L'homme Machine

The hallway was long, windowless, and, this far underground, on the cool and damp side as a side effect of the stone construction. Nevertheless, fresh whitewash on the walls reflected the new chemical lighting installed along the ceiling, and the floors were as scrupulously scrubbed as you could ask for. Kessler approved.

He approved more when the two guards posted outside the door looked up alertly at his approach; even here, in the heart of one of the Thule Society's most heavily concealed work buildings, there was no excuse for slackness. Even as one of the guards stepped forward and saluted him, the hand of the other hovered watchfully over his sidearm.

"Mein Herr," the first guard greeted him formally, as he did every time Kessler visited. "Please present identification or I cannot allow you to proceed."

Kessler nodded, taking no offense at the guard's refusal to pass him in on recognition. Opening the lapel of his coat, he flashed the small metal badge sewn into the seam. The guard looked at it closely for a moment, then nodded and stepped aside, and flashed an "all-clear" sign at his partner.

"Will you be needing any assistance today, Herr Kessler?" he inquired, as the second guard began to unlock the laboratory door.

"No, I don't believe so," Kessler replied, smiling briefly. "I'm here only to collect some materials for our new project; I shouldn't have any trouble with just that."

He volunteered no details of his current experiments, and the man did not ask; good professionalism, that. It was this kind of careful regulation that would make the Thule Society strong.

The wave of heat rolled over Kessler as he stepped inside the laboratory, and despite the fact that he'd expected it, he couldn't help but reach up to loosen his collar slightly as he adjusted to the change in temperature. The quicker he went about his errand, the less time he'd have to spend in this sweltering heat, he thought; and set to work with practiced efficiency at the glass cabinets, withdrawing the storage vessels and insulated containers that he would need.

A stirring rattle on the other side of the laboratory caught his attention, as of wood against metal, and Kessler glanced in that direction to see movement. "Ah, so you're awake, are you?" he said cheerfully, pleased; this would make his work much more convenient. "Good, good."

He loaded his selected hardware onto one of the carts and wheeled it over to the specimen table, taking a moment to raise the lights over that section of the lab. The boy on the table stirred fitfully as he approached, but his stocks would barely allow him to turn his head, and he could no more than look at Kessler out of the corner of one eye as the scientist approached. That sliver of gold, slightly clouded from sleepiness or drugs, regarded Kessler with a mix of resignation and muted rage, but Kessler ignored it.

The heat was much more intense here, under the specialized warming lamps, and Kessler momentarily regretted his layers of starched cotton and wool. The boy was naked, of course, and in the humid heat a constant sheen of sweat condensed over his marred skin and ran in little rivulets down his body as he shifted restlessly in the bonds that held him. Special channels etched into the table beneath him led to the collection containers that were constantly at work; the salt and fluid thus lost was constantly replaced, along with a heavy stream of nutrients and necessary vitamins, through the mess of tubes running into his left arm, securely bound to a board at the side of the table to keep the needles from being dislodged. All a very neat, very efficient system, Kessler thought; raw material and outgoing product in perfect balance, a regular production line built into flesh.

"Hmm, you're looking a bit peaky," Kessler observed, running a critical eye over the pallor of the skin, almost gray under the tan. As usual, when his eyes passed over the scarred shoulder socket of the missing arm, he had to swallow back a feeling of revulsion; but as a scientist he prided his detachment too much to let such feelings affect his professionalism. "Perhaps we should be putting more iron into your food?"

A soft grunt was his only reply, as Kessler expected. The boy couldn't talk around the device in his mouth, of course; a specially adapted gag that forced his jaw open and clamped his tongue in place. It was designed, as the table was, to conserve every drop of precious liquid that his body produced; but this arrangement also had the double added benefits of preventing him from attempting to suicide by swallowing his own tongue, as many of the War agents had been trained to do, and from talking back. Kessler was a garrulous man, and liked to chat as he worked, but he was not particularly fond of receiving verbal abuse in return.

Kessler reached for the board of notes set on the table, and frowned in disappointment as he saw the latest entry. Well, that explained the ashy pallor, then; the boy had been bled only yesterday. This was a disappointing setback. In the interest of protecting their very valuable investment, the rules governing what could and couldn't be done on the boy were very stringent, and one of the most strictly enforced was that he could not be bled any more often than three days, or for more than a certain amount at a time. Some of the Thule Society's alchemical projects had enough priority to override this rule, but Kessler's experiments were not ranked that high on the list.

Fortunately, there were alternatives. The discovery of the alchemical catalyst in the stranger's blood had opened up an unimaginable new world of possibilities; demand for the material for use in experiments had quickly far outstripped supply. They could not take too much at once unless they wanted to kill the boy and end the source of their good fortune forever.

