Authors: Robert Rankin
Tags: #prose_contemporary, #Fiction, #General, #Science Fiction, #England, #Cloning, #Millennium celebrations (Year 2000)
There is nothing more powerful than a bad idea whose time has come. And there can be few ideas less bad or more potentially apocalyptic than that hatched by genetic scientist Dr Stephen Malone. Using DNA strands extracted from the dried blood on the Turin Shroud, Dr Malone is cloning Jesus.
The fifth book in the Brentford series, 1997
“What a wonderful lurcher you have there, Mrs Bryant, I haven’t seen as fine a one since long before the war. Can you make it roll about, play dead, or beg a biscuit? Nod its head or shake your hand by sticking out its paw?”
“Actually,” said the lovely Mrs Bryant, whose dresses tended to terminate a mere six inches below her waist, “it’s a Dane, not a lurcher.”
“Come off it,” I said. “That’s a lurcher. My dad used to keep them back in the nineteen fifties.”
“It’s a Dane,” said Mrs Bryant. “A Dane, that’s what it is.”
I shook my head and hailed a passer-by. “Is this dog a lurcher or a Dane?” I asked him.
The passer-by stroked his bearded chin. “Looks more like an Irish wolfhound to me,” he said. “This woman is wearing a very short dress,” he continued.
I dismissed the hirsute passer-by and addressed the dog directly. “Are you Dane or lurcher?” I asked it.
“Dane,” said one of the dog’s heads.
“Lurcher,” said the other.
The gambler was old and frail. The shoulders of his tired tuxedo hung like wounded wings, the cuffs were frayed and lacked their gilded buttons. Once he had worn a silk cravat, secured by a diamond pin, but now about his neck hung an old school tie.
With a trembling hand he laid his final chip upon the gaming board. “Twelve black,” he said. “It’s all or nothing.”
The croupier called out something which sounded like “Noo-rem-va-ma-ploo,” and spun the roulette wheel. The silver ball danced round and round and finally came to rest.
“Thirteen red,” said the croupier.
“Ruination,” said the gambler.
With dragging feet he left the casino, stepped onto the terrace, drew his ancient service revolver from his pocket, put it to his temple and took “the gentleman’s way out”.
The casino too now lies in ruins. Fifty years have passed. But they do say that should you dare to visit here upon this very night, upon the anniversary of the tragedy, you can watch the whole sad scene re-enacted by its ghostly players.
The three ghost-hunters watched the needles on their sensitive equipment dip and flutter. Professor Rawl made torch-lit notes on his clipboard, then studied the faces of his two companions, lit eerily by the moonlight. “Did anybody see anything?” he asked.
Indigo Tombs shook his head. “Not a thing,” he whispered. “But I thought I heard”
“What did you hear?”
“A whirling sound.”
“A roulette wheel,” said Dr Norman. “I heard it too.”
“A gunshot,” said Professor Rawl. “We all heard that, I’m sure. We did,” the two agreed.
Professor Rawl tucked his pen into his pocket. “The readings are inconclusive. We may have heard something, or nothing. It can’t be proved either way.”
The three ghost-hunters dismantled their equipment and carried it back to the Land Rover. Professor Rawl keyed the ignition and they drove away into the night.
A tramp called Tony watched the tail-lights dim into the darkness. “There you go, Tom,” he said to his chum. “I told you it was true, and now you’ve seen them for yourself. Three scientists they were, or so the old story goes, died of fright or something, they did, many years ago.”
His chum Tom coughed and spat into the night. “You’re drunk,” said he. “I never saw a thing. Now come inside, it’s turning cold.”
Once upon a time there were two men. An Irishman called John Omally, who was young and tall and dark and handsome, and an elder called Old Pete, who was none of these things.
And it being lunchtime, these two stood at the bar counter of an alehouse discussing the ways of the world. The ways of the world have long been a subject for discussion. Ever since there have been any ways of the world, in fact. And an alehouse has always been a good place to discuss them.
“The ways of the world leave me oft-times perplexed,” said Old Pete, sipping rum.
John Omally nodded. “Which ones in particular?” he asked.
“Well, you know that Mrs Bryant, who lives next door to me?”
“The one with the two-headed dog?”
“And the very short dresses?”
“That’s her as well.”
“I know of her,” said Omally.
“Well, last night her husband came home early from his shift at the windscreen wiper works to find an alien in bed with her.”
“An illegal alien?”
“No, a space alien, although I suppose they must be illegal also.”
“Sounds a bit of a tall one,” said Omally.
“Yes, he described him as tall, and young and dark and handsome.”
“Ahem,” said Omally. “Doesn’t sound that much like a space alien to me.”
“That’s what I thought,” said Old Pete. “Sounded more like an incubus in my opinion.”
