Weird Fiction Monday: Head Games

It’s time for Weird Fiction Monday, when I post stories that I’ve written — both new and old — for the entertainment (hopefully) of my readers!  As always, I note that I haven’t done extensive editing of the tales here, so don’t be surprised to find the writing a little rough.  

In fact, this particularly story was just written last night on a lark, so it’s even rougher than usual.  I say a little more about where the idea came from at the end of the post.

Head Games

Nothing remained living in the laboratory when I entered.  Doctor Kelsey and his medical staff were dead, their bodies a collection of red mangled horrors on the floor that contrasted terribly with the white antiseptic nature of the rest of the room.   Kelsey’s patients – technically, his one patient – were also dead, lying silently upon the operating table.

I took all of this in within an instant.  In the next instant, my gaze was drawn to the odd incongruity of balloons hanging from the ceiling at regular intervals.  I hardly had time to understand their significance when the chemical fuse went off.

Fire erupted in the far corner of the room, sending a wave of heat towards me.  I staggered backwards, crashing against a metal table.  The contents clattered down upon me, including scalpels, clamps, and sponges, and a heavy book fell onto my lap.  I grabbed it and instinctively held it in front of my face as I crawled away from the flames.  The gasoline-filled balloons hanging from the ceiling began to burst, spewing fire in all directions.  By some miracle I cleared the threshold of the room, and found myself rushing out into the back alleys of nighttime Singapore.  Nobody was around as I exited, just as nobody had been around when I arrived.  With a quick glance around myself, I hurried away from the door, just as I heard the fire alarm in the building go off.

Only when I reached a busy main thoroughfare, and found myself surrounded by thousands of Singapore residents going about their business, did I look at the book I had taken from the lab and was still holding.  The cover was simply labeled “Notes,” written in Kelsey’s unmistakable handwriting.  By dumb luck, I had grabbed Kelsey’s laboratory journal.

You may have heard of Dr. Emmett Kelsey before.  He had made international headlines several times over the past decade as the world’s most preeminent transplant surgeon and academic researcher on the subject, having performed the first successful double arm transplant and one of the first human face transplants. However, none of this attention could compare with the fervor of two years ago, when he boldly declared that he could – and would – perform the first human head transplant in history.   He would find a terminally ill volunteer and transplant that person’s head to the body of a person in a permanent vegetative state, and he would accomplish this feat in no more than three years.

The announcement caused a bit of a backlash against Kelsey and his research, though not as much as one might expect, thanks to today’s rather jaded and passive society.  Nevertheless, the criticism had an impact on Kelsey: his job was safe thanks to tenure, but his university was sufficiently spooked to draft a declaration that no research on human head transplants would be allowed using their facilities, staff, or funds.  Seemingly stymied, Kelsey took a sabbatical – in fact, was strongly encouraged to take a sabbatical – and disappeared from the public eye.

I had known Kelsey professionally for over a decade, and I had even assisted in a number of his transplant operations.   Even so, I was surprised when I received an email from him.  He was now based in Singapore, he said, and had made great strides in his research working with animal subjects.  He was deliberately vague on what research he was talking about, but that in itself made it clear that he was still pursuing head transplantation.   We corresponded on and off for a few months, until at last Kelsey asked me to join him in the island city “to witness the culmination of his research, and to see all the pieces fit together.”

I’m not exactly sure why I decided to travel out to meet him; I suppose I was torn between hoping to dissuade him and curious to see the results of his work.  Kelsey met me at the airport with a pair of his new assistants from Singapore; as he put it, “Good, talented workers lacking in the narrow-minded stigmas of Western society.”

We took a roundabout route from the airport to the hotel he had arranged for me.  “Precautions are necessary,” he explained, “Even here, there are those who would try and disrupt my research.”

With that in mind, he left me with a simple set of directions hastily scrawled on a sheet of paper: a place and time that the operation would occur, two days from now.

“I’m sure you can find your own way,” Kelsey apologized.  “We had to prepare some unconventional space in order to avoid unwanted publicity and possible legal intervention.”

