Incandescent is a serialized novel I started several years ago on Pulp Engine, a pulp-fiction magazine website edited by Lein Shory. Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far into the project before life became too hectic to continue. Here is the first chapter of that story. If there’s any interest, I’ll continue.
“I want to show you a body.”
“Oh, Marissa. You don’t know how long I’ve waited to hear that from you.” I could swear that I actually heard the medical examiner’s teeth grind over my cellphone connection, which was pretty good considering that I usually didn’t get very clear reception in that part of San Sebastian.
“I’m glad to see those department-mandated sexual harassment seminars are working so well on you, Detective Talys. I didn’t mean my body.”
“Dare to dream. What’s up?”
“I… I really think I need you to actually see this, Chris. It’s… I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
It must have been the whiney horns and squealing breaks of the other cars on Indigo Bay Drive as I pulled a U-turn to head back downtown toward the medical examiner’s office that interfered with my hearing; I could have sworn that I heard something resembling hesitation, possibly even discomfiture, in Dr. Goodchilde’s voice.
Yeah. Had to be the traffic.
It only took a few minutes to drive over to the Majorca County Medical Center, San Sebastian being only slightly larger than the average postcard. (“Welcome to Beautiful….”) I cruised around to the back, where they hid the hospital’s various service entrances. Like the morgue. The dark, icy morgue.
I had been a cop for almost 10 years, seven of them up in San Francisco, so I’d spent my share of time in morgues. Somehow, though, I never got used to it, could never stop the cold tingle from shooting down my spine and out my toes by just stepping into the door. Outside, it was a hot summer day, sun shining down, a salty breeze blowing in off the bay. Inside, the flickering florescent tubes gave everything in the corridor a sickly greenish tint, or maybe it was the ’60s era industrial green paint on the cinderblock walls. The over-refrigerated air stank of disinfectant — more like infectant — and the sound of my shoes on the cracked vinyl tile clicked and echoed like a coin tapping on glass.
I signed in on the clipboard left on the unattended desk outside the morgue entrance — the honor system as an alternative to having an actual budget for luxuries like attendants — and stepped in.
The morgue proper consisted of three rooms, the medical examiner’s office, into which I had just stepped, the freezer room, with three rows of seven once-gleaming chrome containers and the autopsy room, out of which flooded the only decent lighting in the entire complex. Through the glass on the double swinging doors, I saw Dr. Goodchilde, her head down as if concentrating on something intently, her curly dark hair tied back in a ponytail that missed more than a few wispy strands, a few of which, I noticed, she had caught in her mouth, something she only did when she stopped paying attention to whomever was paying attention to her.
I rapped on the door glass lightly, but she jumped anyway, the flow of her concentration snapped. She discovered the strands of hair in her mouth and pushed them aside quickly.
“That was fast,” she said, setting aside the chart she’d been reading before I walked in. She bumped up the glasses that were starting to slide down her nose. “I hope you didn’t put anyone else into my emergency room.”
“When my mistress calls, I obey,” I said. “Ruff.”
“Down, boy.” Marissa’s voice was flat, but there was the barest crinkle of a smile in the corner of her mouth, and a flash of amusement in the infinite pools of impossibly pale blue that she used for eyes. Most of the time, Marissa worked in the hospital’s emergency department; medical examiner was an extra duty that got shoved off on her because, even after two years, she was still the low woman on the totem pole. Unlike others who had held the position before her (*cough!* Dr. Dennison *cough!*), Marissa Goodchilde did her best to do a thorough and conscientious job. That’s life in a small town; sometimes, you get lucky.
“So, is this the legendary body of which you spoke?” I asked.
“Yes,” Marissa said, turning her attention to the man on the autopsy table. “The Coast Guard picked him up floating face down about three miles out. No ID on him; no clothes on him, in fact. So far, his prints haven’t turned up in any databases, but we haven’t heard back from the FBI yet, so….” She shrugged, which I thought was generally a pretty reasonable reaction to anything involving the Bureau.
“Drowning?” It was a pretty reasonable guess. A significant number of Majorca County deaths, especially in the summer, were drownings — surfer dudes indulge in a few too many illegal herbs and spices before attempting to ride the big wave, occasional swimmer decides to go out for a couple of miles and goes out from the beach instead of parallel to it, that sort of thing. That, and the getting picked up by the Coast Guard three miles out face down sort of tipped me off.
“No, surprisingly,” Marissa answered. “I haven’t started the full autopsy yet, but he doesn’t have any of the initial indicators of drowning. Look at him; you’d barely known he’d been found out at sea.”
