The Lucids of the Permafrost Society
Michael D. Britton
* * * *
If you believe everything you read on the internet, you might as well quit reading.
That’s what my cousin Galton always says.
At least, that’s what he used to say, before he went stark raving mad aboard the frozen yacht of doom.
On our way to the north pole.
Where the Lucids lived.
And where I was changed forever.
You’d probably like Galton. A real whiz kid – got his doctorate at age twenty, then went on to work in Silicon Valley on some kind of top secret project he loved telling me nothing about.
Meanwhile, I was spinning my wheels at the illustrious Community College of San Mateo – living in a chronically smelly studio apartment in Redwood City, while he was busy moving into a new luxury home in the lofty heights of Hillsborough.
We grew up together, real tight, Galton and me.
Until he started skipping grades.
We remained pretty close, but we started moving in different circles – since I’m twenty-seven and still in school, and he’s working with Nobel laureates.
Hard to believe we share some of the same genes – me the dreamer, and him the doer.
As a Renaissance man, I saw no need to tie myself down to one single career path for the rest of my life. So, I explored the possibilities. For several years.
One day last winter, I was exploring the possibilities with a swim-team sophomore named Cindy when Galton busted into my place without warning.
“Dude!” I said, scrambling off the couch as Cindy smoothed her blond hair back into a pony tail, trying to look innocent.
“Don’t dude me, Alex,” he said, plopping into the armchair opposite me and opening the cover on his iPad. “You need to see this.”
“Sorry, Cindy,” I said, as she seemed to recognize she was invisible to Galton, and that Galton was now the official center of the room and the universe.
She touched my face and said, “Call me later,” before walking out.
“Thanks a lot, Galton,” I said after the door closed. “I was actually getting somewhere.”
“Alex,” Galton said without looking up from his iPad, “admit it, you’re not getting anywhere.” He sniffed the air with a look of mild disgust. “Does it smell weird in here?”
“Always. What do you want, Galt?”
He flicked at the iPad screen a few times with his bony index finger then said, “Check this out.”
I moved around behind him and looked over his shoulder. “What?”
“I was doing some research on my project -”
“The one you won’t tell me anything about?”
“That’s the one. But I’m about to tell you something now – and you need to listen very carefully, Alex. With an open mind.”
I hated it whenever Galton told me to have an open mind. It always meant he was about to try to convince me of something utterly preposterous – like the time he told me that there was a battalion of human clones the army was training in a giant facility under the Appalachians, or when he tried to get me to believe that Stanford University had developed a rudimentary teleporter that could send objects around the world in an instant.
“Okay, I’m listening. Oh,” I said, pretending to flick a switch on the side of my head, “and now my mind is open. Proceed.”
Galton just rolled his eyes and said, “Have you ever heard of the HMS Alert? Of course you haven’t. She was a ship, back in the late eighteen hundreds. Ran some expeditions to the Arctic.”
He showed me an image of the vessel – looked like any other old fashioned boat I’d seen pictures of. “Okay,” I said, waiting for him to get to the point.
“I’ve been studying the journal of one of our ancestors – actually, he was your great-great-grandfather, on your mother’s side. Not really my ancestor, but we are related. Found it online at a genealogy website. Anyway, I have circumstantial evidence that suggests that this vessel was actually a supply ship used by a top secret colony of genetically modified humans.”
“What? Okay, mind just snapped shut, man. No way they were splicing genes in the eighteen hundreds.”
“That’s where you’re wrong – sort of. They may not have had the technology to effect major changes at the genetic level, but it was the era of the birth of eugenics – a time when people were starting to recognize that we could manipulate our heredity to improve the species. Darwin was all the rage, and folks like George Bernard Shaw were starting to form strong opinions about how to manage the human race.”
“Okay, so why a secret base at the North Pole? And what exactly were they doing up there – creating super-humans?”
“That’s what we’re going to find out.”
“We are? How, exactly? Next you’ll tell me that Berkeley’s Science Department has a time machine in their basement.”
“Don’t be an idiot. Time travel is impossible. No – I have a practical idea – a plan.” He closed the cover of his iPad and looked me in the eye. “I’ve chartered a vessel. To take us there.”
I leaned in toward him. “To the North Pole? Are you crazy?”
