood it. Its cause was not the discovery of an entry wound that might bolster Waddleton’s case. For the find had, within moments, revealed to him that, should he encounter anything he thought to be a mark of fragment penetration, he was going to ignore it. The damage Joe Allen had done was going to end here, with this last grand slaughter, and would not extend to the impoverishment of his victims’ survivors. No more internals. The externals, will they nill-they, would from now on explicitly contraindicate the need for them.
The problem was that he did not believe the puncture in Jackson’s thorax was a mark of fragment entry. Why? And, finding no answer to this question, why was he, once again, afraid? Slowly, he signed the report on Jackson, set it aside, and took up the post-mortem knife.
First the long, sawing slice, unzippering the mortal overcoat. Next, two great, square flaps of flesh reflected, scrolled laterally to the armpits’ line, disrobing the chest: one hand grasping the flap’s skirt, the other sweeping beneath it with the knife, flensing through the glassy tissue that joined it to the chest wall, and shaving all muscles from their anchorages to bone and cartilage beneath. Then the dismantling of the strongbox within. Rib shears—so frank and forward a tool, like a gardener’s. The steel beak bit through each rib’s gristle anchor to the sternum’s centerplate. At the sternum’s crownpiece the collarbones’ ends were knifed, pried, and sprung free from their sockets. The coffer unhasped, unhinged, a knife teased beneath the lid and levered it off.
Some minutes later the doctor straightened up and stepped back from his subject. He moved almost drunkenly, and his age seemed scored more deeply in his face. With loathing haste he stripped his gloves off. He went to the desk, sat down, and poured another drink If there was something like horror in his face, there was also a hardening in his mouth’s line, and the muscles of his jaw. He spoke to his glass: “So be it, Your Excellency. Something new for your humble servant. Testing my nerve?”
Jackson’s pericardium, the shapely capsule containing his heart, should have been all but hidden between the big blood-fat loaves of his lungs. The doctor had found it fully exposed, the lungs flanking it wrinkled lumps less than a third their natural bulk. Not only they, but the left heart and the superior mediastinal veins—all the regions that should have been grossly engorged with blood—were utterly drained of it.
The doctor swallowed his drink and got out the photographs again. He found that Jackson had died on his stomach across the body of another worker, with the upper part of a third trapped between them. Neither these two subjacent corpses nor the surrounding earth showed any stain of a blood loss that must have amounted to two liters.
Possibly the pictures, by some trick of shadow, had failed to pick it up. He turned to the investigator’s report, where Craven would surely have mentioned any significant amounts of bloody earth uncovered during the disinterment. The sheriff recorded nothing of the kind. Dr. Winters returned to the pictures.
Ronald Pollack, Jackson’s most intimate associate in the grave, had died on his back, beneath and slightly askew of Jackson, placing most of their torsos in contact, save where the head and shoulder of the third interposed. It seemed inconceivable Pollock’s clothing should lack any trace of such massive drainage from a death mate thus embraced.
The doctor rose abruptly, pulled on fresh gloves, and returned to Jackson. His hands showed a more brutal speed now, closing the great incision temporarily with a few widely spaced sutures. He replaced him in the vault and brought out Pollock, striding, heaving hard at the dead shapes in the shifting of them, thrusting always—so it seemed to him—just a step ahead of urgent thoughts he did not want to have, deformities that whispered at his back, emitting faint, chill gusts of putrid breath. He shook his head—denying, delaying—and pushed the new corpse onto the worktable. The scissors undressed Pollock in greedy bites.
But at length, when he had scanned each scrap of fabric and found nothing like the stain of blood, he came to rest again, relinquishing that simplest, desired resolution he had made such haste to reach. He stood at the instrument table, not seeing it, submitting to the approach of the half-formed things at his mind’s periphery.
The revelation of Jackson’s shriveled lungs had been more than a shock. He had felt a stab of panic, too, in fact that same curiously explicit terror of this place that had urged him to flee earlier. He acknowledged now that the germ of that quickly suppressed terror had been a premonition of this failure to find any trace of the missing blood. Whence the premonition? It had to do with a problem he had steadfastly refused to consider: the mechanics of so complete a drainage of the lungs’ densely reticulated vascular structure. Could the earth’s crude pressure by itself work so thoroughly, given only a single vent both slender and strangely curved? And then the photograph he had studied. It frightened him now to recall the image—some covert meaning stirred within it, struggling to be seen. Dr. Winters picked the probe up from the table and turned again to the corpse. As surely and exactly as if he had already ascertained the wound’s presence, he leaned forward and touched it: a small, neat puncture, just beneath the xiphoid process. He introduced the probe. The wound received it deeply, in a familiar direction.