I spent the next two days exploring the beautiful city and trying to expunge the anxiety that I was feeling.  I had been instructed to arrive the day of the operation at precisely eight o’clock; I ignored these instructions, however, and arrived some twenty minutes early.  I like to think that I was planning to argue against such a rash experiment done hastily outside the scientific and medical mainstream.  I arrived at the location – a rented commercial space that had an entrance off of an alleyway – and found the door unlocked and unguarded.  I was seized by a terrible premonition and went inside as if in a dream, passing through the preparation room and to the surgical theater.  It was there I found the scene of carnage and murder and fled the fire.

Now I was wandering the streets of Singapore, clutching Kelsey’s lab notebook in my arms.  I must have made quite a scene, a foreigner staggering through the streets with the heavy book in my arms.  I suddenly felt very aware of my vulnerability, and ducked into the first coffee shop I encountered in order to peruse the book more carefully.   I found myself a corner table and flipped open the heavy cover to see what Kelsey had been working on.

The majority of the notes were technical, detailing the exact procedures that he had devised for the transplantation of a head from one human body to another.  As I flipped through the pages, my breath caught in my throat.  Much of my reservation about the process was based on my belief that it would inevitably lead to many failures and therefore fatalities, but Kelsey’s work was much more advanced than I had ever imagined.  Not only did he have what looked to be a nearly perfected process for the transplant in place, he had honed it to where it looked like it could be a routine procedure, perhaps even an outpatient one.  I did not understand many of the details provided, and I guessed that not another person in a hundred years could make this transplant work as he had envisioned.

The last few pages of the notebook were quite different.  They were written as a diary entry, and contained Kelsey’s personal thoughts and recollections of events.  The last entry was dated only a week earlier, and this is what it said.

***

We are almost ready for the first transplant.  I have arranged for a living subject, a Singapore man suffering from pancreatic cancer who will otherwise die within months, and a suitable body has been found among the patients at the local hospital.  The hospital would never permit such a procedure, even with one of its vegetative patients, but there is always someone with access and a desire for money, and my assistants have paved the way for the removal.

Space has been secured for the operation, and the needed equipment has been purchased and imported.  This has drained almost all of my remaining personal funds, as well as that allotted by a number of curious wealthy backers.  We have enough to finish the task, however, and once the world has seen what we have done, it will have to support further research.

With this in mind, I am glad that Dr. Sutton has agreed to fly out to observe the proceedings.  Considering the controversy surrounding the work, I feel it is important to have an independent witness to the transplant and to the patient’s inevitable recovery.  Dr. Sutton has been somewhat critical of my goals in the past and his reputation is unimpeachable; his report will convince the public of the reality of what I will accomplish.

The only hiccup in my plans was the arrival of an unexpected visitor yesterday.  He came to my office downtown in the afternoon without an appointment, but walked right in as if he was expected.  He was an older European man, German perhaps, and looked to be in his fifties.  He was dressed impeccably in a white suit with a yellow tie, and carried a briefcase with him.

“Dr. Kelsey?” he asked, and I was immediately on my guard; very few people knew of my residence in Singapore, and of those I had requested discretion.  I flinched as the man reached into his jacket pocket, but he only produced a business card, which I took.

“Marcus Friedrich, as your service,” he said.  “I have come on the behalf of my employers concerning the operation that you are going to perform in a few days’ time.”

“Who are your employers, and what do you know of my business?” I asked.

Friedrich ignored the first part of my question.  “We know you are planning to attempt the first complete transplant of a human head, a task you have been working towards for years.  Why am I here, is the question I believe you want to ask?”

“Okay,” I replied, “Why are you here?”

“My employers have been watching your career with great interest,” said Friedrich, “And wish to offer you a proposal.”

He placed his briefcase on my desk, facing towards me.

“They would like to offer you a lifetime’s worth of funding for all future research,” he said, opening the case, “100 million dollars, to be paid out as needed, with this only a down payment.”