Attempts had been made to maximize the production of blood within his body, with the newly developed steroids and repeated bleedings. One of the physicians had suggested autologus, drawing the plasma and returning the red blood cells to the subject's body. This raised the vital question: what part of the stranger's blood was it that carried the alchemical quality? Was it unique to the blood itself, or was it pervasive in every part of the body?

This turned out to be an unexpected windfall; not only blood, but every vital fluid that could be extracted from the boy's body turned out to carry the essential alchemical charge. Some were more effective than others, and none more potent than the blood, but it vastly increased the range of possible experiments, and opened up whole new frontiers in alchemical science. Hair and nails were also tested, but deemed to be too ineffective to have much value, and so the attempt had been abandoned before more than half his head had been shorn.

"I wouldn't be surprised if before long we unlock the secret of your blood," he told the boy, as he returned the notepad to the table. He checked the reservoirs of sweat and saliva under the table, but unfortunately, they too had been recently emptied. Pity. "Perhaps we will even be able to reproduce it artificially. Until then, however, you're still quite valuable to us, so it's very important to keep you in the best of health, isn't it?"

That elicited an eloquent hiss of anger, and he saw the left hand slowly clench and unclench in its wooden cuff; there was no other struggle other than the perceptible tensing of the small body on the slab. Kessler remembered when the boy had been first brought to the lab; he'd struggled constantly, howling profanities and fighting with the lab technicians unless sedated or driven to exhaustion. It seemed that he was beginning to learn the futility of such actions, though; all things considered, Kessler was grateful, not being of the athletic persuasion himself.

He continued to chatter aloud as he moved about the laboratory, finding the supply of rubber gloves that were held in the laboratory for this purpose and rummaging through the drawers for the EEP. "You should be quite proud, really. With the possibilities opened up by you, our science is advancing light-years beyond the rest of the world's. Already we've revolutionized the science of fertilizers, with this new alchemy. Soon we will be able to grow food at a faster rate on less land than has been seen in the history of the world. We're also discovering new metal alloys that are lighter, stronger, more flexible than anything we've seen before. With them we can build new weapons and machines that we'd only dreamed of till now."

He located the box of gloves and removed two, snapping them on as he turned and walked back towards the table. "All this with only the most rudimentary of alchemical circles, based on the principles we've been able to derive from the old texts. Just think of how much more we could learn if you'd be willing to co-operate with us. Tell us what you know, and you could be an active part of the research projects, not merely a source of fuel."

The boy snarled and shook his head fiercely, blazing eyes screaming defiance far louder than his fettered tongue ever could. Kessler just shrugged; he hadn't really hoped for much and anyway, he wasn't authorized to release the boy on any kind of provisions. The high echelons of the Thule Society had deemed the risk that he might somehow escape, or sabotage the project, if he were left free to outweigh any possible benefit they could gain from his cooperation.

"Suit yourself," he said indifferently, walking in a slow circle around the table. "We are ever advancing, with your willing help or without it. The Biologicals project, I hear, is the current favorite of the brass; they've been smug as cats over their new altered morphology results. It is they who have first priority on pure blood, too."

The boy jerked at his words, although that might also have been at the touch of Kessler's gloved hands on his skin. He took a moment to trace a path through the beaded sweat on the boy's ribs, then held the drop of moisture up to the light to examine it. Who would have imagined that in such a fragile drop could be the power to surpass God?

Kessler moved down a few steps towards the foot of the table, and again had to push down a surge of revulsion at the sight of the truncated leg, the mass of scar tissue closing over the unnatural stump. How fortunate that he did not need to touch it, bound as it was at thigh and right above the missing knee by the same strong leather straps that pinned his whole leg and ankle to the edge of the table, leaving his thighs slightly parted. Similar straps encircled his neck, waist, and the elbow and wrist of his remaining arm. They were darkened with moisture, soaked with incessant sweat, but there was no sign of wear or weakening; the bonds were checked hourly for warnings of such.

"Pure short-sightedness on their part, if you my opinion," he said conversationally, as he placed his collecting vessel on the table between the boy's legs. "Their head is in the clouds, filled with visions of developing the greater man—as if such a thing could be done!" Kessler shook his head in frustrated disapproval. Truth be told, he did not hold with the idea of tinkering with mankind in the laboratory. Undermensch like the outworlders were one thing, but to attempt to improve on the chosen race itself—-!

With a sigh, he turned to the EEP, opening the metal case and withdrawing the long metal probe from within. The stainless steel glistened with the clear protective lubrication it was stored in, and the flat horizontal electrode panels stood out dully. He tested them to make sure they were secure in their casing, not loose, and ran his palm briefly over the metal rod to check its slipperiness. All seemed to be in order.

He found the adjustable power supply shoved into a corner of the workbench, brought it out and reconnected it. When he looked up he saw the boy watching him from the bottom of his vision, and at the sight of the preparations he drew a large breath and held it, clenching his hand in its bonds and closing his eyes tightly.