The doctor went to the desk, and took up the photograph again. Pollock’s and Jackson’s wounded areas were not in contact. The third man’s head was sandwiched between their bodies at just that point. He searched out another picture, in which this third man was more central, and found his name inked in below his image: Joe Allen.
Dreamingly, Dr. Winters went to the wide metal door, shoved it aside, entered the vault. He did not search, but went straight to the trestle, where his friend had paused some hours before, and found the same name on its tag.
The body, beneath decay’s spurious obesity, was trim and well muscled. The face was square cut, shelf-browed, with a vulpine nose skewed by an old fracture. The swollen tongue lay behind the teeth, and the bulge of decomposition did not obscure what the man’s initial impact must have been—handsome and open, his now-waxen black eyes sly and convivial. Say, good buddy, got a minute? I see you cornin’ on the swing shift every day, don’t I? Yeah, Joe Allen. Look, I know it’s late, you want to get home, tell the wife you ain’t been in there drinkin’ since you got off, right? Oh, yeah, I hear that. But this damn disappearance thing’s got me so edgy, and I’d swear to God just as I was coming here I seen someone moving around back of that frame house up the street. See how the trees thin out a little down back of the yard, where the moonlight gets in? That’s right. Well, I got me this little popper here. Oh, yeah, that’s a beauty, we’ll have it covered between us. I knew I could spot a man ready for some trouble—couldn’t find a patrol car anywhere on the street. Yeah, just down in here now, to that clump of pine. Step careful, you can barely see. That’s right. . . .
The doctor’s face ran with sweat. He turned on his heel and walked out of the vault, heaving the door shut behind him. In the office’s greater warmth he felt the perspiration soaking his shirt under the smock. His stomach rasped with steady oscillations of pain, but he scarcely attended it. He went to Pollock and seized up the post-mortem knife.
The work was done with surreal speed, the laminae of flesh and bone recoiling smoothly beneath his desperate but unerring hands, until the thoracic cavity lay exposed, and in it, the vampire-stricken lungs, two gnarled lumps of gray tissue.
He searched no deeper, knowing what the heart and veins would show. He returned to sit at the desk, weakly drooping, the knife, forgotten, still in his left hand. He looked at the window, and it seemed his thoughts originated with that fainter, more tenuous Dr. Winters hanging like a ghost outside.
What was this world he lived in? Surely, in a lifetime, he had not begun to guess. To feed in such a way! There was horror enough in this alone. But to feed thus in his own grave. How had he accomplished it—leaving aside how he had fought suffocation long enough to do anything at all? How was it to be comprehended, a greed that raged so hotly it would glut itself at the very threshold of its own destruction? That last feast was surely in his stomach still.
Dr. Winters looked at the photograph, at Allen’s head snugged into the others’ middles like a hungry suckling nuzzling to the sow. Then he looked at the knife in his hand. The hand felt empty of all technique. Its one impulse was to slash, cleave, obliterate the remains of this gluttonous thing, this Joe Allen. He must do this, or flee it utterly. There was no course between. He did not move.
“I will examine him,” said the ghost in the glass, and did not move. Inside the refrigeration vault there was a slight noise.
No. It had been some hitch in the generator’s murmur. Nothing in there could move. There was another noise, a brief friction against the vault’s inner wall. The two old men shook their heads at each other. A catch clicked and the metal door slid open. Behind the staring image of his own amazement, the doctor saw that a filthy shape stood in the doorway and raised its arms toward him in a gesture of supplication. The doctor turned in his chair. From the shape came a whistling groan, the decayed fragment of a human voice.
Pleadingly, Joe Allen worked his jaw and spread his purple hands. As if speech were a maggot struggling to emerge from his mouth, the blue, tumescent face toiled, the huge tongue wallowed helplessly between the viscid lips.
The doctor reached for the telephone, lifted the receiver. Its deadness to his ear meant nothing—he could not have spoken. The thing confronting him, with each least movement that it made, destroyed the very frame of sanity in which words might have meaning, reduced the world itself around him to a waste of dark and silence, a starlit ruin where already, everywhere, the alien and unimaginable was awakening to its new dominion. The corpse raised and reached out one hand as if to stay him—turned, and walked toward the instrument table. Its legs were leaden, it rocked its shoulders like a swimmer, fighting to make its passage through gravity’s dense medium. It reached the table and grasped it exhaustedly. The doctor found himself on his feet, crouched slightly, weightlessly still. The knife in his hand was the only part of himself he clearly felt, and it was like a tongue of fire, a crematory flame. Joe Allen’s corpse thrust one hand among the instruments. The thick fingers, with a queer simian ineptitude, brought up a scalpel. Both hands clasped the little handle and plunged the blade between the lips, as a thirsty child might a Popsicle, then jerked it out again, slashing the tongue. Turbid fluid splashed down to the floor. The jaw worked stiffly, the mouth brought out words in a wet, ragged hiss: ‘‘Please. Help me. Trapped in this” One dead hand struck the dead chest. “Starving.”
