Erich Thorne promptly hit his brakes when he saw the customized purple Tesla sitting in the guest-parking spot of his laboratory.
The Alchemy Street Technology Park was a bit of an anomaly in the city of Sombermorey, and that was saying something. Conveniently located between Thorne Tech’s research partners at Avalon College and their manufacturing facilities in the Industrial District, it was inconspicuous and out of the way. Most people who had no business there gave it no thought, which was exactly how Erich liked it.
It was rare for that guest spot to be filled, and even rarer for it to be filled unexpectedly. Even so, Erich was certain he knew who had come to see him. Nervously clearing his throat in preparation for the inevitable conversation, he pulled into his own reserved parking space.
“Good morning, Doctor Thorne,” his receptionist greeted him with a cheery, if canned, salutation. Someone unfamiliar with the lab could have been forgiven for thinking that the pretty young lady was simply sitting behind a glass wall. She was, in actuality, a proprietary virtual assistant inside of an equally proprietary volumetric display.
“Good morning, Lumi. I see we have a guest today?” he asked rhetorically, looking around the empty waiting room. “She’s in my office, then?”
“Yes, sir. You had tagged her as a VIP, and so the security screening was waived,” Lumi responded. “She also presented proof of vaccinations, so I waived Covid restrictions as well, per your new policy.”
“Very good, Lumi. Please don’t interrupt us unless it’s an emergency,” he instructed.
“Of course, sir,” the bot nodded.
With a quick, nervous exhalation of air, Erich gingerly proceeded to his office. When he opened the door, sitting across from his desk was a young woman he had at one time been very familiar with; Ivy Noir.
The porcelain skin of her sylphlike face was as pristine as it had been since the last time he saw her, which simultaneously proved her resourcefulness at acquiring novel means of rejuvenation as well as her deeply rooted vanity. Her onyx black hair, worn in a blunt bob, was likewise free of a single strand of grey, and if anything, her body was even shapelier than the last time Erich had seen her.
While some may have thought that a woman of her intellect should know better than to be so obsessed with her appearance, Ivy saw it as nothing more or less than acknowledging that beauty was a prized form of social capital that helped her achieve her goals.
Appropriately, her sleek AR glasses were extremely stylish and tinted purple, obscuring the cobalt blue of her eyes. Her turtleneck, pleated short skirt and knee-high socks were all spun from cashmere, and her ankle boots were made from equally fine suede.
Erich, while nowhere near as flawless as Ivy, was still far from unattractive. He was tall, broad-shouldered and square-jawed with deep brown eyes and black hair greying at the temples. He was, however, much less fashionable, having already donned his dark Howie coat over his street clothes, leaving only his black boots visible.
Ivy gracefully spun her chair towards the door, greeting him with a warm smile.
“Hello, Erich. It’s good to see you again,” she said with seeming sincerity.
“Hello, Ivy. I’m… delighted to see you as well,” he replied as he sat down in his chair, trying his best to match her tone without surpassing it. “Welcome to Sombermorey, and congratulations on your promotion.”
“You’re up to speed, then?” she asked, unable to suppress a proud, smug grin.
“I am, and after having to put up with Chamberlin’s reckless frivolity and ego all these years, I couldn’t be happier you’re the new Head Adderman of the Harrowick Chapter,” he assured her.
“You’re not jealous?” she gently teased.
“I have my lab. I wouldn’t have accepted the position if it was offered,” he claimed. “It was a bit surprising that the Ophion Occult Order appointed a relatively young woman as a Chapter Head instead of another supernaturally old man, though I suppose that speaks volumes about your talent. I was even more surprised that you accepted, considering Harrowick County is more than a bit rustic. What about your operation in London?”
“I can rent lab space from you, move anything that requires my personal oversight here, and let my proxies take care of the rest,” she shrugged.
“I thought you might say that,” Erich nodded, struggling to conceal his concern. “Your main project right now is researching the Children of Erebus, isn’t it?”
“It is. You’re not afraid of the dark, are you Erich?” she teased.
“No one’s afraid of the dark; they’re afraid of what’s in it,” he countered. “I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Tell me, where are you staying? The Golden Horus?”
Ivy scoffed at the suggestion.
“No, I’m not entirely comfortably staying anywhere owned by Chamberlin,” she replied. “He’s been reasonably accommodating during the transition, and outwardly he’s contritious enough, but… I don’t trust him yet. It’s a bit of a problem, since he seems to own the only luxury apartment buildings and is quite chummy with all the millionaires up in Arthur Heights.”