“An incubus. It’s a sort of demon that takes on human form, creeps into the bedrooms of sleeping women and does the old business.”
“The old business?”
“The old jigger-jig. My wife, God rest her soul, suffered from them something terrible while I was away at the war. They used to appear in the shape of American servicemen back in those days.”
“Really?” said Omally. “So you think Mrs Bryant was had by one of those?”
“I think it’s more likely than a space alien. Don’t you?”
Omally nodded. He could think of an even more likely explanation, one he could personally vouch for. “So she told her husband that this bedroom intruder was a space alien, did she?”
“As soon as he regained consciousness. The bedroom intruder, as you put it, walloped him with a bedpan, and then took flight.”
“In a spaceship?”
“According to Mrs Bryant, yes.”
“Makes you think,” said John Omally.
“Makes you think what?”
“No, just makes you think. It’s a figure of speech.”
“Well, I think there should be a law against it,” said Old Pete. “If a woman can’t lie safely in her bed without some incubus claiming to be a space alien taking advantage of her. Where’s it all going to end?”
“Search me,” said Omally.
“Why?” asked Old Pete.
“No, it’s another figure of speech.”
“But you do think there should be a law against it?”
“Absolutely,” said John Omally. “There should be an Act of Parliament.”
“Then you actually believe all that old rubbish, do you, Omally?”
“About space aliens and incubi. You actually believe all that’s true and there should be an Act of Parliament?”
“I do, as it happens, yes.”
“I see.” Old Pete finished his rum and placed the empty glass upon the bar counter. “Then what if I were to tell you that I personally witnessed the ‘incubus’ making his getaway down the drainpipe? In fact I even recognized him.”
Omally’s self-composure was a marvel to behold. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised,” said he.
“Not at all, and if you were to tell me that this shape-shifting incubus had taken on the appearance of, well…” Omally glanced about the alehouse, as if in search of a suitable candidate. “Well, let’s say myself, for example. It wouldn’t surprise me one little bit.”
Old Pete ground his dentures. This was not the way he had planned things at all. The wind-up, followed by the sting, was the way he’d planned things. Good for at least a bottle of rum.
“Would you care for another drink?” asked Omally. “Perhaps a double this time? You look a bit shaky. Encounters with the supernatural can have that effect on people.”
Omally ordered the drinks.
Old Pete accepted his with a surly grunt. Omally pressed a five-pound note into his hand. “Why not get yourself a half-bottle for later on?” said he. “For medicinal purposes.”
“You’re a gentleman,” said Old Pete.
“I’m a scoundrel,” said Omally, “and so are you.”
The two men raised glasses and drank each other’s health.
“But I’ll tell you this,” said Omally. “Back in the old country we don’t make light of incubi and faerie folk and things of that nature.”
“Don’t you, though?” said Old Pete.
“We do not. There’s a strong belief in such things in Holy Ireland.”
“Is there?” said Old Pete.
“There is, and shall I tell you for why?”
“Please do,” said Old Pete.
“Souls,” said Omally. “The souls of the dead.”
“It is popularly believed,” said Omally, “that the faerie folk are the souls of the dead, the soul being an exact facsimile of the human form, though far smaller and subject to an entirely different set of laws and principles. Now, fairies are notoriously mischievous, are they not?”
“So I’ve heard it said.” Old Pete swallowed rum.
“And this is because they are the earthbound souls of folk who were neither good enough to go to heaven nor bad enough to go to the other place.” Omally crossed himself. “The mirthmakers, the folk who could never take life seriously.”
“Folk such as yourself,” Old Pete suggested.
Omally ignored him. “Why do you think it is,” he asked, “that only certain folk are able to see the fairies?”
“Several answers spring immediately to mind,” said Old Pete. “It might be that there aren’t too many fairies about. Or that they employ an advanced form of camouflage. Or that they are for the most part invisible. Or, most likely, that those who claim to see them are in fact mentally disturbed.”
Omally shook his head. “It’s down to susceptibility,” he said. “Psychically speaking, of course.”
“Oh, of course.” Old Pete rolled his eyes.
“To perceive the faerie folk requires a certain type of mentality.”
“I think I gave that as one of my answers.”
“Hence the Irish.”
“Hence the Irish what? Or was that another figure of speech?”
“The greatest proliferation of faerie lore and belief in the entire world, Ireland. And you will admit that the Irish mentality differs somewhat from the accepted norm.”
“Willingly,” said Old Pete. “Of course, your theory might gain greater credibility were you able to offer me some convincing account of an encounter you yourself have personally had with the faerie folk.”
Omally grinned. “Well, I couldn’t do that now, could I?”
“Could you not? Well, that is a surprise.”