“What are you?”
“Traveler. Not of earth.”
“An eater of human flesh. A drinker of human blood.”
“No. No. Hiding only. Am small. Shape hideous to you. Feared death.”
“You brought death.” The doctor spoke with the calm of perfect disbelief, himself as incredible to him as the thing he spoke with. It shook its head, the dull, popped eyes glaring with an agony of thwarted expression.
“Killed none. Hid in this. Hid in this not to be killed. Five days now. Drowning in decay. Free me. Please.”
“No. You have come to feed on us, you are not hiding in fear. We are your food, your meat and drink. You fed on those two men within your grave. Their grave. For you, a delay. In fact, a diversion that has ended the hunt for you.”
“No! No! Used men already dead. For me, five days, starvation. Even less. Fed only from necessity. Horrible necessity!”
The spoiled vocal instrument made a mangled gasp of the last word—an inhuman, snake-pit noise the doctor felt as a cold flicker of ophidian tongues within his ears—while the dead arms moved in a sodden approximation of the body language that swears truth.
“No,” the doctor said. “You killed them all. Including your . . . tool—this man. What are you?” Panic erupted in the question which he tried to bury by answering himself instantly. “Resolute, yes. That surely. You used death for an escape route. You need no oxygen perhaps.”
“Extracted more than my need from gasses of decay. A lesser component of our metabolism.”
The voice was gaining distinctness, developing makeshifts for tones lost in the agonal rupturing of the valves and stops of speech, more effectively wrestling vowel and consonant from the putrid tongue and lips. At the same time, the body’s crudity of movement did not quite obscure a subtle, incessant experimentation. Fingers flexed and stirred, testing the give of tendons, groping the palm for the old points of purchase and counterpressure there. The knees, with cautious repetitions, assessed the new limits of their articulation.
“What was the sphere?”
“My ship. Its destruction our first duty facing discovery. ” (Fear touched the doctor, like a slug climbing his neck; he had seen, as it spoke, a sharp, spastic activity of the tongue, a pleating and shrinkage of its bulk as at the tug of some inward adjustment.) “No chance to reenter. Leaving this take far too long. Not even time to set for destruct—must extrude a ciliuin, chemical key to broach hull shield. In shaft my only chance to halt host.”
The right arm tested the wrist, and the scalpel the hand still held cut white sparks from the air, while the word “host” seemed itself a little knife prick, a teasing abandonment of fiction—though the dead mask showed no irony—preliminary to attack.
But he found that fear had gone from him. The impossibility with which he conversed, and was about to struggle, was working in him an overwhelming amplification of his life’s long, helpless rage at death. He found his parochial pity for earth alone stretched to the tranststellar scope this traveler commanded, to the whole cosmic trash yard with its bulldozed multitudes of corpses; galactic wheels of carnage—stars, planets with their most majestic generations—all trash, cracked bones and foul rags that pooled, settled, reconcatenated in futile symmetries gravid with new multitudes of briefly animate trash.
And this, standing before him now, was the death it was given him particularly to deal—his mite was being called in by the universal Treasury of death, and Dr. Winters found himself, an old healer, on fire to pay. His own, more lethal blade, tugged at his hand with its own sharp appetite. He felt entirely the Examiner once more, knew the precise cuts he would make, swiftly and without error. Very soon now, he thought, and coolly probed for some further insight before its onslaught.
“Why must your ship be destroyed, even at the cost of your host’s life?”
“We must not be understood.”
“The livestock must not understand what is devouring them.”
“Yes, Doctor. Not all at once. But one by one. You will understand what is devouring you. That is essential to my feast.”
The doctor shook his head. “You are in your grave already, Traveler. That body will be your coffin. You will be buried in it a second time, for all time.”
The thing came one step nearer and opened its mouth. The flabby throat wrestled as with speech, but what sprang out was a slender white filament, more than whip-fast. Dr. Winters saw only the first flicker of its eruption, and then his brain novaed, thinning out at light-speed to a white nullity.
