Midnight Page 30


"But they do outweigh the benefits," Watkins said, as close to anger as a New Man could get. "My God, how could you have done this to us?"


"I did this for you."


Watkins stared at him, then pushed open the bedroom door and said, "Have a look."


Shaddack stepped into the room, where the carpet was damp and some of the walls festooned—with blood. He grimaced at the stink. He found all biological odors unusually repellent, perhaps because they were a reminder that human beings were far less efficient and clean than machines. After stopping at the first corpse which lay facedown near the door—and studying it, he looked across the room at the second body. "Two of them? Two regressives, and you killed both? Two chances to study the psychology of these degenerates, and you threw away both opportunities?"


Watkins was unbowed by the criticism. "It was a life-or-death situation here. It couldn't have been handled differently."


He seemed angry to a degree inconsistent with the personality of a New Man, though perhaps the emotion sustaining his icy demeanor was less rage than fear. Fear was acceptable.


"Peyser was regressed when we got here," Watkins continued. "We searched the house, confronted him in this room."


As Watkins described that confrontation in detail, Shaddack was gripped by an apprehension that he tried not to reveal and to which he did not even want to admit. When he spoke he let only anger touch his voice, not fear "You're telling me that your men, both Sholnick and Penniworth, are regressives, that even you are a regressive?"


"Sholnick was a regressive, yes. In my book Penniworth isn't—not yet anyway—because he successfully resisted the urge. Just as I resisted it." Watkins boldly maintained eye contact, not once glancing away, which further disturbed Shaddack. "What I'm telling you is the same thing I told you in so many words a few hours ago at your place Each of us, every damned one of us, is potentially a regressive. It's not a rare sickness among the New People. It's in all of us. You've not created new and better men any more than Hitler's policies of genetic breeding could've created a master race. You're not God; you're Dr. Moreau."


"You will not speak to me like this," Shaddack said, wondering who this Moreau was. The name was vaguely familiar, but he could not place it. "When you talk to me, I'd suggest you remember who I am."


Watkins lowered his voice, perhaps realizing anew that Shaddack could extinguish the New People almost as easily as snuffing out a candle. But he continued to speak forcefully and with too little respect. "You still haven't responded to the worst of this news."


"And what's that?"


"Didn't you hear me? I said that Peyser was stuck. He couldn't remake himself."


"I doubt very much that he was trapped in an altered state. New Men have complete control of their bodies, more control than I ever anticipated. If he could not return to human form, that was strictly a psychological block. He didn't really want to return."


For a moment Watkins stared at him, then shook his head and said, "You aren't really that dense, are you? It's the same thing. Hell, it doesn't matter whether something went wrong with the microsphere network inside him or whether it was strictly psychological. Either way, the effect was the same, the result was the same He was stuck, trapped, locked into that degenerate form."


"You will not speak to me like this," Shaddack repeated firmly, as if repetition of the command would work the same way it did when training a dog.


For all their physiological superiority and potential for mental superiority, New People were still dismayingly people, and to the degree they were people, they were that much less effective machines. With a computer, you only had to program a command once. The computer retained it and acted upon it always. Shaddack wondered if he would ever be able to perfect the New People to the point at which future generations functioned as smoothly and reliably as the average IBM PC.


Damp with sweat, pale, his eyes strange and haunted, Watkins was an intimidating figure. When the cop took two steps to reduce the gap between them, Shaddack was afraid and wanted to retreat, but he held his ground and continued to meet Watkins's eyes the way he would have defiantly met those of a dangerous German shepherd if he had been cornered by one.


"Look at Sholnick," Watkins said, indicating the corpse at their feet. He used the toe of his shoe to turn the dead man over.


Even riddled with shotgun pellets and soaked in blood, Sholnick's bizarre mutation was unmistakable. His sightlessly staring eyes were perhaps the most frightful thing about him yellow with black irises, not the round irises of the human eye but elongated ovals as in the eyes of a snake.


Outside, thunder rolled across the night, a louder peal than the one Shaddack had heard when he'd been crossing Peyser's front lawn.