It was true. Laid out on the autopsy table was a Caucasian male, late 20s or early 30s, medium-length straight black hair. A body that had been floating in the ocean for any amount of time, even if the victim hadn’t drowned, would not be in the pristine condition of this body. His skin was neither dark from sunburn or pale from death, but an even, blemish-free tan. He also lacked the bloating that you typically found on a dead body more than a day or two old; if anything, this guy had a sinewy, chiseled look to his anatomy that suggested he could have posed for a Gil Kane-drawn comic book from back in the ’70s.
Other than the marked lack of necrosis, what stood out most about this body were the tattoos. There were, all told, about a dozen, ranging from about the size of a quarter to one the size of a my hand. There were spread all over the body, some on his arms, his lower legs, his chest. Some of the designs were intricate, like Celtic knots but more contemporary, like the sort of art you’d see in surf shops near the beach, while others were abstract geometrics that looked, as much as anything, like Mayan characters rendered in a clean, art deco style.
“The colors are really vibrant,” I noted, and Marissa nodded. “You usually don’t see tattoos in this range of colors. They look almost like food coloring tints. Are you sure they’re real?”
“No, not in the least,” Marissa replied. “But they spent some time soaking in salt water and didn’t run or wash away. And did you notice how straight the lines are, how square the corners are?”
I nodded. “Yeah. The curves are all really precise, like they were done with a compass or something.”
“I’ve seen quite a bit of tattoo work since I started this job,” Marissa said. She traced the intricate pattern of the hand-sized, intricate purple image on the body’s chest with a latex-covered finger, delicately, almost sensually. For some reason I couldn’t quite define, I found that oddly disturbing. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“Yes, well,” I said, trying not to stammer. “That’s all well and good, but hardly reason to, well, call a cop.”
Marissa looked up at me, as if reluctant to look away from the body, or perhaps the complex tattoo on its chest. Her pale blue eyes seemed unfocused, as if she hadn’t really been seeing the here and now, or at least not looking at it. “What? Oh. Yes. Ah… That’s not everything. Here. Look at this.”
She turned to the computer monitor on the cabinet, and quickly navigated through to the section of the case file she wanted me to see. Not for the first time, I noted that Marissa had the uncanny mutant ability to type while wearing surgical gloves, but it was a small thought, far back in the distant part of my brain.
“I took photos when they brought the body in,” she said. “Standard procedure, documenting the condition of the remains upon arrival. Here they are. Look.”
Marissa stepped aside, and let me mouse through the images in the gallery. At first, I didn’t get what she wanted me to see, but then it started to sink in.
“They’ve moved,” I said. Under other circumstances, I might have been proud of myself. I R an dee-tek-uh-tive. “The tattoos have moved.”
“Some of them, yes,” Marissa confirmed. “The big purple one has stayed put, but most of the others — they’ve just gone all over the place.”
“How is that even remotely possible? Tattoos can’t move, not like that. Could someone have tampered with the body? Or maybe the pictures?”
“No,” Marissa said, shaking her head. “I took those photos. I checked the system; those were the files I uploaded to the server. All the timestamps matched. I put the body into the vault to await autopsy and sealed it, same as always. The seal wasn’t broken until I took the body out this morning.”
“I should call in Tomás,” I said. Tomás Araus was the forensics tech that the San Sebastian police department shared with the Majorca County Sheriff. There wasn’t really all that much work for a forensics technician around here. “Something like this will give him an orgasm.”
“First off,” Marissa said, “Ewww. Second, there’s still a bit more on the magical mystery tour.”
She handed me a pair of amber plastic goggles, put one on herself and turned on a small, handheld black light. I turned off the room lights to better see what she was illuminating.
Under the black light, the strange tattoos, or whatever they were, fluoresced brightly. That wasn’t a surprise; I’d seen fluorescent tattoos before. This was odd, though; it was almost as if the glyphs were putting out more light than they should have been able to, as if they were —
“Glowing,” Marissa said. “See how they’re glowing?”
That wasn’t the only thing I saw. The longer I looked, the clearer I could see it, almost as if exposure to the black light were developing an image that couldn’t be seen before.
Between various tattoos were lines, colored lines that traced across the body at odd angles, as if someone needed to draw a line between two points but was only allowed to use right angles. They varied in thickness, wide and then thin, snaking their way from one tattoo to another, creating this faintly luminescent network all over the victim’s body.
“That is so bizarre….”
“Keep watching,” Marissa said. “It takes a moment.”