When the doctor came to himself, it was in fact to a part of himself only. Before he had opened his eyes he found that his wakened mind had repossessed proprioceptively only a bizarre truncation of his body. His head, neck, left shoulder, arm, and hand declared themselves—the rest was silence.
When he opened his eyes, he found that he lay supine on the gurney, and naked. Something propped his head. A strap bound his left elbow to the gurney’s edge, a strap he could feel. His chest was also anchored by a strap, and this he could not feel. Indeed, save for its active remnant, his entire body might have been bound in a block of ice, so numb was it, and so powerless was he to compel the slightest movement from the least part of it.
The room was empty, but from the open door of the vault there came slight sounds: the creak and soft frictions of heavy tarpaulin shifted to accommodate some business involving small clicking and kissing noises.
Tears of fury filled the doctor’s eyes. Clenching his one fist at the starry engine of creation that he could not see, he ground his teeth and whispered in the hot breath of strangled weeping: “Take it back, this dirty little shred of life! I throw it off gladly like the filth it is.” The slow knock of boot soles loudened from within the vault, and he turned his head. From the vault door Joe Allen’s corpse approached him.
It moved with new energy, though its gait was grotesque, a ducking, hitching progress, jerky with circumventions of decayed muscle, while above this galvanized, struggling frame, the bruise-colored face hung inanimate, an image of detachment. With terrible clarity it revealed the thing for what it was—a damaged hand puppet vigorously worked from within. And when that frozen face was brought to hang above the doctor, the reeking hands, with the light, solicitous touch of friends at sickbeds, rested on his naked thigh.
The absence of sensation made the touch more dreadful than it felt. It showed him that the nightmare he still desperately denied at heart had annexed his body while he—holding head and arm free—had already more than half drowned in its mortal paralysis. There lay his nightmare part, a nothingness freely possessed by an unspeakability. The corpse said: “Rotten blood. Thin nourishment. Only one hour alone before you came. Fed from neighbor to my left—barely had strength to extend siphon. Fed from the right while you worked. Tricky going—you are alert. Expected Dr. Parsons. Energy needs of animating this”—one hand left the doctor’s thigh and smote the dusty overalls—“and of host-transfer, very high. Once 1 have you synapsed, will be near starvation again.”
A sequence of unbearable images unfolded in the doctor’s mind, even as the robot carrion turned from the gurney and walked to the instrument table: the sheriffs arrival just after dawn, alone, of course, since Craven always took thought for his deputies’ rest and because on this errand he would want privacy to consider any indiscretion on behalf of the miners’ survivors that the situation might call for; his finding his old friend, supine and alarmingly weak; his hurrying over, his leaning near. Then, somewhat later, a police car containing a rack of still-wet bones might plunge off the highway above some deep spot in the gorge.
The corpse took an evidence box from the table and put the scalpel in it. Then it turned and retrieved the mortuary knife from the floor and put that in as well, saying as it did so, without turning, “The sheriff will come in the morning. You spoke like close friends. He will probably come alone.”
The coincidence with his thoughts had to be accident, but the intent to terrify and appall him was clear. The tone and timing of that patched- up voice were unmistakably deliberate—sly probes that sought his anguish specifically, sought his mind’s personal center. He watched the corpse—back at the table—dipping an apish but accurate hand and plucking up rib shears, scissors, clamps, adding all to the box. He stared, momentarilly emptied by shock of all but the will to know finally the full extent of the horror that had appropriated his life. Joe Allen’s body carried the box to the worktable beside the gurney, and the expressionless eyes met the doctor’s.
“I have gambled. A grave gamble. But now I have won. At risk of personal discovery we are obliged to disconnect, contract, hide as well as possible in host body. Suicide in effect. I disregarded situational imperatives, despite starvation before disinterment and subsequent autopsy all but certain. I caught up with crew, tackled Pollock and Jackson microseconds before blast. Computed five days’ survival from this cache, could disconnect at limit of strength to do so, but otherwise would chance autopsy, knowing doctor was alcoholic incompetent. And now see my gain. You are a prize host, can feed with near impunity even when killing too dangerous. Safe meals delivered to you still warm.”
The corpse had painstakingly aligned the gurney parallel to the worktable but offset, the table’s foot extending past the gurney’s, and separated from it by a distance somewhat less than the reach of Joe Allen’s right arm. Now the dead hands distributed the implements along the right edge of the table, save for the scissors and the box. These the corpse took to the table’s foot, where it set down the box and slid the scissors’ jaws round one strap of its overalls. It began to speak again, and as it did, the scissors dismembered its cerements in unhesitating strokes.
