Dr. Nefarious and the Lazarus Project
Afterward, I always thought of it as "the rainy-day affair," making light of the whole thing in my mind. I didn't want to admit how much the Doctor and Kelli had affected my life. The good guys are supposed to walk away clean, right? That's why we join up as good guys in the first place.
That night I descended into the Facility by elevator, going so far underground that I couldn't hear the rain, could barely imagine it. For the past two days a steady downpour had fallen all over the world, from the deserts of Africa to the plains of North America to the Arctic Ocean.
I walked through the hospital-white hallways, trying to get my mind straight. For the past two months I'd been on a virtual impersonation marathon, pretending to be ambassadors, foreign generals, and trusted advisors. Espionage at its best. After the long-succession of total-immersion roles, I had trouble remembering myself, my own identity. Many Metamorphs have that problem. There's probably a fancy psychological name for it.
I went to conference room 17 and snapped a salute. I'd expected high-ranking figures, but I hadn't expected this. Two men sat at the table. Doctor Alraune, chief administrator of the Facility, had skin like crumpled paper. He'd distinguished himself during Junior Atwater's failed coup attempt, which eventually led to the restructuring of the U.S. government under President Gutenberg. Alraune is one of the few leftovers from the former government. He's grumpy and old-fashioned, but good at running things.
The other man was in his mid-fifties, his silver hair out of place above his still-young face. Brady Doolittle, once the Villain known as "Disaster Man." For the past thirty years he's been head of the Defense Department, my absolute supreme boss, except for the President, who probably doesn't know I exist. The Facility has a long tradition of autonomy.
Brady returned my salute lazily. He doesn't stand on ceremony. He could beat me in a wrestling match, and his Ability to induce fission could turn the air around us into a hydrogen bomb. You have to fear a man like that, if he's stupid, but Brady's smart, so I respect and fear him.
"Mr. Li," he said. "They tell me you're the best we've got. I hope you're good enough."
I sat down. The best they've got, I thought greedily, latching on to that point of self-identification. But the best at what? Being other people, of course. My sense of elation faded.
There are only a dozen operatives with my Ability working in the national security business, most of them for the Facility. As far as I know, none of them have studied method-acting or worked as stand-up comedians, like I had, before joining. Of course I was the best; I took my natural skills and built on them.
"We're here to talk about the weather," Brady said. "You may have noticed the rain." He smiled, but his blue eyes were serious.
"Yes sir. Do you know the cause?"
Dr. Alraune stuck a long needle through the back of his left hand, not even looking at me. He's a Class Two Pain-Insensitive and Regenerator, and the needles are a nervous habit. I've always found it creepy as hell.
"Have you heard of Dr. Nefarious?" Brady said
"Yes sir." Dr. Nefarious was a Villain, the first Class One Machine Adept since President Gutenberg. Lower-Class Machine Adepts make good mechanics and repairmen, but a Class One can turn an old sofa and the remains of a wrecked Volkswagen into a flying machine. Or a bomb. President Gutenberg had used his Ability to invent machines that eased life all over the world. Dr. Nefarious was less altruistic. "He engineered the World Bank Robbery two years ago, built the stealth suits and the escape ships, right?"
Brady cleared his throat. "Actually, that job was planned by an old Facility operative, a Teleporter named Monetre. We didn't want to publicize his involvement. Dr. Nefarious just sort of... went along for the ride. He wouldn't have been capable of organizing such a job."
"What do you mean?"
"Dr. Nefarious doesn't call himself that," Dr. Alraune said, his voice like gravel in a blender. "He calls himself 'Dr. Fuck-The-World.' The newspapers couldn't print that, so they changed it." Alraune laughed. "He's a mad scientist."
"He means that," Brady said. "Really. Normally when we say 'mad scientist' we mean 'unethical scientist' or, at worst, 'obsessive scientist.' Like Dr. Jekyll or Frankenstein or the guys from a thousand movies and comic books. Dr. Nefarious is mad. He talks to people that aren't there, hallucinates, imagines vast conspiracy theories, eats bugs, everything. He's been in and out of institutions since he was twelve, when his parents found him surgically implanting explosive devices in the neighborhood pets. For the past ten years he's been loose, mostly wreaking havoc in a patternless way, occasionally doing jobs for other Villains who need his technological expertise."
