Patience was Dr. Viresh Lee’s virtue. In an age when molecular scans and biological reconstitutions were the standard investigative approach to paleobiology, Lee liked to get his hands dirty. This simply wasn’t feasible or legal with newer subjects but, in rare cases, human remains could still be found that had slipped between the cracks in the law, shrugging off the bonds of their rights through the miracle of bureaucratic misstep or a failure in funding oversight.
It was Lee’s hobby to keep track of these forgotten caches of cryogenic detritus. He’d swoop in with his treasured set of antique dissection instruments and examine the body en viscera – in the manner done centuries before, in contact with the actual organic matter itself. The smells, sharp and metallic or intimate and putrescent spoke, he believed, to something in the most primitive part of his own advanced brain. The texture, the form, the existential experience of physically cutting into flesh was thrilling. As a young student, his own academic supervisor had called him a disturbing little creep for his penchant for old school dissection.
When the storage facility issued the first non-payment of services alert for cryotank #2648677993, Lee had been there to relieve them of the legally abandoned contents. Dr. Lee retrieved the monstrous and primitive vat from one of the vast storage vaults established in the Senayan suburb of Jakarta after the Floods of 2258. The expense of cryotank #2648677993’s maintenance and storage had been born by transglobal estate – DJT International Holdings LLC.
Lee perused the provenance data on the exterior display screen. Sadly, some of its earliest lading and storage files had been corrupted or left untransfered. But Dr. Lee sent the entire data nest off to a colleague in Urumqi who specialized in byte reconstruction. However, some of the history of the tank was accessible: the remains had originated at a storage facility in what had once been called Nevada in the old United States of America, transferred to a facility in Southern Morocco after the New Inland Sea had inundated much of the Central North American Basin. From Morocco, it had gone to Jeddah, then to Sydney, then to Havana; it had been relocated further 23 times.
Now it made its very last journey, to Dr. Lee’s research lab in Mogadishu.
These types of human remains storage containers were fairly rare, never having gained widespread popularity. Their exact purpose was not entirely clear, but it had been theorized by several respected archeosociologists that late 20th and early 21st Century humans had sometimes paid to have their corpse stored at very low temperatures in the hope that, at some future date, a cure would have been found for what had killed them. There was poignancy, a sort of desperate romance, Dr. Lee decided, to just how special 21st century humans thought they were. He guessed it had been possible – in those days – to conceive of a single, individual life that way. But once the earth’s population had passed 23 billion, the idea of resurrecting anyone from death became an absurd concept, verging on the obscene. Why would anyone resurrect old life when new life was so rampant, so irrepressible?
Having examined a few of these mid 21st century specimens before, Dr. Lee knew what to expect. The vats had been robustly built and although it was fairly certain that the ideal sub-zero temperatures had not been steadily maintained, the inner seals were unbroken, preserving an anaerobic environment for the organic remains. As he transferred the body from its vat into his custom-designed stabilization bath, Lee noted that the specimen was a large, pale male – approximately 70 years of age. Unhealed but roughly sutured incisions in the chest area suggested that the subject had perhaps suffered some sort of coronary crisis that could not be ameliorated at the time and had resulted in death.
Dr. Lee stroked the bleached flesh with the tip of his finger, tracing the two closed incisions, smiling and shaking his head. It was going to be fascinating to perform the dissection, following the pathways into the flesh made by ancient physicians.
But before he could allow himself that level of destructive investigation, he ordered a full body resonance scan. That way, even after he had degraded the original specimen, he would always have a digital reproduction to refer to.
While human genetics had drifted little in 400 years, there was always the possibility of a surprise. Early on in his career, Dr. Lee had encountered the remains of a woman with three kidneys and prosthetic breasts. These sorts of gross anomalies were not only amusing, but he had written several well-received papers on his forensic exploration of the ancient corpse.
Starting at the subject’s head, the scanner began producing errors from the start. Even before the scan reached the body itself, the specimen’s head hair was returning unexpected readings. Dr. Lee stopped the scan, and tasked the equipment to run standard self-test and recalibration routines.
He glanced at the remains, submerged in the transparent gel. It looked like hair, although the mass was of an unexpected shape and consistency to be sure but, while the sensors indicated that it was organic in nature, the cellular structure suggested that, unlike hair, which is essentially dead follicular tissue extruded through the pores, this mass had a cellular structure resembling muscle fibers. It was possible, under higher magnification, to see a latticework of capillaries. When the scan began to reveal tendons beneath the specimen’s scalp, he stopped the scan.