“The cut must be medical, forensically right, though a smaller one easier. Must be careful of the pectoral muscles or arms will not convey me. I am no larva anymore—over fifteen hundred grams.”
To ease the nightmare’s suffocating pressure, to thrust out some flicker of his own will against its engulfment, the doctor flung a question, his voice more cracked than the other’s now was: “Why is my arm free?” “The last, fine neural splicing needs a sensory-motor standard, to perfect my brain’s fit to yours. Lacking this eye-hand coordinating check, much coarser motor control of host. This done, I flush out the paralytic, unbind us, and we are free together.”
The grave clothes had fallen in a puzzle of fragments, and the cadaver stood naked, its dark, gas-rounded contours making it seem some sleek marine creature, ruddered with the black-veined, gas-distended sex. Again the voice had teased for his fear, had uttered the last word with a savoring protraction, and now the doctor’s cup of anguish brimmed over; horror and outrage wrenched his spirit in brutal alternation as if trying to tear it naked from its captive frame. He rolled his head in this deadlock, his mouth beginning to split with the slow birth of a mind-emptying outcry.
The corpse watched this, giving a single nod that might have been approbation. Then it mounted the worktable and, with the concentrated caution of some practiced convalescent reentering his bed, lay on its back. The dead eyes again sought the living and found the doctor staring back, grinning insanely.
‘‘Clever corpse!” the doctor cried. “Clever, carnivorous corpse! Able alien! Please don’t think I’m criticizing. Who am I to criticize? A mere arm and shoulder, a talking hand, just a small piece of a pathologist. But I’m confused.” He paused, savoring the monster’s attentive silence and his own buoyancy in the hysterical levity that had unexpectedly liberated him. “You’re going to use your puppet there to pluck you out of itself and put you on me. But once he’s pulled you from your driver’s seat, won’t he go dead, so to speak, and drop you? You could get a nasty knock. Why not set a plank between the tables—the puppet opens the door, and you scuttle, ooze, lurch, flop, slither, as the case may be, across the bridge. No messy spills. And in any case, isn’t this an odd, rather clumsy way to get around among your cattle? Shouldn’t you at least carry your own scalpels when you travel? There’s always the risk you’ll run across that one host in a million that isn’t carrying one with him.”
He knew his gibes would be answered to his own despair. He exulted, but solely in the momentary bafflement of the predator—in having, for just a moment, mocked its gloating assurance to silence and marred its feast.
Its right hand picked up the post-mortem knife beside it, and the left wedged a roll of gauze beneath Allen’s neck, lifting the throat to a more prominent arch. The mouth told the ceiling: “We retain larval form till entry of the host. As larvae we have locomotor structures, and sense buds usable outside our ships’ sensory amplifiers. I waited coiled round Joe Allen’s bed leg till night, entered by his mouth as he slept.” Allen’s hand lifted the knife, held it high above the dull, quick eyes, turning it in the light. “Once lodged, we have three instars to adult form,” the voice continued absently—the knife might have been a mirror from which the corpse read its features. “Larvally we have only a sketch of our full neural tap. Our metamorphosis cued and determined by host’s endosomatic ecology. I matured in three days.” Allen’s wrist flexed, tipping the knife’s point downmost. “Most supreme adaptations purchased at the cost of inessential capacities.” The elbow pronated and slowly flexed, hooking the knife body-wards. “Our hosts are all sentients, eco-dominants, are already carrying the baggage of coping structures for the planetary environment. Limbs, sensory portals”—the fist planted the fang of its tool under the chin, tilted it and rode it smoothly down the throat, the voice proceeding unmarred from under the furrow that the steel plowed—“somatic envelopes, instrumentalities”—down the sternum, diaphragm, abdomen the stainless blade painted its stripe of gaping, muddy tissue—“with a host’s brain we inherit all these, the mastery of any planet, netted in its dominant’s cerebral nexus. Thus our genetic codings are now all but disencumbered of such provisions.”
So swiftly the doctor flinched, Joe Allen’s hand slashed four lateral cuts from the great wound’s axis. The seeming butchery left two flawlessly drawn thoracic flaps cleanly outlined. The left hand raised the left flap’s hem, and the right coaxed the knife into the aperture, deepening it with small stabs and slices. The posture was a man’s who searches a breast pocket, with the dead eyes studying the slow recoil of flesh. The voice, when it resumed, had geared up to an intenser pitch.
