IT WAS half-past midnight when the telephone rang in the old manor. The Dutchman was lying in his king's size bed with the old lamp on the nightstand still burning. He was a tall, corpulent man, and although it was not uncommon of him to be entertaining a few beautiful young women at these hours, Professor Abraham Van Helsing was alone.
He had spent the majority of the night dozing in and out while studying from an enormous tome of the forbidden Codex Coemeterium that rested on the mahogany overbed table. More specifically, he was reading the version with scribal abbreviations written in backward Latin from the pen of the late Father Grandier himself.
The phone rang a second time. Abraham wasn't still fully awake when he reached for the receiver and plucked it out of the luxurious wall cradle.
"Yes?" He coughed.
"We got him," the ragged voice of an old man said, "you were right; the son of bitch was up there all along."
Abraham tasted something awful in his mouth and coughed again. "Mason? What time is it?"
"Over there? Midnight or something, I don't know. Look, you better come over, I'm telling you; we have the bastard."
Abraham asked something, but the words slurred in his mouth, so he repeated it, "How sure are you?"
"Pretty damn sure," The voice said.
Abraham sank into his pillow again without fully opening his eyes, still holding the receiver against his ear. "You said the same the last ten times, you crazy old fool."
"The last ten times, I didn't have a working Photophone."
"And you have one now."
"I sure do," Mason said.
After Abraham failed to comment on that, the old man laughed, "You've no idea what I'm talking about, have you?"
"No, not really. I suppose it's one of those dangerously stupid machines you insist on wasting your last couple of good years on.
"Look, brother, I was just looking into this because you asked me to. As a favor. If it is all the same to you..."
"No, no, go ahead," Abraham said, sitting up on the bed and rubbing the sleep from his eyes, "you caught me about to fall asleep, that's all. You were saying something about a--"
"A Photophone." Mason said while lighting himself a cigarette, "You are right about something, though; this thing is dangerous. It got the man who first built it killed."
"Some guy named Braun. He was a professor somewhere in England."
"Never heard of him," Abraham said, but something tickled him in the back of his mind, "Wait–did you said Braun?"
"Braun, yeah. Why? Does the name rings a bell?"
Abraham took a moment to go through his memory, but it wasn't getting nowhere, so he let it alone, "Vaguely. Something about his death shocked certain academic circles, but I can't recall what."
Mason's voice dimmed out as he spoke away from the phone. Abraham caught the sound of papers being push around in a messy desk. Mason was going through his notes. Finally, he said, "Braun, 1902. He got decapitated by one of his students in front of a faculty member in the family manor. Maybe that's what shocked people; he got his damn head chopped off."
"Because of this… Photophone."
"Uh-hu," Mason said, "Rumor was that one of the eyewitnesses blamed the machine for what happened."
Abraham yawned, "I don't recall any of that being mentioned."
"Strange, the case was all over the newspapers."
"I was in India at the time; news traveled different back then."
Mason laughed, "Trying to get the revolt started or something?"
"Well, if you feel like doing some more of that, I'm looking at your old friend through this dangerously stupid machine as we speak."
Abraham felt a sudden throbbing ache on an old injury he hadn't had troubles in years burn its way into the flesh of his left leg. It was as if the memory of a distant pain had inexplicably awakened to torment him.
"Mason, when you say you are looking at him, what do you mean exactly?"
"Take a plane down here and see for yourself."
"Don't move," Abraham said, then racked the receiver back into the wall cradle, closed the large, heavy book he was reading from as if the pages were made out of nitroglycerin, and slid out of bed. His hurry was such that he did not bother putting on his night robe; instead, he walked across the spacious bedroom as graciously naked as he was brought into the world.
As Abraham went down the white marble stairs, four of his Filipino servants were cleaning one of the immense 16-century crystal chandeliers on the great hall of the old manor with the care one would use to clean a child's face. One of the servants holding a ladder for the others saw Abraham heading for his study and said, "Working late Today, Master Helsing?"
"Always, Joselito, my boy. Always."
Naked, Abraham pulled open the exquisitely hand-carved African Agarwood double doors that lead to his study, then turned and said, "Joselito, would you please do me a favor and phone George? Tell him to fuel up the plane at once. Transatlantic."