“Because,” said John, “the kind of mentality required to understand the whys and wherefores of the faerie folk is not the kind suited to their actual observation. I am too sophisticated, more’s the pity. A simple mind is required. A child-like mind.”
“Hm,” said Old Pete, regarding his now empty glass.
“So tell me, Pete,” said Omally, “have you ever seen a fairy?”
Old Pete peered over his glass at Omally’s tweedy form. Throughout the conversation he had watched the ring of hobgoblins that encircled the Irishman’s head, the bogles and boggarts that skipped to and fro around his feet singing songs about shoemending, the fat elf that sat upon his shoulder and the unruly pixie that nestled in his turn-up.
“Leave it out,” said Old Pete. “There ain’t no such things as fairies.”
And they all lived happily ever after.
If you ever had to describe Dr Steven Malone to someone who’d never met him, all you’d have to say was, “He’s the bloke who looks like Sherlock Holmes in the Sidney Paget drawings.” Of course, there will always be some people who will immediately say Sidney who? And there may even be a few who will say Sherlock who? And you can bet your life that there’s a whole lot of others who will say Doctor Who. But to them you need only say Doctor Steven Malone. (Eh?)
It wasn’t a curse to look like a Sidney Paget drawing of Sherlock Holmes, even if it did mean you were only in black and white and spent most of your life in profile, pointing at something off the page. It had never proved to be a big bird-puller, but it had served Dr Steven well at school for plays and suchlike, and it did mean that he looked dignified. Which very few people ever do, when you come to think about it.
He looked dignified now, as he stood upon the rostrum in the lecture theatre of the Royal College of Physicians at Henley-upon-Thames. And he was dignified. He had carriage, he had deportment, and he had a really splendid grey with white check Boleskine tweed three-piece suit. It had the double-breasted flat-bottomed waistcoat with the flap on the watch pocket and everything. Tinker used to wear one in Lovejoy, but his had been in the traditional green with the yellow check.
Dr Steven looked the business. And he was the business. Top of the tree in the field of biochemistry. The icing on the cake of DNA transfer symbiotics. And the ivory mouthpiece on the chromium-plated megaphone of destiny when it came to genetic engineering. He was also very good to his dear little white-haired old mother, a 33° Grand Master in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Sprout and a piercing enthusiast who boasted not only a Prince Albert but a double ampallang and apadravya.
Dr Steven sipped from a glass of liquid ether and gazed at the ranks of students with his cool grey eyes.
“And so,” he said. “What do we learn from these three short stories?”
The students gazed back at him, none, it seemed, inclined to offer comment.
“Come on, someone.” Dr Steven made an encouraging face in profile. By the law of averages, some of the students must have been listening. Some might even have been interested. One might even have got the point.
“Someone? Anyone?” Dr Steven eyed his audience once more. His gaze fell upon a young man with a beard. His name was Paul Mason and he was a first-year student of genetics. Dr Steven pointed. “Mason, what of you?”
The lad’s eyes focused upon his tutor. “Me, sir? Pardon?”
“What do we learn from these three short stories?”
“Not to believe the evidence of our own eyes?”
Dr Steven raised his grey eyebrows and lowered his off-white ears (a trick he had learned in Tibet). Mason’s eyes went blink, blink, blink. “I’m very impressed,” said the doctor. “Would you care to enlarge?”
Mason shook his hirsute head. “I think I’ll get out when I’m winning. If you don’t mind.”
“All right. But just before you do, tell me this: were they true stories?”
“Well, certainly the first one. Because I was the bearded passer-by in that.”
“And the other two?”
“I really couldn’t say.”
Dr Steven lowered his eyebrows and raised his ears once more. “Anybody else? Pushkin, what of you?”
Larry Pushkin, back for yet another year at the taxpayer’s expense and a chap who had as much chance of becoming the next Doctor Who as he had of becoming a medical doctor, was rooting about in his left nostril with a biro. “I’d rather not comment at this time, sir,” he said, in a Dalekian tone. “I think a cockroach has laid its eggs in my nose.”
“Anybody? Anybody at all?”
Those who could be bothered shook their heads. Most just stared on blankly. But then, somewhere near the back of the auditorium, a little hand went up.
“Who’s that back there?” asked Dr Steven.
“It’s me, sir. Molekemp, Harry Molekemp.”
“Why, Molekemp, this is an honour. You are out of your cosy bed somewhat early.”
“Wednesday, sir. The landlady always vacuums my room on a Wednesday.”
“Rotten luck. And so, do you have some erudite comment to make?”
“Yes I do, sir. I don’t believe Mason. You told the shaggy dog story in the first person. If Mason had been the bearded passer-by, you would have known.”
“Very good. Well, at least you were listening.”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t very interested.”