“Galactically, the chordate nerve/brain paradigm abounds, and the neural labyrinth is our dominion. Are we to make plank bridges and worm across them to our food? Are cockroaches greater than we for having legs to run up walls and antennae to grope their way! All the quaint, hinged crutches that life sports! The stilts, fins, fans, springs, stalks, flippers, and feathers, all in turn so variously terminating in hooks, clamps, suckers, scissors, forks, or little cages of digits! And besides all the gadgets it concocts for wrestling through its worlds, it is all knobbed, whiskered, crested, plumed, vented, spiked, or measeled over with perceptual gear for combing pittances of noise or color from the environing plentitude.”
Invincibly calm and sure, the hands traded tool and tasks. The right flap eased back, revealing ropes of ingeniously spared muscle while promising a genuine appearance once sutured back in place. Helplessly the doctor felt his delirious defiance bleed away and a bleak fascination rebind him.
“We are the taps and relays that share the host’s aggregate of afferent nerve impulse precisely at its nodes of integration. We are the brains that peruse these integrations, integrate them with our existing banks of host- specific data, and, lastly, let their consequences flow down the motor pathway—either the consequences they seek spontaneously, or those we wish to graft upon them. We are besides a streamlined alimentary/circulatory system and a reproductive apparatus. And more than this we need not be.”
The corpse had spread its bloody vest, and the feculent hands now took up the rib shears. The voice’s sinister coloration of pitch and stress grew yet more marked—the phrases slid from the tongue with a cobra’s seeking sway, winding their liquid rhythms round the doctor till a gap in his resistance should let them pour through to slaughter the little courage left him.
“For in his form we have inhabited the densest brainweb of three hundred races, lain intricately snug within them like thriving vine on trelliswork. We’ve looked out from too many variously windowed masks to regret our own vestigial senses. None read their worlds definitely. Far better then our nomad’s range and choice than an unvarying tenancy of one poor set of structures. Far better to slip on as we do whole living beings and wear at once all of their limbs and organs, memories and powers—wear all as tightly congruent to our wills as a glove is to the hand that fills it.”
The shears clipped through the gristle, stolid, bloody jaws monotonously feeding, stopping short of the sternoclavicular joint in the manubrium where the muscles of the pectoral girdle have an important anchorage.
“No consciousness of the chordate type that we have found has been impermeable to our finesse—no dendritic pattern so elaborate we could not read its stitchwork and thread ourselves to match, precisely map its each synaptic seam till we could loosen it and retailor all to suit ourselves. We have strutted costumed in the bodies of planetary autarchs, venerable manikins of moral fashion, but cut of the universal cloth: the weave of fleet electric filaments of experience which we easily reshuttled to the warp of our wishes. Whereafter—newly hemmed and gathered—their living fabric hung obedient to our bias, investing us with honor and influence unlimited.”
The tricky verbal melody, through the corpse’s deft, unfaltering self-dismemberment—the sheer neuromuscular orchestration of the compound activity—struck Dr. Winters with the detached enthrallment great keyboard performers could bring him. He glimpsed the alien’s perspective—a Gulliver waiting in a brobdingnagian grave, then marshaling a dead giant against a living, like a dwarf in a huge mechanical crane, feverishly programming combat on a battery of levers and pedals, waiting for the robot arms’ enactments, the remote, titanic impact of the foes—and he marveled, filled with a bleak wonder at life’s infinite strategy and plasticity. Joe Allen’s hands reached into his half-opened abdominal cavity, reached deep below the uncut anterior muscle that was exposed by the shallow, spurious incision of the epidermis, till by external measure they were extended far enough to be touching his thighs. The voice was still as the forearms advertised a delicate rummaging with the buried fingers. The shoulders drew back. As the steady withdrawal brought the wrists into view, the dead legs tremored and quaked with diffuse spasms.
“You called your kind our food and drink, Doctor. If you were merely that, an elementary usurpation of your motor tracts alone would satisfy us, give us perfect cattle-control—for what rarest word or subtlest behavior is more than a flurry of varied muscles? That trifling skill was ours long ago. It is not mere blood that feeds this lust I feel now to tenant you, this craving for an intimacy that years will not stale. My truest feast lies in compelling you to feed in that way and in the utter deformation of your will this will involve. Had gross nourishment been my prime need, then my gravemates—Pollock and Jackson—could have eked out two weeks of life for me or more. But I scorned a cowardly parsimony in the face of death. I reinvested more than half the energy that their blood gave me in fabricating chemicals to keep their brains alive, and fluid- bathed with oxygenated nutriment.”