The servant nodded and quickly vanished behind a curtain. Abraham walked inside his study, shutting the doors behind him. Aided by the pale moonlight, he found his way across the carpet and to his desk, then flipped the switch on the French lamp. After quickly making sure none of the servants were in the study with him, Abraham reached over the large cedar desk and pushed a hidden button with fingerprinting recognition under one of the drawers. The study windows became opaque. The south wall slid open with the sound of a snake hissing in the jungle. A secret passage had been revealed. Abraham flipped a series of switches on the door frame to get the lights working; for security reasons, the electrical installation was separated from the rest of the manor.
Embedded within the secret passage's narrow gray stone walls, a series of dim, yellowish light bulbs revealed a most extraordinary and grotesque collection of rare reliquaries of esoteric nature. The objects in the macabre display ranged from the original Buddha's Finger Bones, dug out from the Dharma Gate Monastery's very foundations, to the mummified head of one of the four deceased Teutonic warlords, found in a Nazi crypt under Wewelsburg Castle by the Allied during the Second World War. Hanged next to the exquisitely complex astrological orb Hew Draper carved on the Tower of London wall when he was imprisoned for practicing witchcraft in 1561 were several symbols of various religious orders. A strangely shaped flask partially filled with Sangraal that got smuggled out of Constantinople by a Turk soldier on the second day after the city had fallen, and the stone that killed Goliath, smeared with the giant's own crushed brains, which, to this day, remain fresh.
Reaching the end of the narrow corridor was a large metal door with a keypad. Abraham punched in a sixteen number code, thought for a moment which day it was, then bent over to the keypad, and said, "On her head rests a crown of twelve stars." It was Wednesday's code. The door unlocked.
As Abraham stepped inside, a series of incandescent tubes began flickering on, one after another, revealing a large circular hall. Rows of wooden shelves covered the peculiar room from floor to ceiling with a most impressive collection of books in the forbidden arts.
With great care, Abraham slid the copy of the Codex Coemeterium in one of the divination shelves. He took a moment to make sure the blessed chains held it in place properly, then walked towards the red Chinese cabinet that stood like a shrine in the middle of the hall and pulled both doors open.
From the considerably varied number of swords, guns, and spears stored in the cabinet, Abraham chose a handcrafted wooden toolbox the size of an accordion case. Aside from a brass cross nailed on its front, where a double door was held together by a hook lock, the box's design and general aspect lacked any remarkable features. It was rather unimpressive looking, of ordinary wood and quite battered by the extensive use over the years—something unusual for a man of tastes as exquisites as the Professor.
But when his hand reached the latch to open the box, its importance became evident. The room's lights seemed to dim their brightness for a moment. The evil contained in the secret library's countless books knew what was inside, and it feared it.
The box opened to a portable apothecary, with objects ranging from a silver cross blessed by Giovanni Maria Mastai Ferretti when he became head of the Catholic Church, in 1846, to an unregistered magnum .357 and a small but thoroughly sharpened collection of wooden stakes. There were also small bottles of thick glass, each containing a dangerous selection of herbs and spices found in the most obscure corners of the world. The assortment included Wild Rose, Hawthorn, and Garlic, besides the petals of a rare flower that had gone extinct long ago but was available to Helsing thanks to the private garden his servants jealously maintained in the inner patio of his manor.
The center part of the box was reserved for a set of Tibetan instruments made from human bones of a sickening yellowish tone. The bones, and the scroll they were wrapped in, had been used by wanderer monks to perform hundreds of Fangxiangshi, the Chinese ritual of exorcism centuries ago.
Most collectors would have given their firstborn only to be able to be present in the same room as Helsing's famous apothecary box. The variety of relics and mysterious artifacts it held was notable indeed. But of all the weapons, herbs, and sacred parchments, Professor Abraham Van Helsing only grabbed a used pair of fireproof gloves and a set of protection goggles.
Slowly, he pulled open one of the small wooden drawers. Inside, a box made from the obsidian taken from pieces of an altar the Aztec priests of Takal built to shed blood in the name of their Astral Gods shone with a devilish red tint.
After opening the small box, he rushed to snatch something from within with the fireproof glove. He opened the hand, barely, just enough to let a small portion of the object peek between his fingers. The poisonous glow of the amorphous rock danced with the joy of a freed demon on the reflection of his protective glasses.
"Time to return you the favor, John..." Abraham murmured.
It takes a significant amount of creativity to make a scholar as deeply knowledgeable in the obscure arts of the arcane as Abraham Van Helsing gasps with stupor. The contraption of unusual strangeness in which the old man was working when Abraham walked through the half-opened door of the abandoned hangar in the vicinity of Slab City certainly achieved that.