“But you were listening.”
“Oh yeah, I was listening. But only in the hope that there might be some mention of genetic engineering. As that is what this course of lectures is supposed to be about.”
A rumble of mumbles signified that Molekemp was not all alone in this hope.
“Touché,” said the monochrome doctor. “But the stories did have a purpose. What do we really know about our own genetic makeup?”
“We don’t really know much at all, sir. We were hoping that you might enlighten us.”
“And that I was endeavouring to do. Let me briefly summarize. Firstly, the shaggy dog story. Here we have a mythic archetype. Cerberus, several-headed canine guardian of the Underworld. Ancient belief, brought fleetingly into a modern day setting. Of course, Mason was lying. The story was not true. It was a shaggy dog story with a twist in its tail. But think archetype, if you will. Think of old gods and old belief systems. Think of THE BIG IDEA, which existed in the beginning and from which all ideas come. I will return to this.
“Secondly we have the ghost story. The present-day scientists are studying the ghosts of the past. They can’t actually see them, but they think perhaps they might be able to hear them, to sense them. But then we discover that the scientists themselves are not of the present day. That they too are ghosts, mere shades and shadows. And the story could continue endlessly. The tramps turn out to be ghosts, witnessed by others who turn out to be ghosts and so on and so forth.
“So think here, the march of science, half-truth superseding half-truth superseding half-truth, on and on and on, towards what? Ultimate discovery? Ultimate revelation? Are you following any of this, Molekemp?”
“I suppose so, sir.”
“Jolly good. Third story. The fairy tale. The Old Pete character knows of the existence of fairies, he can see them with his own two eyes. But he cannot admit this to his friend who has just told him that only people with child-like minds can see fairies. Tricky dichotomy there, and one that cannot be resolved. The Old Pete character’s observation of the fairies is purely subjective. He may be a dullard, or he may be a visionary. And we all know how the scientific fraternity loves to mock the visionary. Science demands a provable hypothesis, repeatable experiments, double-blind testing and the seal of approval by those in authority. How well would fairies fare?”
Molekemp’s hand was once more in the air. “Surely this is all somewhat circuitous, sir,” he said. “Fascinating though it is, or, as far as I’m concerned, is not.”
Dr Steven shook his head. “I felt that the stories had a certain elegance,” he said, “and this too I wished to touch upon. Science holds elegance to be something worthy of veneration. The poetry of mathematics, always in stanzas rather than blank verse. The beauty of the models science creates to convey what can never truly be understood. The pigeon-holing of reason. The belief that one thing should actually balance another.”
“I’m lost again,” said Molekemp.
“Then you are a twat,” said Dr Steven, “and I shall waste no more time upon philosophical concepts.” He turned to the blackboard and chalked up the letters DNA. “So,” said he, “DNA. Deoxyribonucleic acid, the main constituent of the chromosomes from which we are composed. The DNA molecule consists of two polynucleotide chains, in the form of a double helix, which contain…”
Somewhere in the distance a bell rang, and as if in silent tribute to Pavlov (whose lectures were apparently a howl a minute) the students gathered together their belongings and left the auditorium.
Dr Steven Malone stood alone before his black-board. Top of the tree, icing on the cake and ivory mouthpiece he might have been, but communicator of wisdom to the young and impressionable he was not. He was a visionary and he had glimpsed THE BIG IDEA, but getting this across to his students was proving tricky.
He had been leading up to his conviction that present-day scientists in the field of genetics (that field with the big tree in the middle on which perched Dr Steven Malone) went about things in all the wrong ways. They were obsessed with the study of present-day man’s DNA, in order to discover its secrets.
But the secrets did not lie in the DNA of present-day man. Present-day man was a genetic mutation, an evolutionary development. In order to learn the secrets of DNA you had to study it in its original form – the form that had existed in the very beginning. You would have to study the DNA of Adam and Eve. Or even go one better than that. God created man in his own image, so the DNA prototype was to be found in God himself.
But how could anyone study the DNA of God?
And what might you find if you did?
These were the thoughts that obsessed Dr Steven Malone, that had driven him into the field of genetics in the first place, and would drive him to his inevitable and devastating downfall.
But his downfall was still some months away.
Some years away, in fact, or even centuries, depending on just where you happened to be in time. So be it only said that Dr Steven had a plan. It was a brave plan and a bold one. It was daring; it was dire. And had it not already been given away on the cover of this book, it would have come as one hell of a surprise to the reader.
But such is the way of it, and so we must leave Dr Steven Malone for the present. A noble figure, all in black and white, still bearing an uncanny resemblance to Mr Sidney Paget’s renderings of Sherlock Holmes.
Dr Steven stands in profile and points to something off the page.