Out of the chasmed midriff the smeared hands dragged two long tresses of silvery filament that writhed and sparkled with a million simultaneous coilings and contractions. The legs jittered with faint, chaotic pulses throughout their musculature, until the bright vermiculate tresses had gathered into two spheric masses which the hands laid carefully within the incision. Then the legs lay still as death.
“I had accessory neural taps only to spare, but I could access much memory, and all of their cognitive responses, and having in my banks all the organ of Coti’s electrochemical conversions of English words, I could whisper anything to them directly into the eighth cranial nerve. Those are our true feast, Doctor, such bodiless electric storms of impotent cognition as I tickled up in those two little bone globes. I was forced to drain them yesterday, just before disinterment. They lived till then and understood everything—everything I did to them.
When the voice paused, the dead and living eyes were locked together. They remained so a moment, and then the dead face smiled.
It recapitulated all the horror of Allen’s first resurrection—this waking of expressive soul from those grave-mound contours. And it was a demon-soul the doctor saw awaken: the smile was barbed with fine, sharp hooks of cruelty at the corners of the mouth, while the barbed eyes beamed fond, languorous anticipation of his pain. Remotely, Dr. Winters heard the flat sound of his own voice asking: “And Joe Allen?”
“Oh, yes, Doctor. He is with us now, has been throughout. I grieve to abandon so rare a host! He is a true hermit-philosopher, well-read in four languages. He is writing a translation of Marcus Aurelius—he was, I mean, in his free time. …”
Long minutes succeeded of the voice accompanying the surreal self-autopsy, but the doctor lay stilled, emptied of reactive power. Still, the full understanding of his fate reverberated in his mind—an empty room though which the voice, not heard exactly but somehow implanted directly as in the subterranean torture it had just described, sent aftershocks of realization, amplifications of the Unspeakable.
The parasite had traced and tapped the complex interface between cortical integration of input and the consequent neural output shaping response. It had interposed its brain between, sharing consciousness while solely commanding the pathways of reaction. The host, the bottled personality; was mute and limbless for any least expression of its own will, while hellishly articulate and agile in the service of the parasite’s. It was the host’s own hands that bound and wrenched the life half out of his prey, his own loins that experienced the repeated orgasms crowning his other despoliations of their bodies. And when they lay, bound and shrieking still, ready for the consummation, it was his own strength that hauled the smoking entrails from them, and his own intimate tongue and guzzling mouth he plunged into the rank, palpitating feast.
And the doctor had glimpses of the history behind this predation, that of a race so far advanced in the essentializing, the inexorable abstraction of their own mental fabric that through scientific commitment and genetic self-cultivation they had come to embody their own model of perfected consciousness, streamlined to permit the entry of other beings and the direct acquisition of their experiental worlds. All strictest scholarship at first, until there matured in the disembodied scholars their long-germinal and now blazing, jealous hatred for all ‘lesser’ minds rooted and clothed in the soil and sunlight of solid, particular worlds. The parasite spoke of the “cerebral music” the “symphonies of agonized paradox” that were its invasion’s chief plunder. The doctor felt the truth behind this grandiloquence: its actual harvest from the systematic violation of encoffined personalities was the experience of a barren supremacy of means over lives more primitive, perhaps, but vastly wealthier in the vividness and passionate concern with which life for them was imbued.
Joe Allen’s hands had scooped up the bunched skeins of alien nerve, with the wrinkled brain node couched amidst them, and for some time had waited the slow retraction of a last major trunkline which seemingly had followed the spine’s axis. At last, when only a slender subfiber of this remained implanted, the corpse, smiling once more, held up for him to view its reconcatenated master. The doctor looked into its eyes then and spoke—not to their controller, but to the captive who shared them with it, and who now, the doctor knew, neared his final death.
“Good-bye, Joe Allen. Eddie Sykes. You are guiltless. Peace be with you at last.”
The demon smile remained fixed, the right hand reached its viscid cargo across the gap and over the doctor’s groin. He watched the hand set the glittering medusa’s head—his new self—upon his flesh, return to the table, take up the scalpel, and reach back to cut in his groin a four-inch incision—all in eerie absence of tactile stimulus. The line that had remained plunged into the corpse suddenly whipped free of the mediastinal crevice, retracted across the gap, and shortened to a taut stub on the seething organism atop the doctor.
Joe Allen’s body collapsed, emptied, all slack. He was a corpse again entirely, but with one anomalous feature to his posture. His right arm had not dropped to the nearly vertical hang that would have been natural. At the instant of the alien’s unplugging, the shoulder had given a fierce shrug and wrenching of its angle, flinging the arm upward as it died so that it now lay in the orientation of an arm that reaches up for a ladder’s next rung. The slightest tremor would unfix the joints and dump the arm back into the gravitational bias; it would also serve to dump the scalpel from the proferred, upturned palm that implement still precariously occupied.