The case was filled with neatly wrapped $100 bills.  A quick estimate suggested a half-million dollars, perhaps more, inside.

I didn’t respond right away, not quite sure what to say.  Friedrich was happy to continue speaking.

“Our only condition on the acceptance of this money is that you cease your attempts to perform a head transplant, and destroy all of your existing research related to it.”

I laughed aloud at this.  Give up on and destroy the culmination of my life’s work?  Friedrich seemed to read my thoughts.

“It is much to ask of you,” he said, “Which is why my employers are willing to make such a generous offer.  You would be free to work on any other research you like – curing cancers, ending disease, perfecting transplants of any other type than the one you now propose.”

It was hard to imagine that such an offer could possibly be sincere.  Yet the money was there – at least part of it – and I could see in Friedrich’s eyes that he, and his employers, were deadly serious.  But why?  Religious objections? Competing research?  As I looked at him, I knew that it didn’t matter.  I shut the case in front of me and spun it around to face him.

“You can tell your employers that I respectfully decline,” I said.

Friedrich quickly picked up the case.

“Ah, I understand,” he said. “You are a dedicated scientist, and no amount of money could deter you from the pursuit of knowledge.”

He shrugged.

“But what if you were deluding yourself, and in fact chasing a dream that had been accomplished by others long before you?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, and I believe I was smirking at him at this point.

“In the event you declined the financial incentive,” he answered, “I have been authorized to tell you that my employers have already succeeded at the transplanting of human heads.  In fact, this was originally accomplished in Italy in the 14th century.”

“Preposterous!” I snapped. “There was hardly any medicine to speak of in that era, and certainly not enough scientific knowledge of the human body to achieve such a feat!”

Friedrich shook his head with a thin smile.

“Who said it was done with science?” he said to me. “My employers were well-versed in other arts, and had other avenues of acquiring knowledge, and in Florence in the year 1382 the first of them succeeded in moving his head from his dying body and onto that of young man.”

“You speak of them as if they were still alive after all these years,” I countered, but Friedrich nodded in reply.

“They are.  After the first of them achieved his dream, he shared his discovery with like-minded individuals.  The conclave have been changing bodies for centuries, swapping out the old for the new, keeping themselves alive and in health.  They have seen kingdoms rise and fall, and have used the knowledge that comes with age to become prosperous and powerful.  They work behind the scenes, living eternally and manipulating the world as they see fit for their amusement.”

Friedrich stepped towards my desk, and his voice dropped.

“But they do not want company.  Your experiments could allow others into their exclusive club, a club that only rarely accepts new members: typically those who have served them well throughout a lifetime.  But they can be generous and gracious, nonetheless.  That is why they have offered you a gift to cease your experiments, and why they are willing to reveal their existence to you to convince you to stop your work now.”

“This is ridiculous,” I said.  “You can’t possibly expect me to believe this.  You can’t expect me to give up my entire life over some cheap ghost story.”

Friedrich turned away, and slowly walked to the door.

“There are things far worse than death,” he said.  “But no, you don’t have to take my word for it.  My phone number is on that card; the number will be active up until the day you perform the operation, if you so choose.  Call me, and I will take you to meet my employers, and you can see for yourself what they have done.  It is a rare opportunity they are giving you, offered to no one else in history.  You would not believe the things they can do.  You can keep a brain alive for hours to perform your operation; they can keep one alive for centuries.  Call me, and we will show you wonders.”

Friedrich stopped at the door.

“The money is still yours, if you decide to accept.  But call me, and come see us first.  We will change your mind.”

I said nothing as he left.  Of course I am not going to call him; the invitation is almost certainly a trap of some sort.  Since Friedrich’s visit I have hired additional security to guard me and my staff.  I have started to feel that I am being watched on the streets when I am out, and we have taken extra steps to keep the location of our surgical center secret.

I can’t imagine why Friedrich thought I would believe his story; it makes no sense logically or medically.  Even if a human head could be transplanted from body to body so easily…

***

I flinched about halfway through reading the last sentence of the narrative.  The mention of being watched had put my own senses on alert, and I felt as if eyes were upon me as well.