“Yes, I’m afraid there’s not much of High Society around here that Chamberlin isn’t involved with on some level,” Erich informed her. “You didn’t answer my question though. You didn’t sleep in your car last night, did you?”
“No, I… I rented a room at the Somber Starlight Roadhouse up the highway,” she confessed. Erich arched an eyebrow at her.
“You’re staying at a ninety-nine dollar a night truck stop motel?” he asked in disbelief. “A motel that’s beside a haunted forest and a trailer park?”
“Well, it obviously wasn’t the kind of place that Chamberlin would have anything to do with,” Ivy explained.
“You probably should have slept in your car,” Erich retorted. “Are you really going to sleep there until you find your own place?”
Ivy bit her lip, considering her response.
“I was actually wondering how you would feel if I moved back in with you?” she asked hesitantly. She had been hoping his reaction would be obvious, but instead he was putting on an unreadable poker face. “Look, I came to you first for a reason. I know you. I trust you, and I need someone I know and trust on my side right now. You know Harrowick County, you’re already set up here, and… I want you back, okay? It’s been difficult finding a man who’s both intelligent enough to be engaging and secure enough not to be threatened by my own intelligence.”
“So, you want to get back together with me because it’s convenient for you and because you couldn’t find anyone better?” Erich asked dispassionately with a raised eyebrow. Ivy shamefully averted her gaze to the floor.
She fidgeted with a platinum mood ring on her finger, one which Erich had made for her long ago. He still wore its mate, and the two shared a quantum entanglement with one another, each reflecting the mood of the other. Ivy's ring wasn't helping her much, indicating that Erich was mostly calm with some slightly mixed feelings.
Erich glanced at the ring on his own finger, and saw that it had a core of remorse and regret with an outer ring of nervousness and uncertainty.
“Would it help if I apologized?” she asked.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Erich shrugged.
“I was the one who ended it. You have every right to be indignant at me asking you to take me back after all this time,” Ivy admitted. “But the only reason I broke up with you was because of our age difference. As much as I liked you, in my more lucid moments I worried you might be taking advantage of my naiveté.”
“Well, I’m still older than you, genius,” he smirked.
“Yes, obviously, but the difference is that instead of being barely legal, I’m now a confidently mature adult, so there’s nothing remotely inappropriate about our age gap. If I want to date a man more than ten years my senior, that’s my business,” she said self-assuredly. “I’m not apologizing for breaking up, but I do still care about you, and if I hurt you, I truly do regret that. I'm not denying that a big part of the reason I want to get back together now is that it would be eminently practical, for both of us. You said yourself you weren’t on the best of terms with Chamberlin. Now you have an opportunity to be the new Chapter Head's boy toy. Are you going to pass that up? Is that sex-bot you got in the lobby really worth it?”
“She’s not a – first of all, I wasn’t even personally involved on that project, and how would that even work? She’s a hologram confined to her display, she doesn’t even have any -” he cut his protest short at the sound of Ivy’s snickering.
Letting the matter drop, he paused for a moment to consider the implications of what Ivy was offering.
“Eminently practical, you say?” he asked, tenting his fingers.
“That’s right,” Ivy nodded with a confident grin. “You must have something you wanted from Chamberlin that he never let you have. Tell me what it is, and I’ll see what I can do.”
Erich fell silent again, debating on whether he could really trust Ivy with what he was working on.
“I think… you should see our sublevels before you commit to any promises,” he said at last. Ivy’s eyes lit up like it was Christmas morning, her mind clearly racing with the possibilities of what he could be working on down there.
“I think you’re right,” she nodded.
Erich led her into a spartan service elevator, which required both an access code and pass card before it would descend to the subterranean levels.
“When I asked Seneca about you, he didn’t seem to think that you lived up to your persona as a mad scientist,” Ivy remarked. “Said you were just working on shoving your off-brand voice assistant into vending machines and whatnot. I’m guessing you never showed him what you’re about to show me?”
“He never asked,” Erich shrugged. The elevator hit the bottom of the shaft with a soft thud, its doors sliding open to reveal a heavy set of steel blast doors on the other side. Erich punched another code into the keypad, and with a very low beep, the blast doors opened as well.