The apparatus seemed to be made predominantly of a combination of aged brass and dark oak. It was almost as tall as the hangar's ceiling, which was nothing short of extraordinary considering the hangar was built to house up to twenty aircraft. Only the masterful blend between engineering and craftsmanship could be responsible for such a feat, and Abraham knew it.
While evidently re-built in part with more modern materials and lesser quality, the structure still bore certain nostalgic resemblances of its obscure past, particularly in its peculiar and exquisite engravings. The designs were of the Germanic civilization, a period the Dutchman was very well versed in.
Neither the vulgarity of the exposed electrical wires with their bright-colored plastic insulations nor the custom cheap aluminum pieces Mason had been forced to use to complete the archaic device were enough to fade its original and disturbingly fantastic splendor.
Its silhouette was as remarkable as it was perturbing. At one of its extremes, the machine bore a certain disgusting resemblance to the swollen abdomen of a spider of disproportionate dimensions. The other, narrower in construction, twisted into itself, forming a sort of vine extending further away from the base and ending on an almost sharp edge that pointed towards an opening on the hangar’s ceiling. At the end of this thin and narrow edge, there was a giant funnel of conical shape. Inside, an array of strange jewelry inlays formed odd geometrical patterns, some of which Abraham recognized from the Da Liu Ren, one of the Chinese books of astral divination. Others were evidently of Persian origin, though these he could not place.
He noticed, though, that the pale glow that emanated from within the walls of the cone seemed not only to reflect the moonlight through its queer astronomical patterns but to trap it as well.
As Abraham made his way through the intricate jungle of rubber tubes that hung from the walls and meandered across the floor, he noticed a thick liquid sluggishly being fed into the contraption. The liquid glowed dimly in the dark with a color of purulent hue. It almost seemed to crawl with a will of its own. He was not surprised; Mason was not only a gifted engineer but a master alchemist.
Yet, the skillfulness and grace required to conceive a machine of such strange and unusual characteristics was, undoubtedly, the signature of a builder with knowledge of engineering and the secret whispers of the stars. Its base bore some ancient logograms from the forgotten version of the Vedanga Jyotisha, and at least two dozen more Abraham himself couldn't recognize. At the feet of the machine, sitting on a big cushioned office chair was Mason.
The frail old man was hunched down, peering intensely through an eyepiece that held certain similarities to a submarine's periscope, only so exquisitely labored in brass and silver that Professor Van Helsing couldn't hope to think of some of the prototypes he saw on the 1851 World fair.
The eyepiece, which had Masons' undevoted attention, was connected to the machine's heart through a series of equally ornate tubes made of brass and silver. Whatever the old man was looking at, it was making him grin like a boy with a new toy. In fact, he was so absorbed by it, so fascinated by the image, that he didn't even turn when Abraham accidentally knocked down a tool tray on his way there.
“Over here,” Mason said, the upper half of his face being bathed with a reddish incandescent light, “Have you seen something like this before?”
Abraham put down his wooden toolbox, “It has been high on the list of academic rumors over the years. They hardly make it any justice.”
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
Abraham moved carefully through clouds of hot steam that every part of the machine seemed to be furiously exhaling with each contortion. There were heaps of cogs and loose screws piled up like ant nests all over the place, and though they might have seemed unimportant to Abraham, he had known Mason long enough to know he worked messily but under a strict logical structure.
“How long did it take you to build this?”
“Too long,” Mason said, “She was confiscated after the trials for Braun’s murder. They didn’t know where to put her, so she stayed in the Crown Court’s basement for years until they needed the space. She then got moved to Wales to be dismantled. They needed to make room for the Island’s art treasures during the Second World War. That’s where she got lost.”
“Do you realize you are referring to this thing with a female pronoun?”
Abraham knew Mason since he was barely a troubled young man and was familiar with his eccentricities. There was, without a doubt, a strong connection between the old man and machines. A bond cruel and sinister that transcended beyond the clutches of time.
The Dutchman took a few steps around the monstrous device to give himself time to admire the elegance of its construction. At last, he pulled a long ivory pipe from his jacket left pocket, grabbed a propane torch sitting in Mason’s workstation, and lit it. After puffing a handful of smoke, he turned to the old man and said, “I’ve seen you build mechanic monsters before, but never something like this.”
It was a compliment, but Mason was so taken by whatever image the machine showed him that he barely heard it.
“Where did you found all this?” Abraham said.
“Part I owned, the rest I've been buying from several private collectors for years. I’ve been trying to figure out inner mechanics for a long time, like those damn silver discs on that table over there. They are supposed to translate sounds into words, but I can’t get them to work. The rest was pretty straightforward, actually.”