“Come on. We’re leaving at six o’clock tonight. You’ll want to pack a toothbrush. Bring your laptop, some snacks. I’ve got all the cold weather clothing and other gear taken care of.” He stood up, while I just sat there dumbfounded. “Chop, chop, Cuz. We’ve got a boat to catch.”
Galton’s charter boat was anchored at a place called Iqaluit. That’s one of the northernmost coastal towns in North America. We caught a flight to Iqaluit, where we boarded a yacht-like vessel called Labrador Sojourn, and floated off into the icy northern waters – to what felt like the edge of the earth.
Several long days and restless nights passed as we meandered up the Northwestern Passages through freezing waterways, gliding past huge icebergs in a world of white and gray. Labrador Sojourn was far more than a mere yacht – it turned out it was specially-retrofitted for arctic exploring, including all kinds of thermal insulation, reinforced hull, extra ropes and hooks, and an ice-breaking bow extension.
Galton said little to me for most of the journey. He had retreated to his cabin and only came out to get food, which he brought back to the room with him. He answered most of my questions with, “You’ll see.” Others, he simply ignored. I noticed he’d quit shaving, and was starting to look pretty rustic.
I was beginning to wonder why he had bothered to ask me along. It certainly wasn’t for my company. I was glad I had my laptop, and decided to write about the experience, since my major this semester was English Lit.
The skeleton crew of Labrador Sojourn was even less talkative than Galton. I counted four men – each a silent, burly, hairy guy – except for the captain, Stan Wells, who was tall and skinny as a harpoon. I rarely saw any of these mariners, and when I did, I got the feeling they stayed at sea to avoid prosecution for – whatever.
As we approached the top of the world, the nights got longer, until everything began to appear as one long, gray twilight. Looking at the so-called scenery became pointless.
And the nearer we got to our remote destination, the weirder my dreams got.
It started the first night – I figured it was just the constant movement of the ship affecting my subconscious. But it continued, and got worse.
By the eighth day, it seemed like I was dreaming all night long, and always waking up in the morning with a huge headache.
Swimming dreams, flying dreams, chasing dreams. Dreams set in the past, dreams set in the future. Dreams of my deceased parents. Dreams with chilling realism that took place in my childhood home.
All of them filled with a sense of conflict, foreboding and mystery.
One morning, exhausted from my night’s surreal adventures, I knocked on Galton’s door.
A fully-bearded man poked his head out.
“Uh, you look terrible, man. You okay?”
He didn’t open the door any further – just his shaggy head of black, unwashed hair stuck out, his dark brown eyes unfocused. He blinked hard. “Yeah, I’m fine. What’s up?”
“I hate to ask, but – are we there yet?”
“Captain says we’ll be there later today, if all goes well.”
I sighed. “Great. Will you let me in? I really need to talk.”
Reluctantly, Galton stepped back and let me into his cabin.
The place was a sty. Four computers lined one wall. Papers were everywhere, empty dishes and cups stacked high on the table. And it smelled like feet.
“What have you been doing in here?”
He chuckled hoarsely. “Obsessing. Obsessing, Alex.”
He licked his lips and shivered. Scratched at his head and looked at his piles of papers. Then chuckled again. An eerie, slightly maniacal sort of laugh. “The details, Alex. The very specific details of how to migrate genetic coding from one host to a related host.”
I shook my head and looked at the dark bags under his eyes. “Have you even been sleeping?”
“Sure.” He flopped down in a chocolate brown microfiber armchair. “I slept the first three nights.”
“You haven’t slept for six days?”
He gazed upward. “No, no – that’s wrong. It’s only been five days.”
“Are you on drugs?”
“Not yet.” He grinned for a moment. “I’ve developed something, though. It contains a special neural inhibitor that actually allows the main active ingredient to do its work. It’s ingenious, really.”
“What are you talking about?”
He picked up a small white pill from the table beside him. “This. It will allow me to successfully integrate the extracted DNA base pairs into my own. With none of the adverse side effects.”
“What extracted DNA?”
“So many questions, cousin.”
He closed his eyes and rested his head back in the cushioned chair. He raised his arm and pointed to the computer on the left. “Read it for yourself.”
I sat at the computer and looked at the open file – a scanned image of yellowed handwritten pages. I started reading. “Who is this crazy guy?” I asked after a few pages.
But Galton was snoring.