"But he is an Adept, right? Like President Gutenberg was?"
"In some ways he's better than Gutenberg. For all the former President's virtues, he wasn't very creative. He usually improved existing technology. Justin Sullivan, that's the Doctor's real name, is an innovator. He invented the gravity generators we're still developing applications for, and the new plasma cutters, and scores of other things. He used them for horrible purposes, and we're trying to use them for good."
I don't rate high on the intuition tests, but I can follow a trail of breadcrumbs and make it home. "Now he's built a weather machine?"
"Yes. He's threatening to flood the world if we don't give him what he wants."
"What are his demands?" This was familiar ground, a hostage situation, admittedly with the whole world as the hostage.
Brady counted off on his fingers. "He wants a really good foot-long hot dog with mustard and relish, like he used to get when he was a kid. He wants a parrot trained to say 'Fuck the World.' And he wants his brother, Harold, brought back from the dead."
I didn't say anything. I wanted to laugh, but Texas was already flooding and what remained of the farmland in Bangladesh had washed away. It wasn't a joke.
"I told you he was mad," Dr. Alraune said, as if I'd argued with him.
"When did Harold die?" I asked. It seemed as relevant a question as any.
"About four years ago. He was sixty-three, died of heart disease. He was a sales rep for a plumping company. A pretty nice guy, from what I understand, supposed to have a good sense of humor. No testable Abilities. His brother got all the talent in the family. As far as we can tell, the brothers didn't have any contact beyond childhood. Harold went to college when Justin was ten."
"How does Dr. Nefarious expect us to resurrect him?"
"He believes the government has a secret program called 'The Lazarus Project' to bring people back from the dead, grow them new bodies and brains. He thinks Mr. Gutenberg is alive, hidden in a bunker somewhere, and that Junior Atwater's brain was repaired and attached to a computer. He thinks we brought back John Kennedy, Veronica Lake, and Clarence Birdseye, among others."
I had to ask. "Is there a Lazarus Project?"
"Hell, no," Brady growled. "We can do a lot at the Facility, but we can't raise the dead."
"Okay," I said. "What do you need me to do?"
Brady smiled broadly, looking innocent as a farmboy. "It's simple, Li. You impersonate Harold Sullivan and take Dr. Nefarious his parrot and his hot dog. Once you're inside his headquarters, you capture him, stop the rain, and bring us the weather machine."
"Yeah," I said. "Simple."
Dr. Alraune laughed again.
I went to the Dressing Room and looked at pictures of Harold Sullivan. He'd been shorter than me, but I could slouch. I slowly bled my natural pigment away, changing my apparent ancestry from Chinese to Scotch-Irish. I lightened my eyes and added age lines to my face. Harold had looked like a good-natured bulldog, and now I did, too.
You probably have the wrong idea about Metamorphs. It's a rare ability (though not as rare as Class One Mental Domination, or Junior Atwater's Meta-Genius), and most of us don't mind the mystique, but let me set it straight: We can't turn into dinosaurs or cars or patio furniture. What Metamorphs are best at is impersonating people, and that's really about it. Although I have to admit, having near-total body-control does convey some unexpected benefits, both in bed and in combat.
The Dressing Room staff brought out a cheap blue suit, just like Harold wore in the pictures, and I got dressed. They shaved my head and gave me a brown wig, cut to match Harold's receding hairline. I can change my hair color at the roots, but we didn't have time to let the new color grow in. A fake gold watch and artificial nicotine-and-coffee stains on my teeth completed the disguise. The people in the Dressing Room are good. Most of them worked for the movies at one time, until the Facility offered them better money.
Next came the voice. We didn't have a voiceprint or any tape of Harold's voice, so I pitched my own lower than normal and affected a head cold. With a little sniffling, I would pass. Susceptibility to colds and other infections would be a plausible side-effect to being recently resurrected, I figured. When your life is devoted to being other people, you learn how important details are.