Abraham nodded his head towards the curious eyepiece. “Is that what you wanted to show me?”
“Yes,” Mason said, “try not to touch anything; she’s very delicate, but go ahead, take a look.”
The image the inner lenses in the machine reflected on the eyepiece was challenging to watch because of the overwhelming bright red light that engulfed it.
Even when looking through the polarized glass Mason had installed, something which was obviously not part of the original design, one was only able to stare at it for short, uncomfortable periods before the eyes began to hurt.
Thus, a combination of short gazes while avoiding to squint was necessary to stimulate one’s retinal photoreceptors and form a negative of the image that burned momentarily into one’s brain, as it happens when staring at a light bulb for a while.
“Can you see him?” Mason said.
It took Abraham a moment to make up his mind. When he finally did, he said, “Yes, I can see it. How is this even possible?”
“Alexander Graham Bell’s greatest invention wasn’t what most folks think it was,” Mason said, “It was this right here; the Photophone. He was able to capture sounds traveling through beams of light and reproduce them with a device similar to this one.”
Abraham had to rest his eyes for a moment. “So, this is what got Braun murdered.”
“Yeah, you could say he came up with an upgrade, though. Besides sounds, this beauty can show images. Like I said, I couldn’t get the damn sound part working; there’s a crazy amount of interference in a single beam of sunlight, thanks to pollution. The moon’s brightness works better. We might not hear what’s going on, but we sure as hell can see it. Spooky, uh?”
“Hey,” Mason said, noticing Abraham’s wooden toolbox resting on the hangar’s floor, “did you brought me something?”
“As a matter of fact, old friend,” Abraham began, but he had to pause. The pain in his leg was taking a toll on him.
“You alright there, big man?”
“Yes, an old occupational wound, that’s all.”
Mason laughed. “Tell me about it. Got any booze in there?”
“Better,” Abraham said, l “A problem that needs solving.”
Mason fished a silver cigarette case from between the loose screws, bolts, and custom watchmaker pliers that filled the front pocket of his apron. He opened the lid and pulled out a French chocolate-colored brand, “A problem, uh? Well, I’m good with those.”
Abraham bent down and, from his toolbox, pulled the protective glasses and the fireproof glove. “Tell me something, Mason; can fire be made without oxygen?”
“No, that I know of.”
“Let me rephrase my question,” Abraham said, as he pulled out a black obsidian box the size of a matchbox, “can you make fire without oxygen?”
The old man’s lips split into a nasty grin, “Now, that’s different.”
The bathroom on the second floor of the L’Ospedale di Santo Spiritoto was empty when Father Enzo Castiglione unzipped in front of the urinal. The bodyguards that accompanied him everywhere each time he left Vatican City had made sure of that. They were standing outside the bathroom when he cursed out loud at the shivering pain that trying to squeeze water from a rock brought him. The bodyguards didn’t bother to check on him; it wasn’t the first time they had to hear the man struggle with his prostate.
A cold breeze softly caressed his neck. Father Enzo turned his head to a row of four empty stalls and a closed door.
“For God’s sake, c’mon!” He muttered as he turned back to business.
“That’s a blasphemy, Father.” A voice behind him said.
Father Enzo turned his head again and got startled. This time, Abraham was standing there.
“Oh, it’s just you.”
“I have a situation.”
“Don’t we all.”
Abraham didn’t answer that. Father Enzo leaned against the wall tiles to push stronger, but he only managed to squeeze a single drop that almost cost him his balance.
“What is it? What do you want?”
Next to his ear, Father Enzo saw Abraham’s brown leather glove handing him a folded piece of rectangular paper with the shield of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn hot-stamped on it.
Father Enzo sighed, straightened the paper, and moved it back and forth from his nose while narrowing his gaze. A single effort in vain was already too much for the old priest, so he handed Abraham the note back without turning. “I don’t have my glasses on me.”
“Put them on.”
“I have my—I’m busy here, damn you! Can’t you see I’m in the middle of something?”
A heavy hand knocked on the door. “Is everything okay in there, Father?”
“I’m fine! Don’t come in please, I’m almost done.”
Abraham was waiting.
Grumbling something in Italian, Father Enzo fished out a golden custom-made Derigo case from his jacket's inner pocket using just one hand and unbuttoned it with a bit of help from his teeth. Once he had his spectacles on, Abraham handed him the note again. Father Enzo snapped the paper out of his hands and began reading it.