"And in the meantime, my experiments get pushed into the background, overshadowed," Kessler complained, reminded of his grievances. "My work in breaching the transdimensional barriers, all but ignored! Do they not see how I am laboring for the future of all the Alchemic Projects, for the future of the Thule Society itself?"

He placed the rod between the boy's legs, setting the tip at the boy's sphincter, and began to slowly push it in. To his annoyance, the boy shivered and twitched, and fouled his efforts; he had to reposition the probe and try again. Once the sphincter was breached, the rest of the smooth length of the probe followed, until he reached the notch indicating that proper depth had been achieved.

When the positioning was correct, he reached over and turned the power source on, carefully keeping at the lowest level at first. Despite the precaution, the body spasmed as the electricity was introduced, and an animalistic noise escaped his throat. Kessler switched the electricity off with some concern; there was always the risk of cardiovascular irregularity when using electricity, and if that had happened he would have to cease the procedure immediately and not be able to continue until the medics verified that it was unlikely to happen again. But the boy's breathing was regular, though harsh and rapid, and his face screwed in a grimace as he bit down hard on the gag.

Assured that all was going well, Kessler reached over and restarted the current. Now the effect of the electricity were beginning to tell; short, light-colored body hair became more visible as it stood on end, and the penis had already begun to stiffen and twitch. Just like a machine, Kessler thought with satisfaction. Plug it in, turn the crank, and the parts all respond appropriately.

"Already we have succeeded in creating windows into the other world, through which we can view, if not reach," Kessler said, attention half on the hardening erection and the voltage meter, and half on the tantalizing future. "But the work goes slowly. If we had the priority we ought to have, we could be worlds more advanced than we are now. We should be able to create and sustain portals to the otherworld by now, generated where we wish and closed when we wish."

He sighed with regret and frustration, and reached to grasp the erection with one hand and position the collection vessel with the other. The current did most of the work, activating the nerve clusters inside the boy's body, but a few firms strokes at the right time would prevent the risk of losing any of the precious fluid to retrograde ejaculation.

"Your friends tell us that from what you told them, in the world that you come from alchemy is very common. I have heard that there are many in your world who have the same abilities, many even in your own family. Perhaps their blood would also be useful to us, yes?" A startled inhalation met his words, and he saw the boy's hand clench into a fist out of the corner of his eye. The muscles in the boy's thighs and abdomen were beginning to twitch, and he heard the creak of leather as he uselessly fought his restraints.

Kessler paid that no mind, continuing to talk as he kept up a firm, businesslike pressure on the erection in his hand. "And if we had others like you, then your role in the Alchemic Projects would not be so unique, nor your body so irreplaceable." Fifty percent above starting point; it shouldn't take much longer. Like clockwork, as it always was. Carefully holding the jar in place with one hand, Kessler reached down and made a final adjustment to the EEP.

A breathless, strangled scream tore out of the boy's throat, and his hips and legs jerked involuntarily as his spine spasmed. The member in Kessler's hand twitched once, and he had to set his face so as not to show his disgust as it began releasing its load into the sample jar in his other hand.

At least semen was a potent alchemical catalyst, almost as much so as blood, and more so than any of the lesser vital fluids. Perhaps it was the nature of its origin, its inherent reproductive essence, which gave it that potency. As the white fluid slowly dispersed into the milky liquid, Kessler took a moment to wonder whether the boy would be cross-fertile with human beings, and if so, whether or not his offspring would bear the same alchemical stamp as his own did. It was an interesting thought, with the potential of promise; perhaps worth proposing to the Committee of Developmental Direction when the time came to submit new alchemical projects.

"Well, this should be all I need for today," he commented aloud, closing the jar lid and setting it aside. He turned off the EEP and withdrew it, setting it under the sterilizing unit for the technicians to deal with. "You ought to wish for my success, really. When we succeed in creating stable portals to the other world, then perhaps you will have some companions here."

There was no response, other than the gasping, raspy breathing, and Kessler sealed his container of precious liquid into its traveling container, protected so that it would not be damaged if accidentally dropped during transit. The last thing he wanted was to have to come all the way back here today. He stripped off his gloves and disposed of them, and rubbed his hands together to dispel the sticky feeling. "I'll return in a few days, then."

He turned and headed towards the laboratory exit, gratefully anticipating relief from the incessant heat. A trick of the light caught his eye, though, as he walked past the head of the table. The boy's eyes were tightly shut, and shaking, but he thought he saw a glimmer at the corner of one.

Tears were even more potent than semen, when they could be gathered, almost the equal of blood in efficacy. He reached over the table and grasped the boy's chin in his hand, turning his head roughly against the neck strap, and used his thumb to pry the boy's eyelid up. When he was certain that there were no tears forthcoming, however, Kessler released his head with a dissatisfied grunt, and turned away.