I'm Harold Sullivan, I thought. Except I wasn't. I usually do lots of research before I take on a role, but who was Harold? I'd have to fake it, and I had trouble finding my own personality to fill in the gaps.
Brady brought the foot-long hot dog, in a stasis-case to keep it fresh, and the parrot. The bird was blue and red, bad tempered, but it said "Fuck the World!" with great frequency and good pronunciation.
I took a breath. Be Harold, I thought. Whoever that is. "Ready," I said.
We flew through the incessant rain, with a visibility of almost zero. The pilot's name was Dancey and I'd worked with him in the past. He's a Class Two Spatial Sensitive. He could have flown blindfolded, mentally feeling his way.
It was a boring flight, except for my nervous tension. Dancey needed to pay attention to flying, so he couldn't chat. Brady napped on the seat next to me, his arms crossed on his belly. If all else fails, I thought, he can blow up Dr. Nefarious' headquarters. Brady's fission-inducing powers are all-or-nothing. He can devastate about a square mile, no more, no less. A weapon of last resort. Of course, if he had to resort to that, it would mean I'd failed, and probably died. Cheery stuff.
I tried to talk to the parrot, but it wasn't very interesting. It bit my finger, and got sulky when I didn't cry out and wouldn't let the wound bleed.
We reached Dr. N.'s headquarters, in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. His squat bunker dominated the top of a hill. For two hundred yards on every side the ground smoked, scorched and barren, dotted here and there with the remains of military machinery and tree stumps. Beyond the burn radius a bunch of traditional military types stood around. Probably dozens of Detonators, Teleporters, Invisibles, and other sundry spooks.
"I see they tried traditional penetration first."
"Yeah," Brady said, awake now and looking like he'd never slept. "Negotiation is the last resort in a case like this. They tried to get in, but Dr. Nefarious has some amazing defenses."
Idiots. Had they expected anything less from a crazy Machine Adept? They should have called me first thing. I was the right man for the job, but I didn't look forward to doing it. I considered the roasted mountainside and the low gray bunker, everything blurred and hidden by the hissing rain. I'd have to walk two hundred yards to the bunker. Dr. N. knew his brother was coming, but he wouldn't let vehicles come any closer. I had a poncho, and a waterproof cover for the parrot cage, but the walk would be nasty. Ash and mud coated the ground, and even with galoshes I'd be spattered to the waist. I worried about getting dirty to distract myself from worrying about mines, matter disrupters, and other perimeter defenses.
"Presumably he'll disarm all the nasty weapons for his brother," I said.
"Presumably," said Brady.
"Hmm," said the pilot.
"Fuck the world," said the parrot.
About five steps into the blasted area, I saw a large red light flash from the bunker. That is a gun, I thought, and I am about to be vaporized. My body could take a lot of damage, but it couldn't withstand a weapon that had turned a forest into fine gray ash. The light swept over me. My flesh warmed and the water on my poncho steamed off. I didn't scream, even though I was terrified. Keeping up appearances to the end, that's me. I heard a loud noise, like a giant kid sucking soda through a straw.
An instant later I found myself standing in a low gray room, looking at a beautiful woman. She wouldn't have been out of place in heaven, but I knew I wasn't dead. My heart beat too fast for that.
She was tall, blonde, and emerald-eyed, wearing a white Indian sari that form-fitted nicely. She was luscious, certainly no older than her early twenties. I caught myself staring but didn't stop. Harold Sullivan would probably stare, I thought.
"Mr. Sullivan?" she said. She held a weapon in one hand and a blinking white rod, about a foot long, in the other. The weapon might have been a stunner in another life, but now it had glowing red lights and bulky metal protuberances and exposed wires all over it. Modified by Dr. N., no doubt, and probably much more lethal than it had been before. Or at least more painful.
"Don't be alarmed," the blonde went on. "You were just teleported into the building." She swept the glowing wand all around me, like a security guard at an airport. I had neither weapons nor surveillance equipment, so I didn't worry. Being the best meant being left to my own devices, one of the many drawbacks of that position.