A considerable time passed. Father Enzo had evidently read the note, which was barely a few sentences long. Still, he kept staring at it. He even turned it around to see if there was something he had missed on the back, but there wasn’t, so he turned it back around again and stared at it some more.
Finally, he handed the note back to Abraham. “This, I cannot do.”
“I wasn’t expecting you to,” Abraham said.
Father Enzo paused, then shook his head, “Cardinal Stefano won’t be able to help you either.”
“I am aware of that.”
“Then I don’t know what to tell you. There’s nobody else in the Church who—” Father Enzo never finished the thought. He turned his head to look into Abraham’s eyes but didn’t like what he saw.
“Abraham, I can’t take this to the Holy Father!”
“He can arrange it.”
Father Enzo laughed. It hurt. “Even if I was crazy enough to pass this message to him, who do you think we are, NASA? We can’t send someone up there. Its madness. A complete waste of time.”
“The Chinese can,” Abraham said.
“Go ask them then. I’m sure they can’t wait to help you after your screwup in Kaifeng.”
“I’m asking you.”
Father Enzo was still smiling, but he was not laughing anymore. Abraham continued, “They have a new mission scheduled soon. A maintenance crew is due at the International Space Station next month. I’m sure his Holiness can plan a short visit to China for next week.”
Father Enzo shrugged. “It won’t happen. The Holy Father can’t ask a government for something like this. Don’t you understand? It’s beyond his reach!”
“He has business with them.”
“So? The Holy Church has joint ventures with everyone these days. We are interested in space exploration, yes, but that doesn’t mean we can just ask some foreign Nation to add an extra passenger to one of their missions. I mean, have you seen the Chuch’s observatory? It’s the size of my kitchen, for God’s sake!”
Through the reflection of the bathroom tiles, Father Enzo saw Abraham shaking his head, “I never said anything about the Church, Father.”
The old priest froze. He had always know Van Helsing had access to information that would make J. Edgar Hoover’s files look like a small town tabloid. This, though, was new to him.
“Did that surprised you?” Abraham said.
“It did, yes. That is twice you surprise me Today.”
“Don’t feel too bad, Father. It is the fate of every man who sits on the Throne of Saint Peter to become corrupt. It is a sickness of the soul.”
Father Enzo smiled to himself. “He and I took the seminar together, did you know?”
“We never got to know each other that well. There were many of us that year, but still...”
“It bothers you,” Abraham said. It was more of a question than a statement.
“Of course it does.”
Father Enzo sighed, “When he got chosen--I don’t know, the hopes and dreams of a foolish man, I suppose.”
“It is never wrong to hope, Father.”
The old priest looked down and saw only shame, “How sure are you?”
Abraham’s smile wasn’t broad and kind like the priest’s; it was hard, crooked, a slit on his face. To Abraham, there had always been a certain twisted pleasure in witnessing the faith of man of the clergy crumble to pieces. “There are two bank accounts under a real state consortium in mainland China, they are both under his lover’s name. Some man named Roberto. Should I go on?”
“Not that, damn you! About that… animale being up there! How sure are you?”
“I saw it myself a few days ago. It’s up there.”
His eyebrows came up slightly, “You saw it, how?”
Abraham knew the Church would chase Mason to the end of times if they found out the old man had a working prototype of Braun’s machine, so he chose not answer the question.
Father Enzo’s was the one smiling now, “You are a bigger pain than this damn prostate of mine, but I suppose it is one of those things I shouldn’t know about. Am I right?”
Father Enzo nodded to himself, then held the note up with two fingers. “Very well. Can you give me anything to convince him, besides this note?”
Abraham laughed a little, “Like what?”
“I don’t know, you tell me! We are not talking about a guided visit to the Vatican’s library here; what you ask is big! How do you expect his Holiness to convince the entire Chinese government of letting someone board one of their rockets?”
“Tell him to have faith, father.”
“Fai--?” Father Enzo was so close to a yell that he had to restrain himself until he could lower his voice, “Faith? Have you gone insane, man?”
“If that is not enough,” Abraham continued, “tell him to tell the Chinese I know why nobody comes back from the station. They can expect to have that little problem sorted out after I’m done.”
Father Enzo was already late for his medical appointment, and although he didn’t like to deal with the Order, there was not much he could do, so he crumpled the paper in his hand until it was nothing but a ragged little ball, then stashed it away in his pocket.
“Very well,” Father Enzo said, making no effort into hiding his discontent, “I will pass your message up the ranks. Someone will post an obituary with the usual codename on the L’Osservatore when it’s done—if it’s done,” He added.