As my eyes got used to seeing the lines, I finally saw what I assume Marissa wanted me to see. Under the black light, the network connections seemed to get stronger, grow more visible. As they did, it also seemed as if the luminous strands were, somehow, in motion, moving like a thick, fluorescent fluid through narrow tubes.
“Holy crap,” I whispered. “Does that look like —”
“Circuitry,” Marissa said, whispering as well. “It looks to me like some sort of circuitry. Bioluminescent circuitry.”
“Bioluminescent? Like, what? Deep-sea fish? Squid?”
“Yes, exactly. Bioluminescence only occurs in marine life; it’s never been seen in mammals. That, plus the glyphs, proves that, what this is, it certainly isn’t a natural phenomenon.”
“So, what, then?” I asked. “Some sort of experiment? Pentium boy here and his friends were trying out something freaky with a squid and, what? He has an allergic reaction, dies. His friends freak, dump him overboard and skate?”
Marissa shook her head. She turned off the black light, turned on room lights and collected the safety goggles. “No. No way. This is too… I don’t know, too clean. Too specific for something like that. This was intentional. And look.” She waved her hand over the body. “Not a trace in visible light. There’s no residue on the skin to indicate that something was painted on. It’s in his skin. And don’t tell me that was some sort of tattoo — tattoos do not flow.”
No, they didn’t. I try to keep an open mind about things, but I felt pretty secure going out on a limb and agreeing with Marissa that, no, tattoos do not, as a rule, flow. One of the tattoos, a rich green, looking something like an art deco Mayan character, sat on the unidentified body’s left shoulder. The detail was remarkable, the lines clean and straight, the color perfectly even and bright. So bright. I saw the texture of the victim’s skin through the green tint, with a number of fine hairs sticking out from it. It seemed to have depth, this small glyph, only about the size of a dollar bill torn in half. Remarkable depth. For some reason, I just felt that I should touch it, place the tip of my finger on the complex pattern, trace it down….
“Chris!” Marissa’s voice seemed both sharp and distant at the same time. “What are you doing?”
“What? I….” I stood at the corner of the autopsy table, my right index finger pressing against the bright green glyph on the dead man’s shoulder.
Marissa yanked a pair of latex gloves from a box and tossed them to me. “You know you shouldn’t touch anything without gloves. You could contaminate the evidence. Or it could contaminate you.”
I started to pull a glove over my hand when I saw it, a string of bright green running from the glyph to my index finger, running like a stream of pancake syrup, but running up, covering my finger tip, and rapidly spreading around.
“Oh my god,” Marissa whispered. “What is that?”
I flicked my finger, trying to break the stream, but it refused to come free. “You’re asking me? Help me get this thing off!”
It had no weight to speak of, this stream of color flowing up to my finger. I could feel it, though, on my finger, the color spreading and moving rapidly, going up the finger, passing the knuckle and flowing in odd, vine-like loops to the back of my hand.
Marissa took up a pair of surgical scissors from her autopsy tray and tried to cut the stream, but the blades passed through it as if it weren’t there at all. I moved away, but the stream stayed on me, flowing.
At last, though, the stream broke its connection with the dead body’s tattoo, and flowed up onto my skin like someone slurping up a strand of spaghetti.
The patch of color continued to flow up my finger, running in multiple arching rivulets onto the back of my hand. I could feel it, like strands of smooth heat circling, not on my skin like ink, but in it, like it was part of me, but still separate, as well. The swirling strands circled tighter and tighter, and began to form a shape, slowly morphing into the same glyph from the body’s shoulder.
Marissa took my hand, wordlessly, and began to examine it.
“Don’t touch it!” I said, whispering, though I didn’t know why.
“I’ve been touching them all morning,” she said, still examining my hand. For some reason, she was whispering, too. “Nothing like that happened to me. It must have been the skin to skin contact that did. Whatever this is, it can’t pass through latex.”
“That’s just ducky,” I said. “Now how do I get it off?”
Marissa started to speak, but then looked up at me, and I could see that, in spite of herself, she had no clue what to do, something I was sure hadn’t happened to her in a long time.
Before she could say anything at all, though, the lights briefly flashed, flickered, and went out. They flashed on again, briefly, flickered a couple more times and then died. Down on the ground floor where we were, with no windows, we suddenly found ourselves in pitch blackness.
“Oh, what now?” Marissa snapped, as if the sudden, unexpected blackout were somehow a personal slight against her. Feh. Doctors. “Hang on. The emergency generator should kick in in just a minute.”