The man had repossessed himself one microsecond before his end. The doctor’s heart stirred, woke, and sang within him, for he saw that the scalpel was just in reach of his fingers at his forearm’s fullest stretch from the bound elbow. The horror crouched on him and, even now slowly feeding its trunkline into his groin incision, at first stopped the doctor’s hand with a pang of terror. Then he reminded himself that, until implanted, the enemy was a senseless mass, bristling with plugs, with input jacks for senses, but, until installed in the physical amplifiers of eyes and ears, an utterly deaf, blind monad that waited in a perfect solipsism between two captive sensory envelopes.
He saw his straining fingers above the bright tool of freedom, thought with an insane smile of God and Adam on the Cistine ceiling, and then, with a life span of surgeon’s fine control, plucked up the scalpel. The arm fell and hung.
“Sleep.” The doctor said. “Sleep revenged.”
But he found his retaliation harshly reined in by the alien’s careful provisions. His elbow had been fixed with his upper arm almost at right angles to his body’s long axis; his forearm could reach his hand inward and present it closely to the face, suiting the parasite’s need of an eye- hand coordinative check, but could not, even with the scalpel’s added reach, bring its point within four inches of his groin. Steadily the parasite fed in its tap line. It would usurp motor control in three or four minutes at most, to judge by the time its extrication from Allen had taken.
Frantically the doctor bent his wrist inward to its limit, trying to pick through the strap where it crossed his inner elbow. Sufficient pressure was impossible, and the hold so awkward that even feeble attempts threatened the loss of the scalpel. Smoothly the root of alien control sank into him. It was a defenseless thing of jelly against which he lay lethally armed, and he was still doomed—a preview of all his thrall’s impotence-to-be.
But of course there was a way. Not to survive. But to escape, and to have vengeance. For a moment he stared at his captor, hardening his mettle in the blaze of hate it lit in him. Then, swiftly, he determined the order of his moves, and began.
He reached the scalpel to his neck and opened his superior thyroid vein—his inkwell. He laid the scalpel by his ear, dipped his finger in his blood, and began to write on the metal surface of the gurney, beginning by his thigh and moving toward his armpit. Oddly, the incision of his neck, though this was muscularly awake, had been painless, which gave him hopes that raised his courage for what remained to do.
When he had done the message read:
FM ALLEN IN ME
CUT ALL TILL
1 500 GM MASS
He wanted to write good-bye to his friend, but the alien had begun to pay out smaller, auxiliary filaments collaterally with the main one, and all now lay in speed.
He took up the scalpel, rolled his head to the left, and plunged the blade deep in his ear.
Miracle! Last, accidental mercy! It was painless. Some procedural, highly specific anesthetic was in effect. With careful plunges, he obliterated the right inner ear and then thrust silence, with equal thoroughness, into the left. The slashing of the vocal chords followed, then the tendons in the back of the neck that hold it erect. He wished he were free to unstring knees and elbows, too, but it could not be. But blinded, with centers of balance lost, with only rough motor control—all these conditions should fetter the alien’s escape, should it in the first place manage the reanimation of a bloodless corpse in which it had not yet achieved a fine-tuned interweave. Before he extinguished his eyes, he paused, the scalpel poised above his face, and blinked them to clear his aim of tears. The right, then the left, both retinas meticulously carved away, the yolk of vision quite scooped out of them. The scalpel’s last task, once it had tilted the head sideways to guide the blood flow absolutely clear of possible effacement of the message, was to slash the external carotid artery.
When this was done, the old man sighed with relief and laid his scalpel down. Even as he did so, he felt the deep inward prickle of an alien energy—something that flared, crackled, flared, groped for but did not quite find its purchase. And inwardly, as the doctor sank toward sleep—cerebrally, as a voiceless man must speak—he spoke to the parasite these carefully chosen words: “Welcome to your new house. I’m afraid there’s been some vandalism—the lights don’t work, and the plumbing has a very bad leak. There are some other things wrong as well—the neighborhood is perhaps a little too quiet, and you may find it hard to get around very easily. But it’s been a lovely home to me for fifty-seven years, and somehow I think you’ll stay. …”
The face, turned toward the body of Joe Allen, seemed to weep scarlet tears, but its last movement before death was to smile.
Source: Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, December 1980
On 26th October 2022, a dramatization of “The Autopsy” streamed on Netflix as the third episode of “Guillermo do Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities.”