I read on, and soon realized it was the journal of my great great-grandfather, James O’Fallin. Apparently, he was part of this super-secret eugenics colony in the arctic. They started out in 1884 with basic human breeding, in short generations. By the late 1920s they had developed more scientific methods – and with funding from unnamed powerful sources, they started doing to humans what was later done to tomatoes: improvement through a sort of forced evolution.
Although pretty weird, I didn’t find any of this particularly startling or unbelievable. And I didn’t see much harm in it, to tell the truth.
But then I got to the last few journal entries.
Great Grampy O’Fallin was part of a special test group. And so were his offspring – and their offspring. With each successive generation, the desired genetic trait was strengthened and refined.
And the results were a shocking awakening to me.
Finding the abandoned outpost was way too easy for my liking.
“Are you sure this is it?” I yelled to Galton through the howling wind.
Our bright handheld spotlights illuminated two stark spheres in the blackness that was digesting us, and those discs of light were cross-hatched with blurred lines of driving snow that seemed to glow in the light.
The only feature of this alien landscape was what looked like a large concrete outhouse with a steel door.
“Yes!” Galton called back. “This is the place.”
He stepped up to the door and then did something that amazed me. He slid open a small access panel in the door frame and punched in a nine digit code with his gloved hand.
The door made a single deep, metallic thumping sound, and Galton then grasped the knob and pushed it open.
Dim light spilled from within, silhouetting Galton in his chunky cold-weather gear.
“How did you know?” I called to him, but he was already stepping inside.
I trudged in behind him and he shut the door, tapping a matching panel on the interior to relock it. We shut our lanterns off, as the inside of this place was lit with thin glowing rods in the ceiling.
The only feature, other than the door panel, was a stairway that led steeply downward.
I repeated my question. “How did you know the code?”
“Research, Alex. Research.”
“So you knew this place was not just some relic from the twenties?”
“Come on,” he said, heading down the steps, his puffy Gore-Tex jacket and bib sliding noisily against each other as he went.
This was all too weird. He didn’t seem the least bit concerned about running into whoever it was that was maintaining this facility.
“I think it’s time you started telling me what you know,” I said, as we descended into the bowels of what must have been a vast underground complex.
“Alex, I know lots of things – much of it you just wouldn’t understand.”
We reached the bottom of the stairs, and I grabbed his shoulder, spun him around, and gripped him on each side of the head with my gloved hands. “I’m serious! No more games. What is going on here?”
“Right now? I’m sure they’re sleeping.”
Galton sighed heavily, as if dealing with a frustrating two year old who keeps asking “why.”
“Okay – history in a nutshell. First, you had the original proto-geneticists – the guys who set this place up. They were smart, well-funded, and driven to build a better world from the better humans they were intent on creating. But they lacked technology.
“Then you had the next couple of generations, and they quickly grew up to be much, much smarter – and much more driven. They had even more money – and they also started bringing in technology. Some of the world’s greatest minds contributed to the Permafrost Society.”
“Permafrost Society?” I asked.
“That’s what they call it – what this place is.” Frost glistened on his beard, and his eyes seemed full of fire. Our conversation seemed to be carried on the puffs of white breath that escaped our mouths.
“So then what happened?”
“There were a few special research groups – different areas of human excellence the Society wanted to develop. Everything from better mathematicians, to those with great physical endurance – even some who were bred to withstand the harsh environment up there on the surface. Others had super-memories, or even telekinesis.
“But the ones who emerged as the leaders – the ones who seemed to have the greatest capacity for intelligence and personal development – were the Lucids.”
I caught my breath. “I read about them in the journal. I’m – I’m descended from them.”
“Yes, you are.”
He turned and started down a long corridor that led off into darkness.
“So where are we going? What are we doing here?” I shuffled quickly to catch up. “I thought you said we were coming here to discover the truth about this place – but it sounds like you already know.”
He said nothing, but led me through a labyrinth of hallways until we reached a set of unmarked double doors.
I was getting warm from the brisk pace, and pulled my hood down and slipped my gloves off. Galton did the same, then opened another hidden access panel and keyed in the entry code. The doors unlocked, and we entered.
“You sure you’ve never been here before?” I asked.
“I never said otherwise.”
“Wait! You – ”
My words fell to the floor, just ahead of my jaw.
Before me was row upon row of hospital beds, hundreds of them – a huge infirmary. Upon each lay a sleeping individual, hooked up with sensors and tubes to identical equipment stands that seemed to be monitoring their health and feeding them nutrients.