“Thank you, Father, you have been most helpful.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” Father Enzo said, raising his voice, “You just involved a government into our little agreement. The veil will be off, Abraham. The Church will no longer be able to protect you.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Abraham said, “Oh, and Father…?”
“Sorry about the Cancer.”
Father Enzo smiled, “Don’t be. It’s God’s will. We all have to go back to his side someday, right?”
But there was no answer. Abraham was no longer there when Father Enzo turned his head around.
The Chinese astronauts grappled and attached the Shuttle to the International Space Station with the precision of a team of brain surgeons, but they didn’t board it. They remained inside the cockpit, all four of them. Instead, it was Abraham who opened the outer hatch and propelled himself up the narrow circular corridor carrying his wooden toolbox with him. To the Chinese surprise, it hadn’t been the first time the Dutchman had been inside a spacesuit. He floated expertly until he reached the airlock of the Soyuz and connected his safety tether to one of the wall hooks, almost as if he had designed the station himself.
He then began the procedure to open the airlock, first by pulling out a lever from the hatch with incredible difficulty. A thin layer of ice had been formed over it and was somewhat stuck. Then, once he managed to pull it out all the way, Abraham pumped the hydraulic system until the dim light on the door switched from a faint yellow to a bright green. Having dealt with Russian engineers and their excessive attention to detail many times in his life, Abraham kept pumping the lever a few more times, just to be on the safe side. Once he was done, he put the lever back in place and pulled the airlock open.
No oxygen left the Space Station. A quick glance into the interior told him why. It seemed the creature had decided to pierce with a fist one of the walls of the Service Section long ago, suffocating everyone inside. Abraham pushed his wooden toolbox into the dimly lit crawlspace, then he floated himself there, closing the hatch behind him.
A bright light coming from the US Lab Module caught his attention. He made his way to the main airlock through frozen chunks of meat that floated aimlessly in the macabre slaughterhouse. When he arrived there, Abraham saw horror as he had not seen in a long time.
The creature had been busy experimenting with the astronauts’ remains in ways that even the most experienced pathologist would find repugnant. It had been, without doubt, trying to reproduce itself, unsuccessfully.
Shocked, Abraham put down his toolbox and removed his helmet. The creature was holding a scalpel like a child holds a toy; it unsettled him. He had caught it doing something to one of the astronaut’s exposed brains, and it was clearly startled as it didn’t expect any visits. Not up there.
Even though he was well aware of the intricacies of contemporary technology, in many ways, Abraham was still a man of the last days of the 18th century. He tried to speak in the vacuum of the space, where no sound can travel. The creature stared at him, intrigued. It didn't take long for Abraham to realize the futile of his efforts, though. He found one of the many station controls on the wall, then hooked to the communication systems through an auxiliary cord he pulled from within his spacesuit. He was about to signal the creature to grab one of the dead astronaut’s caps and put it on so it could listen to him, but the beast was already holding one next to its ear when he looked up again.
“Put the blade down and stop desecrating those men, damn you.” He ordered.
At first, the creature didn’t answer back; it just stared at the Dutchman’s face for a long while. He couldn’t tell by the thing’s lack of reaction if it was simply surprised by seeing someone up there or if it had actually recognized him.
That is when it spoke.
To say its voice was the sound one can expect being howled from the throat of a dead man would be to put it too simply. It was the voice of something horrendous. It was the voice of the combination of all the hate, the sorrow, the shame of an entire species. It was the voice of stupidity, of arrogance, of every sacrilegious misdeed the human race has punished itself with over the countless centuries.
The thing had the voice of a man.
“Do I know you?” It said.
Even though the sound of the beast’s voice came somewhat distorted through the communication system, each word revolted Abraham’s stomach, “You have no right to refer to yourself in first person, monster!” He said.
“I do know you. Your voice, your face; they seem... familiar.”
“No, you don’t know me. But I know what you are. Now, do as I say and put the blade down. Those were men, they had families, you have no right--”
“Right?” The creature exploded, “I have every right!”
Abraham couldn’t help looking away; there was a twisted stare in the creature’s eyes that spoke of pride, satisfaction. “How the hell did you got up here?” Abraham said, looking at the naked bodies nailed to the floor like a dissected frogs.
“I am smart.”
Abraham pointed at the carnage around them. “Smart? You call this being smart?”