Before them was a long and wide room with a high, convex ceiling made of reinforced concrete. In addition to the expected light fixtures, utility conduits and electrical cables, the ceiling also supported a system of rails from which sets of automated arms moved to and fro. While the room did have some standard lab equipment in it, its main purpose appeared to be for the containment of live specimens. Tanks of thick, ballistic glass were bolted either to steel tables or the floor depending on their size.
And within those tanks, Ivy could see something squirming.
She looked up at Erich with a gleeful smile, to which he gave a permissive nod, letting her know that it was safe for her to go in for a closer look. She ran to the tank nearest her and saw that it contained what looked like overgrown rat pups. They were blind and hairless and dark pink, but were big enough to fit in the entirety of her hand. They were also lumpy and irregularly shaped, their skin peppered in wart-like growths. Their limbs were oddly misshapen as well, and the poor creatures seemed almost completely immobile.
Ivy glanced over the tank for any indication of what had been done to the rodents when she spied a label that read ‘Tithonus Project, Rodent Test #16. Received V14.8 Anastatic Treatment on March 8th, 2012’.
Immediately grasping the implications, she laughed in astonishment.
“These rats are almost nine years old?” she asked. “That’s amazing.”
“What’s more amazing is that not only are these the oldest rats in the world, but that they’re still alive after being poisoned, infected, mutilated, irradiated, frozen, burned, starved, dehydrated, and asphyxiated multiple times over,” Erich boasted proudly, hands clasped behind him as he sidled up beside her. The revelation that the lab rats extended lives had been mostly filled with horrific torture only impressed Ivy all the more.
“How?” she asked in wonder.
“You recall that I was researching quantum biology, and in particular its relationship with panpsychicism and paranormal phenomenon?” he asked. “That research eventually led to the creation of what I’ve taken to calling anastatic nanoparticles, or motes. When absorbed or injected into biological cells, they induce novel bioquantum effects that make the cells abnormally resilient. Virtually any injury that doesn’t outright destroy the cell can be recovered from, and this includes dead cells that received the nanoparticles posthumously. If a cell lacks the necessary nutrients to sustain or rebuild itself, instead of dying it will enter an indefinite state of diapause until resources are once again obtainable. It works in multicellular organisms as well, as you can see, with a few caveats.”
“Yes, I assumed there was a reason you named this the Tithonus Project,” Ivy said as she examined the rats more closely. “Your nanoparticles grant functional immortality, but not negligible senescence?”
"Short answer; yes. Over time, treated cells do show a marked decline in function and increased rate of harmful mutations, including cancerous ones," he nodded. "I've been fine-tuning the design though, and I have found a few that prevent and reverse senescence in human cells, at least in vitro. There are, however, some concerns that have made me reluctant to move to live trials.”
“Well…” he gestured to a larger containment tank on the floor, this one encased in a mesh cage with a small electronic device sitting on top of it. Inside were several rats huddled together, all with black fur and red eyes, but otherwise looking normal and healthy.
Their label read ‘Tithonus Project, Rodent Test #37. Received V21.7 Anastatic Treatment on April 04, 2017. TANTIBUS RATS, EXTREME SAFETY HAZARD – DO NOT HANDLE OR REMOVE FROM CAGE. Notes: In addition to the intended anastatic and rejuvenating effects, V21.7 has produced paranormal effects, believed to be caused by enhancing the cells’ innate interaction with panpsychic fields. When frightened, subjects are capable of telepathically projecting nightmarish hallucinations into the minds of anyone within their direct line of sight as a defence mechanism. Said ability has greatly impeded attempts to study subjects further’.
“Psychic rats?” Ivy asked with a tone a wry amusement. “I’ll be honest, a side of psychic powers with my immortality doesn’t exactly sound like a bad thing.”
“It’s still a variable I need to get a much better grasp on before I’d be willing to try this stuff on humans, let alone myself,” Erich insisted.
“And that’s where I come in?” Ivy asked hopefully.
“Yes. I never told Chamberlin about this. He has his own methods for extending human lifespan. They’re not scalable or sustainable, but he’d never admit that. He also never would have let me push him out of the market with a mass-produced elixir of immortality. But you, Ivy, I trust you.”
Ivy nodded as a mawkishly satisfied grin spread across her face.
“Tell me what you need, darling.”
In an impressively, possibly even shockingly, short amount of time, Ivy had acquired everything on Erich’s wish list; thirty feet of Blue Moon Silver chain, forty pounds of Chthonic Salt, and a dozen year-old jack-o-lanterns that had somehow survived well past their prime.