Watkins said, "The way you explained it to me—these degenerates undergo willful devolution."


"That's right."


"You said the whole history of human evolution is carried in our genes, that we still have in us traces of what the species once was, and that the regressives somehow tap that genetic material and devolve into creatures somewhere farther back on the evolutionary ladder."


"What's your point?"


"That explanation made some sort of crazy sense when we trapped Coombs in the theater and got a good look at him back in September. He was more ape than man, something in between."


"It doesn't make crazy sense; it makes perfect sense."


"But, Jesus, look at Sholnick. Look at him! When I gunned him down, he'd halfway transformed himself into some goddamned creature that's part man, part … hell, I don't know, part lizard or snake. You telling me that we evolved from reptiles, we're carrying lizard genes from ten million years ago?"


Shaddack thrust both hands in his coat pockets, lest they betray his apprehension with a nervous gesture or tremble. "The first life on earth was in the sea, then something crawled onto the land—a fish with rudimentary legs—and the fish evolved into the early reptiles, and along the way mammals split off. If we don't contain actual fragments of the genetic material of those very early reptiles—and I believe we do—then at least we have racial memory of that stage of evolution encoded in us in some other way we don't really understand."


"You're jiving me, Shaddack."


"And you're irritating me."


"I don't give a damn. Come here, come with me, take a closer look at Peyser. He was a friend of yours from way back, wasn't he? Take a good, long look at what he was when he died."


Peyser was flat on his back, naked, right leg straight in front of him, left leg bent under him at an angle, one arm flung out at his side, the other across his chest, which had been shattered by a couple of shotgun blasts. The body and the face—with its inhuman muzzle and teeth, yet vaguely recognizable as Mike Peyser—were those of a shockingly horrific freak, a dog-man, a werewolf, something that belonged in either a carnival sideshow or an old horror movie. The skin was coarse. The patchy coat of hair was wiry. The hands looked powerful, the claws sharp.


Because his fascination exceeded his disgust and fear, Shaddack pulled up his topcoat to keep the hem of it from brushing the bloody corpse, and stooped beside Peyser's body for a closer look.


Watkins hunkered down on the other side of the cadaver.


While another avalanche of thunder rumbled down the night sky, the dead man stared at the bedroom ceiling with eyes that were too human for the rest of his twisted countenance.


"You going to tell me that somewhere along the way we evolved from dogs, wolves?" Watkins asked.


Shaddack did not reply.


Watkins pressed the issue. "You going to tell me that we've got dog genes in us that we can tap when we want to transform ourselves? Am I supposed to believe God took a rib from some prehistoric Lassie and made man from it before he took man's rib to make a woman?"


Curiously Shaddack touched one of Mike Peyser's hands, which was designed for killing as surely as was a soldier's bayonet. It felt like flesh, just cooler than that of a living man.


"This can't be explained biologically," Watkins said, glaring at Shaddack across the corpse. "This wolf form isn't something Peyser could dredge up from racial memory stored in his genes. So how could he change like this? It's not just your biochips at work here. It's something else … something stranger."


Shaddack nodded. "Yes." An explanation had occurred to him, and he was excited by it. "Something a great deal stranger … but perhaps I understand it."


"So tell me. I'd like to understand it. Damned if I wouldn't. I'd like to understand it real well. Before it happens to me."


"There's a theory that form is a function of consciousness."


"Huh?"


"It holds that we are what we think we are. I'm not talking pop psychology here, that you can be what you want to be if you'll only like yourself, nothing of that sort. I mean physically, we may have the potential to be whatever we think we are, to override the morphic stasis dictated by our genetic heritage."


"Gobbledegook," Watkins said impatiently.


Shaddack stood. He put his hands in his pockets again. "Let me put it this way The theory says that consciousness is the greatest power in the universe, that it can bend the physical world to its desire."


"Mind over matter."


"Right."


"Like some talk-show psychic bending a spoon or stopping a watch, " Watkins said.