The creature leaned a little closer. “I could not finish my work down there. Running, being hunted all the time. Too many interruptions. So I found a way to get up here. The stupid men, they never saw me get into their rocket. I’m good at staying hidden. I had to become good at it. Here, I have everything I need and cannot be interrupted.”
Abraham said, “Until now.”
The creature waited. It had the calm stare of a baby being put into his cradle, yet, he wore a mask made of hate.
“Yes, until now.”
“Victor Frankenstein was...” Abraham began. He paused, looking for the right words.
“My father.” The creature suggested.
“Men have fathers!” Abraham said, “Animals have fathers! You, you are a thing, a beast! A mistake! Something that shouldn’t be!"
The beast eyes narrowed to crinkled slits. Hate slowly drew on his face.
"No..." Abraham continued, "he wasn’t your father; he was your creator. He was also a brilliant, unique man with a great mind. Don’t you dare to taint his good name by calling yourself his son, you monster!”
“He wanted me to be his son.”
“What man would want such a thing? What man would! Look at you!”
The creature seemed unaffected by the Dutchman’s words.
“No, monster,” Abraham said, feeling pity for mankind as he hadn’t before, “He never wanted to father a thing as disgusting as you. He was after the divine. Creation, using only science. You are merely the punishment for his heresy.”
“Only science?” The creature’s question was filled with hope. It gave Abraham shivers.
“I thought you were smart. There are other ways to reanimate the dead. Many, actually.”
The creature’s eyes widened, but before it could say anything, Abraham began to shake his head. “No, I won’t show you how. It wouldn’t help you achieve what you seek anyway.”
“There is an order in life, damn you; those who are brought back from the other side serve a master. Victor did not want to reanimate dead tissue. He wanted to create life, but instead, he corrupted it.”
“Is that what you do? Serve a master?” The creature said.
Abraham bent down to open his toolbox. “No. But I did, once, for a short while. Thanks to the man whose flesh Frankenstein profaned from his family vault to shape you, beast, I don’t anymore.”
“You call me a beast, but there is no air in here, yet, you removed your helmet, and unlike the others, you live.”
Abraham began sliding drawers and trays in his toolbox.
“Breathing and being alive is not always the same. See, many, many years ago, I was involved in a terrible accident. During a fight, I ended up with gangrene on the left leg. John Seward, the man whose flesh you are wearing like a Halloween mask, sucked out the poisoned blood out of me.”
“It was not poison,” the creature said. Its eyes, seeing images that weren’t there a minute before.
“No, it wasn’t. I was turned into a Nosophoros, a creature of the dead. The Chinese called them Jiangshi, the Romanian Nosferatu, o Vàmpīr, depending on the region. But I died. Life left me. For a short while, I was a slave. Neither alive nor dead, but with a thirst unlike any other. John saved me from that fate when he sucked out the blood from the wound. A moment later, and it would have been too late.”
“But he became ill,” the creature said, still searching for vague images in his mind, “we both did--I mean, he and you.”
Abraham pulled out a set of brass tools wrapped in a velvet cloth from the toolbox and put them aside. “Yes, part of the curse remained in me, as it did in John.”
“I know some of this. I can see… moments. Hear sounds. You were a teacher. He respected you greatly.”
“Echos, from a past that doesn’t belong to you, monster. You see, Victor Frankenstein was a brilliant young man, but he was no genius, and he was misguided. He believed life—creation was something you could put in a jar, make out by mixing chemicals under a Bunsen burner. He was an ignorant man, in that regard.”
The creature began to laugh. The sound it made was unbearable. It was the sound of dead laughing, the sound of glass being scratched.
“Stop that, you demon!” Abraham demanded.
“My father was the most intelligent man that existed. He alone became a God. Look at me, I do not exist, then?”
“He was ignorant! This proves it!” Abraham said, pointing at the operation table where the creature had been tirelessly trying to make itself a partner. “You mutilated these men flesh, their genitalia, why? To make yourself a bride? A companion?”
“A partner,” the creature said, grimly.
“There will never be any partners for you, monster! You cannot be loved; look at you! You are a creature, an abomination! A caricature of a man! Look at what you have done to these people; what woman could possibly love that?”
“My father said it could be done.”
“Victor was a child playing with his father’s gun, and he got himself shot in the heart the day he spat you into this world. I’m here to put an end to his tragedy once and for all.”
Abraham pulled a metallic canister from his toolbox. On the center, there was a small oval slit of thick opaque glass from where one could see a shapeless, red stone of the size of an American quarter floating inside. At moments, it seemed to pulsate with eagerness.
“You came here to kill me?” the creature said.