I tried not to look shocked. Harold Sullivan probably didn't know anything about teleportation, but I did. People who can teleport themselves are rare. People who can teleport objects or other people are rarer still. As for a machine that teleported people and objects... no one had ever made one that worked. That alone would be a prize for the Facility.
"Oh," I said as blandly as possible. "Teleported. So who're you?"
"Kelli," she said, the gun never wavering. She put the wand on a table. "I work for your brother. He calls me Kali, after the Indian goddess."
I knew the goddess she meant, the one with filed teeth, often depicted standing on a mound of skulls. The goddess of destruction. As Harold Sullivan, I only said "It's a pretty name for a pretty lady," and gave the sick smile of a man recently resurrected and pressed into a difficult situation. "If you don't mind me asking... you know Justin's a little off, don't you?" I tapped my temple.
"Justin is special."
"Yeah, but crazy special, right? When we were kids..." I shook my head. "What's a cute girl like you doing with him?"
"He's a dynamo in bed," she said.
I winced. "Didn't he, uh, blow off his vital equipment? Somebody told me he did."
"It's amazing what modern technology can accomplish. But I have other reasons for helping Justin. For hating the world."
She smiled, making dimples. "A girl keeps her secrets, Harold." She crooked a finger. "Take off your poncho and follow me. Justin's waiting."
I followed her through low concrete hallways, watching her sway in her sari. The ceilings got increasingly higher as we went on, until we emerged in a large central room dominated by an absurd-looking machine. Colored light bulbs blinked, and radar screens and green-and-black monitors glowed. The machine had more levers than one of Mr. Gutenberg's Portable Polling Centers, and resembled nothing so much as a carousel with the horses removed. I assumed it was the weather machine, and the center of the bunker's defenses.
Dr. Nefarious bent over a control panel. Half his head was shiny metal, polished like chrome, and the other half was completely bald. He wore a white lab coat with yellow stains all over it.
"Justin, your brother's here."
Doctor Nefarious turned. He had half a gray handlebar mustache. The left side of his face gleamed, and sported an artificial eye that looked like a camera lens. He'd painted a golden sunburst around the lens, with mustard, I suspected.
"Justin," I said lightly. "You got a face-lift." Stupid, I know, but I was trying for traveling-salesman humor.
"Harold!" Dr. N. wheezed, and clumped toward me. His legs were clearly artificial. He wore ripped jeans, and metal showed through. "How does it feel to come back from the dead?"
"Well, I've got a hell of a head cold. All things considered, it's a good trade."
Neither he nor Kelli laughed. "Always so funny, Harold," Dr. N. said. "Kali, is he clean?"
"Yes." She turned to me. "Justin was afraid you'd be wired with explosives. If the government turned you into a bomb and blew you up, it wouldn't be murder, since you're already dead."
"No, it's just me, no tricks. Thanks for bringing me back, Justin. I've got the stuff you asked for." I held up the stasis case.
He gobbled most of the hot dog, getting relish in his half-mustache. "Delicious! And the parrot?" I handed him the cage. He put it on a table and tore off the cover.
"Fuck the world," the parrot squawked.
Dr. N. clasped his hands before his chest and looked heavenward. "Birdsong," he said. I felt like an extra in a surreal film.
He returned his attention to me. "Now, brother, as for why I brought you here..." He pulled open a drawer in the table and rummaged. He came up with a very old revolver. It looked as big as an artillery cannon in his frail hand. "Mother always loved you best," he said, almost regretfully, and shot me.
So much for pretending to be Harold. I guess I did it well enough.
I slammed back against the door. Even point-blank his aim wavered, so he only got me in the side. I started blood flowing from the center of my chest so it would look like he'd hit my heart. "Justin," I said, unfocusing my eyes, and slid down the door to the floor. I sealed the real wound and wrapped the bullet in a lump of tissue. Thank god it hadn't been a hollow-point. Those are a bitch. The pain was considerable, so I deadened the nerve endings in my side and got to work repairing the damage. I opted for the stare-eyed dead look so I could keep an eye on things.
Neither one of them checked my pulse. Dr. N. dropped the gun and put an arm around Kelli. "Should I ask for my mother next? I'd like to tell her a thing or two."