The coffee shop was filled with seemingly ordinary patrons who paid no attention to me.  Nevertheless, an oppressive feeling of danger grew as I sat there, and within minutes became intolerable.  I lurched to my feet and headed back out into the street.

The only place I could think of going was my hotel, which was quite a distance away on foot.  However, the thought of getting into a taxi at the moment horrified me, so paranoid I had become, and almost certainly justified.  I began to walk at a brisk pace.

Behind me, others walked.

A glance over my shoulder showed a pair of men keeping pace with me about 20 feet distant, each of them wearing a hooded sweatshirt and wearing a surgical mask.  Such masks were not uncommon, thanks to a series of avian flu outbreaks and the overall congestion of the city, but the hoods seemed quite incongruous in the relatively warm weather.

I hurried my pace as fast as I could, but the figures seemed only to gain on me.  Now they were only fifteen feet away.  Their faces were hidden in shadow, but I imagined that there was something wrong with their proportions.

At the next corner, I turned, and as I passed out of sight of the pair of followers I ran.  I was dodging through crowds that were still quite dense even at this late hour, and despite my best efforts I found myself tripped up in a near miss with a pedestrian and tumbled to the sidewalk.  As I got up, I chanced a glance behind me; the two figures were approaching quickly from behind, but with horror I also noticed that another pair, dressed similarly, was coming from in front of me.

A narrow alleyway led off to my left.  I dashed within, hoping to find a shortcut that would lead me onto another street and to safety.  Instead, I found myself faced with a dead end and several locked doors.

Footsteps sounded behind me.  I didn’t need to look back; the shadows of the four pursuers, cast by the lights on the street, stretched out onto the wall in front of me.  They didn’t speak a word, though as I watched the shadows I could see that all four of them had carefully lowered their hoods.

The last lines of Kelsey’s journal, read hastily, came back to me now, word for word.

“Even if a human head could be transplanted from body to body so easily, the head itself would still be subject to aging.  Even before a second generation had passed the head would be practically rotting off the body; after hundreds of years, its condition would be unspeakable.”

It could have been a trick of the light, but the shadows of the figures behind me all had ridiculously narrow heads, as if nothing were left upon the skull at all.

There was only one thing I could do.  Without turning, I reached out with my arm and dropped Kelsey’s notebook behind me, as far as I could cast it.  One of the shadows broke away from the others, stooped, and gathered it up.  Only when the shadows had completely retreated from the wall and the sound of footsteps had been buried by the sounds of the city did I dare turn around.

I was alone.

I found my way back to my hotel without incident and collapsed into sleep.  The next day, I packed my things and rescheduled my flight for an early return home.  Because my trip had been kept under wraps by Kelsey, nobody connected me to his disappearance and the fire at his remote surgical center, and I was able to leave the country without trouble.

On the flight home, I tried to block the event of the trip from my mind.  But even in sleep, questions still haunted me.  Friedrich had told Kelsey, “You can keep a brain alive for hours to perform your operation; they can keep one alive for centuries.”

I only had a brief look at Kelsey’s surgery before the fire had started and I was forced to flee.  My memories are imperfect, and I’ll never be certain of what I saw.  But I keep asking myself: was Kelsey’s head still on his body?

************************

One of the best sources of inspiration in writing horror fiction for me is reading other classic work.  Today I was reading The Star Book of Horror No. 2, a classic anthology edited by Hugh Lamb, that contains the story Laocoon by Basset Morgan.  This peculiar work involves a man getting his brain transplanted into the head of a sea serpent, with predictably horrific results.

The thought of brain transplants got me thinking about a recent (real) news report about an Italian neuroscientist who believes he can perform a complete human head transplant!  The story got me thinking about the macabre possibilities involved with moving human heads, and this story sort of appeared almost fully-formed (transplanted there, if you will) in my own skull.

The thought of moving around brains or heads naturally makes one think of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness, which happens to be one of my favorite stories of his.

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