“Kill you? You are not alive, damn you! This is not life; it’s a mistake!”
“Wrong!” the creature yelled, the bony claw it had for hand gripping the head of one of the astronauts, “You are wrong! I deserve to be alive more than you, or any of them!”
Abraham quickly grabbed the canister with both hands.
“I am a miracle,” The creature said, its voice barely forming human words.
Abraham was so disgusted by the creature’s reasoning that he couldn’t hide his discontent and spat on the floor. “Some miracle you are. Killing hundreds, mutilating dozens, playing with men’s flesh like a child plays with mud.”
“My father made life from the dead. I watched him, and I learned. I memorized everything he did. I am his only son; I have the same power within me.”
“It was a mistake, don’t you see?” Abraham said, “Or are you blind besides being stupid? Victor Frankenstein was a brilliant man, but he never created life! It was an accident! A terrible joke of destiny.”
“He spent years—”
“Yes, he spent years failing! Because it can’t be done, nor with science or magic! Man can’t be God, as much as it wants to. Don’t you see? He used John’s body to make you. His flesh was cursed, just as mine is. It wasn’t his rubber tubes and alchemy potions that brought you here, beast; it was me! My mistake!”
The creature looked at him with a peculiar stare in his watery, bulging eyes. It attempted to say something, but memories came faster than the words did.
“There was… a young girl. We were trying to save her.”
The creature nodded as if the memory was being played like a movie in front of it. “You lowered your guard for a moment,” it said, “a gas lamp fell. There was a fire. Confusion. Smoke.”
Abraham nodded. “A Nosferatu bit me. John, he saved me just in time, but there were consequences. Part of the curse that is keeping me here passed onto him when he sucked my wound.”
“He never aged after that. Neither of us did. We remained as we were that night, with one foot here, another on the other side. He died, eventually, after many, many years. But whatever was Victor Frankenstein thought he accomplished, it wasn’t because of his work. It was because he used John’s body. It is the only reason why you exist, creature. It is why you have his memories.”
The creature began mumbling something into the microphone, then kept quiet. Its eyes going from the strange canister Abraham was holding to his eyes and back to the canister again.
“This?” Abraham said, noticing the creature’s silent inquiry, “This here is the only one of its kind, just like we. It is a petrified piece of the lung of a man called Denwen. The ancient Egyptians regarded him as a God because he could breathe fire, but he was no deity; there was nothing divine in him as there is nothing divine in your existence. He was just an old priest who toyed with things he could not fully understand. In a way, he was Victor Frankenstein before Victor Frankenstein was born.”
“What are you going to do with it?”
Abraham held it up in front of him, so the creature could see the strange, shapeless nugget that floated inside. “Well, back on earth, it is rather harmless, unless it is mixed with oxygen that is, in which case it burns anything it comes into contact with.”
The creature’s eyes were narrow now, filled with hate. It knew its enemy.
“The fire the Denwen Stone produces, it cannot be put out. Ever. It consumes everything around it and keeps consuming and feeding itself of whatever its flames come across with. Hence, the enclosed compartment.”
A crooked smile slowly split the creature’s blackened lips into a very horrendous grin. “Fire can’t exist without oxygen,” it said, taking short steps towards Abraham.
“No, it cannot. That is why it sits in a cloud of chlorine trifluoride.”
The creature stopped cold. Its eyes widened.
“I see some of John’s memories are still there,” Abraham said, “Yes, thanks to this contraption a friend of mine built, the Denwen Stone will burn, even here, in space.”
The creature took a step back, but there wasn’t anywhere else to go anymore.
“No more running,” Abraham said.
“I am the closest thing your kind will ever be from becoming divine. You end me here, now, and that will also die with me.”
Abraham didn’t bother to continue with the conversation; it disgusted him. And as the creature caught fire and contorted itself in agony, he disconnected his communication cord from the wall outlet to avoid listening to the thing screams of rage and horror. He simply sat on the plastic floor of the celestial tomb Prometheus built to watch its creation burn to coal and ashes.
Javier Cabrera is a novelist, short story writer, essayist and screenwriter working in a variety of genres including horror, science fiction, fantasy, and noir fiction. He is also the co-founder and the active CEO of Cabrera Brothers, a media and entertainment company and the editor of All Cool Reads (formerly, Free Bundle Magazine), a fiction magazine with more than 25,000 subscribers worldwide.
Note: Blood Debt appeared on Free Bundle Magazine, October 2020. This version of the story includes fixes for two minor continuity errors and some other changes.