"That would be fun," Kelli said indulgently, melting up against him. "I'm getting tired of rain. How about wind, now?"
"Tornadoes and hurricanes, dust devils and sandstorms," he chanted. "I had a sandbox once..."
"Of course," Kelli said, noting his ominous tone.
"Remember that sandbox, Harold?" He turned toward me. I tried to look inert. "Oh," he said. "Shot him. Yes. Too funny for his own..." He trailed off as Kelli guided him toward the weather machine.
As soon as they turned their backs, I rolled forward and grabbed the revolver. I brought it up and fired at Dr. N.'s back.
The bullet spanged off harmlessly. Shit! His whole left side was metal! I repositioned the gun, but Kelli pulled him behind the machine. I crawled forward. This was no good at all. Who knew what kind of interior defenses the doctor had? I needed to get this under control quickly.
I've never been known for my intuition. I don't claim a speck of ESP. I do know how to be other people, however, how to get into their heads and see the world as they do. Dr. N. thought he was the only real person in the universe, that everyone else was toy or obstacle, and I could use that.
I transformed my features to match the Doctor's. I couldn't imitate the metal half, but I could look like a pre-cyborg Dr. Nefarious. I ripped off the wig, making myself as bald as he was. A mirror would have been nice for fine details, but I would pass. I tore a little hair from the wig and rolled it in the dust on the floor, making it gray. I softened the flesh under my nose and stuck the fake mustache in, then solidified it enough to hold the hair in place. That was damned itchy, and made me want to sneeze.
"Dr. Fuck-the-World!" I called in his voice. I even got the trace of a German accent he'd picked up from his grandmother. I've always been good at mimicking voices. It helped in my stand-up act, and it's part of why I'm better than all the other Metamorphs in the business. It's the details that matter. "It is I, Dr. Fuck-the-World!"
I stood. This was make-or-break time. Mad scientists don't crawl on their bellies --- not out of fear, anyway -- and I had to be a mad scientist to pull this off.
Kelli emerged, modified stunner in hand, and Dr. Nefarious followed. Kelli looked at me, frowned, and raised her weapon.
Dr. Nefarious chopped her wrist brutally with his metal arm. I heard bone crack. "No!" he shouted. "You would kill me?" He hit her on the back of the head with his metal hand, and she fell soundlessly. I hoped she was all right. She was probably a nice enough kid, just unstable and caught up in something out-of-control. She had time to get her act together, if I could keep her alive.
"Doctor," Dr. N. said, his voice almost incomprehensible with joy. "You will understand, at last, you--"
I shot him.
I disabled the defenses without much trouble. I'm no Adept, but the Facility trains us with all kinds of computers, and Dr. N's machine was logically constructed despite his insanity, though some of the ornamental embellishments veered toward the obscene. I stopped the rain, too. I could almost hear the world sigh in relief.
Kelli was awake by the time my backup arrived. They bound her with shrinkchains, and she looked at me with an odd glint in her eye. "Let me see your real face," she said as they took her away.
"Tell me why you hate the world," I countered.
"I guess we both go away unsatisfied." She laughed.
The paramedics carried out Dr. Nefarious. I'd punctured one of his lungs, but he'd live. He had an artificial one that still worked.
Now the government had a weather machine, and the teleporter. No more droughts or flooding, assuming the machine worked without disastrous side effects, which it probably didn't. Once again I'd done some good. It left me feeling strangely unsatisfied.
I let my features revert to normal, but that felt like a mask, too. Who knows if it's even my real face? I just make myself look the way I remember from mirrors and pictures.
I told the parrot goodbye and went home.
Dr. Alraune and Brady called me in the next week. I expected a clap on the back and celebration. I wanted to hear the praise and feel the gratitude. I'd spent too much of the past week staring into mirrors and looking through old photo albums, at my dead parents, long gone girlfriends, and my sister in Phoenix who I never speak to. I needed to shake my bad mood.
Instead of the smiles I'd expected, Brady was grave and Dr. Alraune looked like he'd just eaten a whole lemon. "What do you know about the woman, Kelli?" Brady asked.