Before the minute was up, a deep rumble seemed to come up from beneath our feet, followed by a sudden slam that rocked the room, tossed Marissa’s autopsy tray to the floor and knocked her into me. I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her down to the floor, feeling my way over to the nearest bare wall.
As Marissa attempted to pull away, another sudden slam rocked the building, hard enough that we all but bounced off the floor. I heard cabinet doors fly open and supplies rain to the floor, equipment bounce and tumble like we had suddenly found ourselves inside some giant dryer. Somewhere distant, I heard what sounded like the snap of cracking masonry and the screech of twisting metal.
I believe that I actually heard Marissa cry out then, and hold onto me tighter. It was something I might have liked to savor, if only for the chance to razz her about it later, but suddenly, there was light. It wasn’t much, just a beam out in the main hallway shining through the glass of the doors, like a powerful flashlight beam, accompanied by several deep, heavy thuds.
“Is that the generator?” Marissa whispered, apparently just to have something to say; obviously, it wasn’t.”
“Stay here,” I whispered back, untangling myself from the good doctor. “And stay down.” I pulled out my Glock, and staying low, passed through the autopsy room’s swinging doors, and over to the main door into the morgue.
The door had slammed open during the quake, or whatever it was, and I had just enough light from the beam slowly moving down the hall to see it. It was easier to hear the slow, heavy thuds down the hallway out here. They sounds like footsteps, but the footsteps of a thousand-pound man wearing metal shoes.
Carefully, remaining low, I peered out the doorway, trying to catch a glimpse of what was moving our way. For a half second, silhouetted by some light from further down the hall, I saw… something, something big, and metallic.
Then, the huge figure jerked faster than I thought possible, the light flashing over into my eyes, immediately followed by a deafening blast and the wall to the morgue behind me exploding into a sharp shower of cinderblock shards. I threw myself away, or was tossed away.
Before I’d even come to a halt, the light flashed in my face again, and even over the high-pitched roar in my ears, I heard whatever it was move to aim what was obviously its weapon directly at me again.
Instinctively, I raised my weapon and emptied the magazine as fast as I could pull the trigger, hoping to at least hit the light source. The figure staggered back a half step, but stayed on its feet. I felt the snap of my weapon’s slide locking back, and scrambled to dump the empty magazine and slap in another. As I frantically grabbed at my extra magazine, though, the huge, metallic shape stepped forward, and raised its weapon yet again.
Once again, I acted on instinct, but this time in what I would have recognized to be a pointless attempt at self defense if I had had time to think about it. I threw my hands up in front of my face, just as I heard my attacker’s weapon begin to fire.
The next second, the room burst with bright green light, and I felt a jerk on my hand. My heart beat, and I had enough time to think to myself, “I guess this must be dead.” I distinctly remember thinking that, to a background of heavy metal slamming into crunching cinderblock.
The green light faded slowly — relatively slowly, at least — and it occurred to me that I didn’t appear to be dead. I suspected I wasn’t dead because I imagined that the hard, painful ringing in my ears wouldn’t still be there if I were dead. The morgue was pitch black again as soon as the green light was gone, briefing illuminated every few seconds by the random flash of shorting electrical lines.
“Chris!” I at last heard break through the ringing in my head. Marissa. “Chris! Are you all right? Chris!”
“I’m good,” I called back. Carefully, I made it too my feet, unsure of exactly which way was up, and felt my way over tumbled file cabinets to the door to the autopsy room.
Marissa wrapped herself around me as soon as I passed through the swinging doors, gripping me tighter than I would have thought. “Oh my god, Chris. Are you hurt? Are you all right? What happened? What was that thing? What —”
Before I could answer, though, from down the hallway, I heard again crunching concrete and tearing steel, and light flooded what was left of the hallway outside the morgue — multiple light sources, and multiple heavy metal footsteps approaching.
There was barely even time for my stomach to sink, however, before I saw the spark of another light, a bright, purplish light, growing from the large tattoo on the dead man’s chest.
Only, the dead man, I saw, wasn’t lying on the autopsy table anymore. He was standing. And he took a step toward us.
Before either Marissa or I could react, the moving dead man wrapped his arms around both of us, pressing the purple light from his chest against us. Outside in the hall, the heavy metal footsteps approached faster, and I thought I head the wall behind me start to crack and splinter.
“Sorry about this,” the dead man holding Marissa and me, his voice remarkably calm and even light, considering. “But I don’t think either of you want to be here in the next 30 seconds or so.”
The dead man squeezed us tighter, and suddenly, shockingly, the world turned white.