New Bodies for Old

 

Neal basked in the golden sunlight as he lounged on the deck of the cruiser hovering over Paradise Island.

His new body, despite its pale skin, was virtually impervious to ultraviolet. That was one of the benefits of replacing his old one. Now he could enjoy an extended retirement, cruising the planet in ultramodern ships with as many amenities as a fair-sized city. He only wished his wife could be with him. Unfortunately he had been unable to persuade Lillian to part with her old body when it became riddled with cancer. She had believed in some sort of afterlife and that extending the span God had intended was not natural. So Neal luxuriated alone. There was no sexual appetite with these new bodies: as they had been grown from the client’s old DNA with a variety of useful genes spliced in to inhibit the effects of ageing, the telomeres still remained short and the male sperm were not considered suitable for reproduction.

Neal didn’t mind. He intended to reap the benefits of retirement for as long as his new body held out and another family would have only interfered with that. Some rejuvenants went into overdrive and destroyed theirs as quickly as they had ruined the originals, only to be told that their cells were no longer viable and it was impossible to generate another replacement.

Suddenly the smooth journey over the cobalt blue ocean juddered to a halt and the cruiser lost height. Its 3000 passengers, many not given time to dress, were hastily herded into lifeboats which ferried them down to the nearest Pacific island.

On landing it was a culture shock. People who could afford aerial cruises seldom brushed shoulders with the underprivileged living in these exotic locations that were so beautiful when viewed from a respectable height.

A temporary pavilion was erected and stewards busily endeavoured to supply refreshments and reassurance to the multitude milling about in bathrobes and various states of undress. Neal and a few others soon became bored and decided to explore. If nothing else, it would help pass the time and new bodies were guaranteed against malignant diseases.

Wearing bathrobes and slippers, they wandered the unmade track into the nearby village.

Chickens pecked and scurried about the shell of an old car which had been turned into a chicken coop, malnourished children with straggly hair kicked a deflated football while their parents, prematurely aged, worked wearily at ancient sewing machines or looms. Most of them were making souvenirs for the tourists usually elevated so far above them. The appearance of the affluent visitors, who half expected to be besieged by beggars, raised little curiosity. The interlopers felt a pang of guilt at the resigned stoicism of the locals scraping a living for the sake of a pittance.

Neal handed a few tokens he always carried in his bathrobe pocket in case of emergencies to those that looked most needy and the others with him followed suit. When dusk fell, the small amounts that had been distributed by these refugees from the sky would be added to the communal village fund to reinforce their defences against the rising ocean.

As the tourists were summoned by the stewards to return to the repaired cruiser an old man clothed in tattered cast-offs scuttled past Neal. He seemed desperate to catch a glimpse of the visitor’s face.

Their gazes briefly met.

The sight of the wizened features sent a convulsive shudder through Neal’s expensive replacement body. Until then he hadn’t realised it could experience such a sickening jolt.

What he had seen was not possible.

But there could be no mistake.

By the time he had recovered the old man was well away, probably even more traumatised.

Neal now wished he had not wandered off. Seeing your own decaying body inhabited by somebody else was beyond disturbing. How could that now be inhabited by somebody else? Its destruction had been guaranteed in the contract with Jawould Bio Solutions.

Neal’s cruise ruined by the incident, he sent a message by secure text to an investigative journalist who had reservations about Jawould Bio Solutions. The litigation she had fended off from that company over the years would have filled volumes. Tessie Oldwood would not have able to do that without the support of a legal team sponsored by the estates of their dissatisfied - and dead - customers. She was no longer young but like Lillian, Neal’s wife, intending that her body would live out its natural lifespan, working to the bitter end. Proving that the company offering the service were doing more than just making retirement more enjoyable for an elite few would alone justify her existence. But the implications of Neal’s message raised an unpleasant prospect that had never dared cross her mind before.

Unfortunately he hadn’t taken a snap of the clone he remained convinced was his old body. She took his word for it that he was glad to be rid of the thing given the state it was in.