Erich expressed his profuse gratitude for these items, primarily by not asking how she had obtained them.
Erich, for his part, had acquired a corpse, and Ivy extended the same courtesy to him.
“But why a cadaver, darling? Was it really easier to get a hold of than a live subject?” she asked as the two of them stood around the pale, blue body that had only just thawed from the cryogenic tank.
“It will be easier to get rid of if something goes wrong,” he answered as he connected the corpse to the cardiopulmonary bypass machine. “Besides, I want to test full-organism anastasis in a human test subject, and I’m not risking killing a live person just for that.”
“Commendable, but your little motes will certainly have their work cut out for them trying to patch up a body this far gone,” Ivy said as she strapped the cadaver down with the silvery blue chains. The metal was an alchemical alloy of primarily silver, copper and iron that maximized the mystical properties of all three, and could be counted on to burn anything from faeries, to werewolves, to the undead.
“I’ve successfully resuscitated entire rats and human organs that were in cryogenic storage for months. I see no theoretical reason why this shouldn’t work,” he replied. “My main concern is that the unparalleled complexity of the human brain will prove too much to adequately regenerate to full functionality.”
“Mine is that the regenerated nervous system will form a wholly new soul out of the panpsychic Aether instead of pulling its original one out of the astral plane, otherwise I wouldn’t call it a resurrection at all,” Ivy added. “What good does it do me if I’m stuck in Hades while someone else is walking around in my body?”
“Based on my work so far, I’d lean towards it being the same soul. Those Tantibus Rats are clearly from Hell,” Erich said. “Alright, everything’s hooked up on my end. What about you?”
“The body’s secure, the salt circle is cast to contain any unexpected psychic activity from the subject, and I’ve lit no less than twelve bewitched jack-o-lanterns to fend off Persephone, in case she has any objections to us abducting one of her citizens,” Ivy replied, admiring the jack-o-lantern that was nearest to her. “You were right, darling. Chamberlin was very reluctant to part with these. The Witch who carved these really knew her stuff. I do hope he didn’t acquire these from her under duress. Anyway, I’m green on all signal checks. I’m ready when you are.”
Erich nodded, switching on the bypass machine with a single unceremonious hand gesture. The crimson donor blood, cold and dark and saturated with Thorne’s anastatic nanoparticles, began to gradually flow into the lifeless body.
“Nothing to do now but wait for the motes to diffuse into the cells and work their magic,” Erich announced, his voice equal parts optimistic and impatient.
And so, they waited, eyes constantly glancing back between the readouts on the transparent screens and the lifeless body strapped to the operating table, blood constantly flowing in and out of it and spinning around inside of the bypass machine.
“Hmmm, might have something, love,” Ivy announced as she compared data points from the start of the experiment. “The core body temperature’s gone up, more than the blood transfusion can account for. The bypass machine is drawing in more oxygen as well. Possibly a sign of cellular metabolism, but CO2 levels are unchanged.”
“The metabolism of anastatic cells is highly efficient, so much so that waste products are often negligible,” Erich nodded. “Any EEG or ECG activity yet?”
She didn’t respond immediately, instead just incredulously scrutinizing the information her instruments were giving her.
“I’m picking up some nervous system activity, but it’s sporadic,” she replied. “The particles are definitely doing something, but I can’t tell if it’s anything useful.”
“It’s twitching,” Erich said softly, now stepping as close to the body as he dared, eyes glued to it, wanting to witness the exact moment it sprang back to life. It twitched subtly and sporadically, supporting Ivy’s statement, but Erich swore that as the seconds ticked by the movements became stronger and more consistently directed to struggling against its restraints.
Suddenly, without warning or fanfare, the cadaver took in a deep gasp of air, its chest rising as high as its restraints would allow. Startled by the sudden outburst, Erich stumbled backwards, but neither he nor Ivy would take their eyes off of their test subject. The corpse breathed in again, and again, each breath just as desperate as the last.
“EEG is more stable now, but still limited to autonomic activity,” Ivy announced. “Its cardiopulmonary system is working on its own. It doesn’t need the bypass anymore.”
Erich didn’t respond. He remained transfixed upon his creation, gazing upon it in a mix of overwhelming wonder and pride.
“Go on; say it,” Ivy smiled. “I know you want to. Come on, you have to say it.”
Erich spared her the briefest of glances, and then started giggling.