Dr. Lee knew he was looking at something far, far outside his field of expertise. He needed to consult another scientist. But who might be appropriate? Was this another example of prosthesis, like the breasts he’d encountered? Or… No, this was far more sophisticated. He squinted at magnified paused scan of the cranium. It didn’t look like it was surgical. Maybe he was looking at an example of very primitive bioengineering? And yet it was entirely organic! A mutation? Could it be?
He tried to keep the excitement out of his voice as he contacted only person he could think of who might be able to bring his discipline to bear on this strange anomaly: the eminent cryto-zoologist, Dr. Ioann Ramirez.
“Ioann! It’s Viresh. Are you in town?”
“Just about. My shuttle is just disembarking,” replied Dr. Ramirez. “The Buenos Aires conference was very stimulating, thank you for asking, just in case you wondered,” he added.
“Oh, I apologize. Was it good? How did they receive your paper?”
“Very well. Flesh conferences are still the best way to convince people your ideas are important.”
“Indeed, indeed!” said Dr. Lee. “Look, I have a little quandary.”
“Really? You? I don’t believe it.”
“Neither do I. I would appreciate your opinion on something…er… puzzling.”
“You are teasing me, you old devil. What have you got?”
“Um… a…” Dr. Lee licked his lips. “A deformity, perhaps? No, no. That’s not the right word.”
“Those old dead people, they ate a lot of funny stuff, my friend. I bet it’s a tumor.” In the background, Dr. Lee could hear the roar of jetfoils.
“No. Look, I can’t describe it. Can you come to my lab? Please?”
“Can’t you make it any sooner?”
There was a pause on the comms. “What a flirt you are, Viresh! I have to say, you’re awfully disarranged about this! I can be with you in about an hour.”
* * *
While he waited for his colleague, Dr. Lee performed a third self-test and diagnostic run on the scanner itself, resorting in the end to a hard reboot just to make sure all the bases were covered. The scanner had performed a full specimen scan by the time Dr. Ramirez arrived. It hadn’t offered any answers at all, just a thousand more questions.
His friend walked in and dropped his bag by the door.
“Thank god you’re here,” said Dr. Lee.
But Dr. Ramirez was already mesmerized by the luminous spectre of the entire specimen scan, displayed in all its strangeness on the wallscreen.
“Good god, Viresh. What the hell is it?”
Dr. Lee shook his head slowly. “Honestly, I have no idea.”
“It seems to have… ” Dr. Ramirez glanced over at the table of biochem readings, and then the close-up of the cellular structure.
“Yes?” There was an edge of desperation in Dr. Lee’s prompt.
“Well…” Dr. Ramirez shrugged, shook his head. Squinted at the torso, then back at the head. “Those look like…Are those…?”
Ramirez exhaled and crossed his arms over his chest. “I have to say it. It’s going to sound mad, but I have to say it.”
“Please say it. I’ve been staring at this thing for five hours. I need someone else to say it.”
Ignoring the screen, Dr. Ramirez walked over to the gel vat, plunged his hand into it, and touched the strange organ on the top of the specimen’s head. “Wow. That’s truly strange.”
Without pausing, he moved down the length of the specimen, and stopped at the area of the crotch. “Penile and testicular agenisis?”
“Yes. There’s no scaring at all. Totally absent from…”
“Where they should be,” Dr. Ramirez finished.
Frustrated, Dr. Lee waved his hand and then jabbed at the interface on his desk. “I am qualified to make THAT determination, Ioann! What else? What else?” he demanded.
“It appears as if…” Dr Ramirez inhaled deeply and addressed himself to the ceiling, “this man’s hair is a penis. And…” He shrugged and blew out his breath.
“And?” Dr. Lee’s voice squeaked like something being extruded.
“And he has testicles where his prefrontal lobes should be.”
“Oh, thank god!” bellowed Dr. Lee, “I thought I was going mad!”
Dr. Ramirez pulled out a chair and sat down, hands still dripping gel, eyes fixed on wall screen’s eerie scan. “Where the hell did you find this specimen?”
“It was one of those abandoned crytotank situations.”
“What’s the date on it?”
“2022? Some of the early provenance data is corrupted.”
“I’ve never seen a mutation like this. It’s incredible. How did he manage to survive past infancy? There must have been profound intellectual disability. Poor man!”
“Well, he certainly wasn’t poor or I’d never have gotten my hands on him. He’d have been cremated or buried like any normal person of his time. Plus the dental work was exceptional for the period.”
Dr. Ramirez smiled up at the screen in wonder. “We’re a strange species, Viresh. Infinite variation! Do you know anything more about him?”
Dr. Lee scrolled down the recovered lading data. “Well, not very much. As you can see from the incisions, he was a sick man. Congestive heart failure. They took extraordinary measures to try to keep him alive.”
“No. Well… only one thing.”
“His first name Donald.”