 

The offices of Jawould Bio Solutions overlooked a skyline punctuated by glinting skyscrapers of various shapes; the more ambitious appearing to be held up by thin air. It was on the top of one of these that the “New Bodies for Old” company managed its hugely profitable business. Tessa Oldwood had not yet managed to prove the accusations against it, getting no further than the rotating doors of the marble-lined foyer. As soon as their cameras recognised that determined, forward-leaning stride, alarms wailed in the security lobby and before she could even produce her journalist’s identification she was turned around and marched back out. No one ever laid a finger on her - that would have given her the opportunity for litigation. Once everybody knew the rules and how far they could go, the pantomime was played out until it became so pointless Tessa gave up trying to get inside.

Jabberwocky, her tame hacker had managed to filter some peripheral information from their database. It was a list of affiliated companies, biotech laboratories which grew the client’s organs from stem cells and another, the most secret, which assembled all the parts. The laboratory in which the neural identities of the patients were transferred into their new bodies was situated deep underground with security so tight even a cockroach wouldn’t have got a feeler past it. It was anyone’s guess what extraordinary processes went on down there. Even the clients never saw inside it; they remained too sedated to recognise their own mothers and woke up in company hospital beds inhabiting their new bodies.

Normally this would not have deterred Tessa Oldwood in pursuit of a good story however heavily the odds were stacked against her, but she began to admit that she had hit a brick wall. And there was an even stranger story to pursue, though with little chance of getting to the bottom of that one either. People with the power to outrun speeding cars, pinpoint minute details on the horizon, and hear bats had suddenly started to appear across the Northern Hemisphere. They could do it all, from rescuing kitty stranded in the upper branches of a hundred foot tree to single-handedly hauling coaches from the brinks of precipices. It wasn’t natural, even for someone with a replacement body. These were comic book heroes made flesh.

Tessa knew that she would have been vilified by the general public if she suggested that they had been engineered by some Frankenstein intent on bringing down civilisation, which was probably why other colleagues weren’t probing too deeply. They just waited for a scoop or photo opportunity of their heroics.

The activities of these superbeings had been recorded on mobiles, cameras and CCTV, but the best material came from photojournalists who could anticipate when they would turn up. Breaking the speed restrictions to get to an incident was worth it for the picture of the century. (Knowing some of her colleagues, Tessa suspected that they had engineered some of the near disasters.) But to her, the real mystery was where the superbeings came from. It couldn’t have been Jawould Bio Solutions; there was no profit in engineering bodies to do good deeds. Their greedy shareholders wouldn’t have stood for it... would they?

It was pointless trying to find out who was responsible. If she was going to keep hitting a brick wall she might as well return to that message from Neal now Jabberwocky had supplied her with an address worth checking out.

 

The island on which the retired businessman had encountered his old body was in the same region as a mysterious facility listed on Jawould Bio Solution’s database. It was described as a staging depot for one of their branches in Japan, which was plausible because it was too remote to be a rejuvenant facility.

Tessa Oldwood caught a flight.

Before the journalist booked into a hotel she checked out the Jawould Bio Solutions address. This “staging depot" tucked away in the back streets that radiated out from the city of new skyscrapers, was a large, bland, windowless building with no apparent entrance. Tessa kept her distance. Jawould identity scanners - if it had them - would have picked up her presence immediately and the last thing she needed was to blow her cover before finding anything out.

The journalist found a room in a small hotel without CCTV and whiled away the evening watching news bulletins covering the recent activities of the extraordinary superheroes. It was a wonder, however well meaning, they didn’t cause more mayhem. There were plenty of things wrong with this new order with its outrageously privileged and increasing underclass but, despite this, did the world really need comic book heroes? They had shown no inclination to restore social equality, just engage in daredevil rescues. At least these extraordinary men and women weren’t able to fly... as yet.

The night was sultry and filled with pests throwing their buzzing onto the eardrums like insect ventriloquists. The next morning it was gratifying to see their corpses littering the pavements, dead with the exhaustion of mating. Tessa Oldwood crunched through their carapaces as she made her way to the anonymous Jawould Bio Solution’s facility, hoping that this expensive foray would be worthwhile.

Still keeping her distance, the camera on the strap of her satchel recorded as she watched and waited in the hope of some movement, inside or outside the sealed building.