“It’s… alive,” he murmured. “It’s alive. It’s alive! It’s alive, it’s alive! It’s alive!”
Ivy broke out into laughter and even applauded a little. The creature itself was, for the moment at least, far less impressed by its own resurrection. As soon as it had enough air, it began to scream and roar, fighting against its restraints with all its strength.
“Should we sedate it?” Ivy asked.
“Not yet. Let’s give the brain a bit more time to regenerate, and see if the subject displays any sign of higher cognition,” Erich replied. “What sort of thaumatological readings are you getting?”
“I’m not picking up on any spectral entities, and the body’s psionic signature is exactly what I would expect for a braindead husk,” she reported. “There’s no soul yet, old or new.”
The body screamed again, only this time it sounded a little less enraged and a little more terrified, as though it was begging for mercy in the only voice it had.
“Are you sure about that, Ivy? That scream sounded quite soulful to me,” Erich remarked. Enraptured by the abomination he had made, he slowly walked up to its side, caressing its face with the back of his hand in a meaningless gesture to calm it.
It screamed again, but this time its roar was accompanied by a telekinetic shockwave that sent Erich tumbling backwards to the floor.
“Erich!” Ivy screamed, rushing to help him to his feet.
"I'm fine, I'm fine! Hit the sedatives!" he ordered. Ivy nodded and flipped a switch on the bypass machine to introduce a powerful tranquilizer into the being's system. "That was telekinetic, wasn't it? I thought we weren't getting any psionic readings from it."
“It must be the motes. They're lowering the threshold for psionic abilities somehow," Ivy guessed. There was another great, painful bellow, and this time the bypass machine was smashed to bits. “Quickly, get outside the salt circle!”
Helping Erich to his feet, the pair crossed the boundary of midnight blue Chthonic Salt, thinking that would be enough to protect them.
But Chthonic Salt was a fickle substance. Like common Witches’ Salt, it was made with ash. What made it special was that those ashes came from the body of a sacrifice that had been ritualistically burned alive. The ritual specifically took advantage of an anguished soul departing for the underworld, using the brief hole in the Veil to imbue the ashes with specific Hadean properties. While it was potent stuff, its effects were only truly predictable in a few very specific circumstances.
Erich and Ivy had both thought that, being of the underworld, it should have been highly effective against any sort of undead abomination they might whip up. But they had blurred the lines between science and magic just a bit too much, and their experiment’s paranormal abilities weren’t coming from demonic possession, but from whatever vague quantum woo Erich’s nanoparticles did.
As such, their monster’s telekinetic reach extended past the perimeter of the salt circle with barely any resistance at all.
Cages and equipment were battered around like debris in a hurricane. Vents were pulled down from the ceiling and the blast doors to elevators were crushed like soda cans. Finally, the room began to shake like an earthquake, a rain of cement dust foreshadowing its imminent collapse.
“Erich! Erich hit the failsafe! The salt’s not working, we’ll die if you don’t!” Ivy pleaded.
Erich looked back at their creation, still screaming and roaring as it fought against its restraints. The undead flesh was now visibly burning against the silver chains, fuelling its agony. But if it burned long enough and hot enough, it would melt through its chains and be free to do whatever it pleased, after it dug its way out of the collapsed lab, of course.
Accepting that failure was marginally preferable to death, Erich pulled out his remote and activated the powerful electromagnet beneath the slab. The chains were pulled downwards with such immense force that the body was instantly dismembered into numerous disparate pieces. More importantly, the anastatic nanoparticles were wretched from their cells, robbing them of their superpowers while also killing them on the way out.
Within seconds, the corpse was inanimate once more, and its psychic assault on the laboratory ceased just as abruptly.
Erich and Ivy remained huddled together on the floor, awaiting either the collapse of the roof or some yet other unforeseen calamity that would end their lives.
“Well… that was a bit anti-climactic,” Erich chuckled, gently waving the remote he had used to vanquish their monster with the press of a button. “At least it’s over now.”
“Erich,” Ivy whispered softly, staring with unblinking dread at something on the other end of the lab.
Erich followed her gaze, and in the pale emergency lighting he could just barely make out the silhouettes of seven black rats scampering their way across the laboratory floor and into the fallen vent. One by one, they crawled up it, the last one pausing to look back with its shiny scarlet eyes, before scurrying after its fellows.
The Tantibus Rats of Erich Thorne were now free upon the world.
Written by The Vesper's Bell