"Those people are usually fakes, I suspect. But, yes, maybe that power is really in us. We just don't know how to tap it because for millions of years we've allowed the physical world to dominate us. By habit, by stasis, and by preference for order over chaos, we remain at the mercy of the physical world. But what we're talking about here," he said, pointing to Sholnick and Peyser, "is a lot more complex and exciting than bending a spoon with the mind. Peyser felt the urge to regress, for reasons I don't understand, perhaps for the sheer thrill of it—"


"For the thrill." Watkins's voice lowered, became quiet, almost hushed, and was filled with such intense fear and mental anguish that it deepened Shaddack's chill. "Animal power is thrilling. Animal need. You feel animal hunger, animal lust, bloodthirst—and you're drawn toward that because it seems so … so simple and powerful, so natural. It's freedom."


"Freedom?"


"Freedom from responsibility, from worry, from the pressure of the civilized world, from having to think too much. The temptation to regress is tremendously powerful because you feel life will be so much easier and exciting then," Watkins said, evidently speaking about what he had felt when drawn toward an altered state. "When you become a beast, life is all sensation, just pain and pleasure, with no need to intellectualize anything. That's part of it, anyway."


Shaddack was silent, unsettled by the passion with which Watkins—not ordinarily an expressive man—had spoken of the urge to regress.


Another detonation rocked the sky, more powerful than any before it. The first hard crack of thunder reverberated in the bedroom windows.


Mind racing, Shaddack said, "Anyway, the important thing is that when Peyser felt this urge to become a beast, a hunter, he didn't regress along the human genetic line. Evidently, in his opinion, a wolf is the greatest of all hunters, the most desirable form for a predatory beast, so he willed himself to become wolflike."


"Just like that," Watkins said skeptically.


"Yes, just like that. Mind over matter. The metamorphosis is mostly a mental process. Oh, certainly, there are physical changes. But we might not be talking complete alteration of matter … only of biological structures. The basic nucleotides remain the same, but the sequence in which they're read changes drastically. Structural genes are transformed into operator genes by a force of will… ."


Shaddack's voice trailed off as his excitement rose to match his fear and left him breathless. He'd done far more than he'd hoped to do with the Moonhawk Project. The stunning accomplishment was the source of both his sudden joy and escalating fear: joy, because he had given men the ability to control their physical form and, eventually, perhaps all matter, simply by the exercise of will; fear, because he was not sure that the New People could learn to control and properly use their power … or that he could continue to control them.


"The gift I've given to you—computer-assisted physiology and release from emotion—unleashes the mind's power over matter. It allows consciousness to dictate form."


Watkins shook his head, clearly appalled by what Shaddack was suggesting. "Maybe Peyser willed himself to become what he did. Maybe Sholnick willed it too. But I'll be damned if I did. When I was overcome by the desire to change, I fought it like an ex-addict sweating out a craving for heroin. I didn't want it. it came over me … the way the force of the full moon comes over a werewolf."


"No," Shaddack said. "Subconsciously, you did want to change, Loman, and you no doubt partially wanted it even on a conscious level. You must have wanted it to some extent because you spoke so forcefully about how attractive regression was. You resisted using your power of mind over body only because you found metamorphosis marginally more frightening than appealing. If you lose some of your fear of it….. or if an altered state becomes just a little more appealing….. well, then your psychological balance will shift, and you'll remake yourself. But it won't be some outside force at work. It'll be your own mind."


"Then why couldn't Peyser come back?"


"As I said, and as you suggested, he didn't want to."


"He was trapped."


"Only by his own desire."


Watkins looked down at the grotesque corpse of the regressive. "What have you done to us, Shaddack?"


"Haven't you grasped what I've said?"


"What have you done to us?"


"This is a great gift!"


"To have no emotions but fear?"


"That's what frees your mind and gives you the power to control your very form," Shaddack said excitedly. "What I don't understand is why the regressives have all chosen a subhuman condition. Surely you have the power within you to undergo evolution rather than devolution, to lift yourself up from mere humanity to something higher, cleaner, purer. Perhaps you even have the power to become a being of pure consciousness, intellect without any physical form. Why have all these New People chosen to regress instead?"

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