High in the bland, three story walls was a line of narrow windows: it was just possible to see the lights inside go on as a private ambulance drew up to a door in a side alley. The vehicle contained a dozen body-sized, upright cubicles. Long boxes were brought out from the building and slotted into each one.

The security team guarding the entrance was armed. Tessa wouldn’t stand a chance if she tried to slip inside, so she took a mini spy drone from her satchel and sent it up to the nearest window. Using suction pads, the drone attached a small camera to the glass so she could return to the hotel to watch its transmission in safety. Sitting on the rooftop patio with a cold drink, she switched on her laptop.

It was just as well no one was looking over her shoulder - the images the camera sent back confirmed Neal’s allegation. The bodies of Jawould Bio Solutions customers, instead of being cremated, had been refrigerated, no doubt to be sold on to people with limited means desperate to live just a little longer. Their lifespans probably depended on what they could afford. To many people, a few more years were probably worth the price despite any problems the appalling incompatibility with the donor must have created.

Early next morning Tessa Oldwood took a taxi to the remotest part of the island where her signal could not be intercepted and transmitted the evidence back to her office, and then boarded the next flight home. Once she had written up the exposé, Jawould Bio Solutions would not be able to sue their way out of this.

So why did those investigative instincts continue to nag? What else could a company that had committed the ultimate betrayal of their customers’ trust be capable of? Tessa had always found it difficult to believe that a company like Jawould would limit its astounding technology to the supply of replacement bodies, however profitable. The research needed to transfer the neural identity of someone into another body must have required massive funding, more than could be raised by floating shares. Some other agency had to be involved.

It was then the unthinkable returned to worry Tessa. If possible to grow new bodies, could it be only a short step away from designing life forms not even their creators would want to shake hands with. By law, anything with teeth, reasoning or bad attitude had to immediately be put down. And, despite their advances, bio engineers insisted it was not yet possible to create a monster like Frankenstein’s from odds and ends. Could those superhumans be more than enhanced humans after all?

Yet their creation did not have the Jawould Bio Solution’s rejuvenant modus operandi. That company’s corruption was relatively predictable and where would have been the point in creating superhumans whose activities were beginning to concern the emergency services. Many now leaned on the authorities to ask the occasional champion - very politely - which comic they had escaped from. The police had no problem with them preventing traffic accidents and saving people from drowning, they just wanted to know who they were. Investigating them was also problematic. The public were all for their public-spirited actions, however much havoc was frequently left in their wake, until eventually they started to behave more like vigilantes than public saviours.

Then alarm bells rang when the police were ordered to accept an elite squad of these new superhumans. They would be allowed to carry weapons and not be subject to the same vetting process as regular officers. The police union and many politicians were outraged, but neither had the power to ignore the will of the ruling elite who were the real power in society. Democracy existed in name only, as many who had tried to demonstrate against social injustice had found out to their cost. It was only a matter of time before the wealthy oligarchy achieved total control, and what better way to do it than with an indestructible army.

Before writing up her exposé of Jawould Bio Solutions Tessa tried to tap more information from a high-ranking general who had put good leads her way in the past. The pointed manner in which he gave nothing away confirmed that something far worse than peddling old bodies was going on.

 

Then the unthinkable happened. One of the superhumans was shredded to pieces in trying to prevent a traffic accident. Running from bonnet to bonnet to prise apart lorries and domestic cars, he slipped and was caught up in the tangle of metal. It shouldn’t have happened. Superhumans had never been known to slip before. This mishap and the unpredictable behaviour of others suggested that the cells engineering their extraordinary exploits were beginning to break down.

Against orders, one of the attending police officers collected some of the tissue in a specimen bag and smuggled it into a forensic lab. What they found should not have been possible.

Tessa Oldwood wasn’t surprised when the results were sent anonymously to her. She was the only civilian who was prepared to make the scandal public, and the plain clothes police officers discreetly shadowing her only confirmed how important it was. She had to shake them off before reaching Jabberwocky’s hideout.

This hacker, unlike most others who found working for powerful businesses more profitable, preferred to carry on undermining banks and all the corrupt institutions which were taking over society. This was her tenth safe house. So many aggrieved organisations were trying to track down Jabberwocky she was obliged to move at least every six months - it went with the territory. She was Tessa’s only hope of finding out where the DNA originated from.