"Not much," I said, lowering myself into a chair. "I got the sense she was impressed by Justin's power, just along for the ride. Why?"
"No wonder you score so low on intuition tests," Brady said. "You're a lousy judge of character. But you weren't the only one who made that mistake. She has some Ability, Phasing or Teleporting or something similar. The shrinkchains have built-in Ability Inhibitors, but shortly after they put her into an ordinary cell, she disappeared."
I chewed that over. "She's not important though, right? No real danger, I mean."
Brady shook his head miserably. "Dr. Nefarious doesn't plan jobs like this. I knew that, but I didn't think about it. Everything seemed so straightforward. Left on his own, Dr. Nefarious just makes newer and more subtle devices for blowing things up. When he gets involved with something bigger, it's because someone guides him. We questioned him, and after a lot of ranting about his dead family and a Doppelganger, he told us that Kelli approached him, suggested he build a weather machine, and planned everything else. She was the mastermind, and she got away."
"Kelli," I said. "She's on the Facility's most wanted list, now?"
"Number three. Right under 'Svengali' Briggs and Mr. Slime. I doubt we'll have any more luck finding her than we have finding them."
I didn't know what to say. "What happened to Dr. Nefarious?
"Incarcerated," Alraune spat. "With an Inhibitor implanted in his skull. He's not a Machine Adept anymore. Without his Ability, he can barely turn a doorknob. They have him heavily sedated, too."
"Doped to the eyebrows," Brady agreed. "Dr. Alraune disapproves. He wants to tame Dr. Nefarious and use his power, particularly to start the Lazarus Project."
I must have looked surprised, because Alraune snapped "If he thinks the dead can be revived, maybe they can."
"Dr. Alraune wants to bring back President Gutenberg," Brady said, hands crossed on his belly. "He doesn't think any president since has been worth a damn."
"Am I wrong?" Alraune demanded.
I asked to be excused.
I collected my bonus and went home. I was glad we didn't have the Lazarus Project. If someone like Kelli got that technology, we might wind up with Junior Atwater resurrected, or Mengele, or Bludgeon Man. The risks outweigh the rewards, as they so often do.
I checked my mail, thinking about Kelli, about how beautiful she was and about the bear-trap of a mind she must have. You couldn't trust anything, not even your own perceptions. Wasn't I living proof of that?
I found a note in my mailbox, not mailed, just slipped in. The note read:
I keep wondering what you really look like. Wondering who you really are. Do you ever wonder that?
We could do great things together. What has the world ever done for you? Nothing like what I can.
I'll be in touch.
She dotted her 'i's with little hearts. I crumpled the paper and threw it in the trash. I thought about calling the Facility to arrange a stay at a safehouse, but didn't. I was sick of my colleagues. I couldn't stay home, though. Kelli's affection could be worse than her animosity.
Worst of all, I felt tempted. A Villain. That would be a real identity, wouldn't it? Not a succession of stranger's faces placed atop my own.
Maybe it was time to start again. I used to dream about that, picking up roots and becoming a new person, remaking my life any way I liked. The Facility could do without me. I was the best, but there were others almost as good. I had no illusions about that.
I went inside and packed a bag, then headed for the airport. I didn't know where I'd end up. Out west in the desert, maybe. Someplace where it never rained, and where there were no puddles to reflect my face.
This story was published in the online magazine Speculon, which has since gone the way of the passenger pigeon. "Captain Fantasy and the Secret Masters", a story set in the same universe and featuring the same protagonist, was published in Realms of Fantasy in April 2003. "Captain Fantasy" is a much better story, in almost every way, but I'm still quite fond of this earlier one. Especially the bits about the parrot. I might write a book set in this world, someday. (Well, another one -- During college I wrote a short novel set 50 years prior to the events in "Dr. Nefarious", all about President Gutenberg and the Atwater coup, giant robots and exploding babies, and how Brady Doolittle went from working in the lucrative field of international terrorism to working in national security. But it was a terrible novel, and I've long since decided it's all just backstory for these short stories. Funny, huh?)
If you're so inclined, send me mail.