Unfortunately the information Tessa brought needed a geneticist, not a hacker: searching online without specialist knowledge could attract attention. So Jabberwocky passed the DNA results on to somebody who understood their ramifications while she went back to delving into the dark files of Jawould Bio Solutions. This time she came across a conspiracy theory that the bodies created for customers who either died before they could inhabit them, or changed their minds, were being primed as blank slates for tyranny to scrawl on, no doubt as the new elite, armed squad the government insisted the police accepted.

Tessa Oldwood believed it.

Many journalists had wondered how soon it would be before there was a coup, yet always dismissed it. The armed forces, albeit much reduced over the years, were still loyal to the Crown and whoever happened to be wearing it at the time.

But what if there was another army, one not controlled by the military..?

When Dr Jasmine Boniface arrived at the door of her flat, Tessa could instantly tell that she was not the tame biologist Jabberwocky had passed the DNA results on to. She was a police forensic scientist. The police hadn’t been tailing the journalist as a suspect, but watching her back. They had hacked her hacker, which confirmed the findings of their investigations. As soon as the scheme to infiltrate Jawould Bio Solutions’ laboratory and obtain proof that a superhuman army was being created, Tessa Oldwood would still be needed to make the story public. Jabberwocky soon got over the fact she had been hacked and was brought into the loop. She was more interested in how the police and army managed to prevent their communications from being intercepted.

She joined Tessa Oldwood in the secret HQ filled with high-ranking police and army personnel. It was underground and well-shielded, more like a Second World War bunker than high-tech facility. But that was the point. Located in one of those boltholes Churchill refused to use in the event of his offices being bombed, nobody suspected it was anything more than a relic from the previous century.

All communications were relayed to mobile units which relayed them to the HQ by cable. Dr Boniface did not switch on the transmission from the secret camera in her earring until well past Jawould security checks. It was only a matter of time before the device was detected, so she moved efficiently about the facility filled with Jawould Bio Solutions’ rejected bodies. The signal from her camera was piggybacked on the lab’s legitimate transmissions to the secret bunker, sending back images that took away the breath of the most hardened members of the gathering.

In large clear-sided vats, human bodies were slowly disintegrating into a slurry of cells.

The result of this process was a clear liquid which filtered out that rare DNA to grow people with superhuman strength and compliant minds. They may have been only supplied one worthwhile gene per body, so those superhuman qualities needed numerous bodies to harvest them. Had Jawould customers known their old flesh and bones would end up as gene soup, the company shares would have nose-dived overnight.

The superhumans ostensibly performing acts for the public good had obviously been experimental versions of what was to come - bio robots unable to tell right from wrong.

Dr Boniface would have moved on to where these miracle people were being grown, but Tessa Oldwood was the only one watching to realise that she was pushing her luck. Those quick glances from masked Jawould operatives were sure indications she should make good her escape. The instruction to do so was given on the journalist’s advice, but there was one thing the biochemist needed to do before leaving.

Nobody noticed her empty a phial of DNA into the stream of cells being processed, but by the time she reached the outer security levels, alarms were screaming.

An army general gave orders to mobilise the squad of soldiers nearest to the main access to the facility.

Tessa Oldwood sighed with relief. That could have happened to her so many times given the risks she had taken during her life.

Once the army moved in and shut the facility down she could write up the scoop that would make her journalist of the year.

Those responsible for the secret coup attempt were no longer untouchable. The great and powerful were rounded up and brought to trial for treason; all thanks to Neal for meeting himself on a remote Pacific island.

The DNA gleaned from thousands of bodies was made useless by the contaminant Dr Boniface infected it with and the remaining superhumans aged rapidly, dwindling into senility long before their times. It would have been pointless offering them new bodies because nobody was sure about the legal status of anyone who had a brain grown in a test tube.

There was the odd protest outside Parliament about the accountability of MPs before the public lost interest. One government coalition now seemed very much like another to them, but the thing that most worried Tessa Oldwood was that few people really seemed to care. At least Neal, with his new body, would be comfortable to the end, whenever it came.