It was quiet as a morgue – no beeping from the equipment, as you might hear in a hospital.
“These,” said Galton with a slow sweep of his arm, “are the Lucids of the Permafrost Society.”
I slowly walked from row to row, staring at the slumbering super-humans.
When I’d read the tail end of James O’Fallin’s journal, I didn’t fully believe it.
But now it was shockingly real.
“So, all of these people – they’re – ”
“Lucid dreaming,” Galton finished. “But not just any lucid dreaming. They’ve been genetically engineered to take the concept to a whole new level – beyond merely being able to control their dreams. They feel fully awake – alive and real. And they are all interconnected at the subconscious level. It’s such an amazing reality – they never bother to wake up – at least not this latest generation – they’re the first of the full-time sleepers.”
I stared at the Lucids, trying to wrap my head around it. “But how can it be fulfilling to spend your whole life asleep?”
“That’s the beauty of it. It’s not just a seventy or eighty year life,” said Galton, strolling among the comatose. “Sure, their bodies only live that long. But inside – in their reality – they are immortal. Time passes at an infinitely slow rate according to their perception. They’ve chosen a life that never ends – with endless possibilities. They can do whatever they want, be whatever they desire. It’s a paradise, for them.”
Galton sounded wistful – almost jealous. Which brought my thoughts back to the purpose of our visit. “So, why are you showing me this? Why did you bring me here? And what was all that stuff you were babbling about on the boat – about DNA and the little white pill?”
“Well, you see – there’s one empty bed – right over there,” said Galton, pointing to the far corner of the giant sleep chamber. “And it’s mine.”
“You’re a Lucid?” I asked, dumbfounded.
“No. Not yet. But you’re going to help me become one.” He stepped toward me, his face dark.
I backed up. “How?”
“You have a recessive gene. Your father – my father’s brother – was not a Lucid. He was a supply ship captain who lured your mother away from this place and condemned her to a life of normalcy – of mediocrity. They had you, and when you were thirteen, they were killed.”
“In the car accident.”
“It was no accident, Alex. They were punished for your mother’s defection from the Society. You were spared according to the Society’s own laws.”
My stomach lurched. I couldn’t believe Mom and Dad had been murdered. My knees buckled a little, but I stayed on my feet. “How do you know all this?”
“I’ve made it my life’s work.” His eyes widened, and his voice was breathy. “I want what these people have, Alex. What Aunty Margaret gave up for the foolishness of love. I want the immortality and omnipotence afforded by the eternal living sleep of the Lucids. You could say, I’ve always dreamed of this moment.”
He suddenly lunged at me and wrapped his strong, bony hands around my neck before I could even move away.
“What are you doing?” I choked, grasping at his wrists and pushing back on him. “I can’t – breathe.”
“I need to take out your cerebral cortex – while you’re conscious,” he grunted, forcing me against the wall. “I’m sorry, Alex, but you won’t survive the procedure.”
He brought me down to the ground with all his weight, and pulled a scalpel out of his pocket. He shoved my head sideways.
I pushed back at him as hard as I could, but he was freakishly strong.
“I solved the riddle,” he panted. “I mastered the pill, and now all I need is your cortex and the equipment in this facility to be able to take the gift you’ve inherited and migrate it to my own biology. You never even used your gift. Probably never even realized you were – special.”
He brought the razor sharp blade down on the soft spot at the base of my skull and started to slice into my flesh.
“Arrgh!” I screamed.
I suddenly felt Galton rise off my body.
He was being pulled away. Two men in blue jumpsuits hoisted him up, disarmed him, and restrained him.
“No!” he yelled. “What are you doing?”
A third man, wearing an expensive looking black suit, stepped toward me from behind the bouncers and spoke in a clear, calm voice. “Hello, Alex. Welcome home.”
I rubbed at the cut at the back of my head and sat up. “Home? Who are you?”
“I’m Charles Keynes,” he said with his mild British accent. “I’m the current Waking Executive of the Permafrost Society.”
“Why did you say welcome home?”
“You were born here. Your mother took you away when you were only three months old. Ran off with a Standard. We’re glad you’re back. You may only be half-blood, but you are still very much one of us.”
“I don’t understand. How did Galton know about this place?”
“We hired him. To bring you back. He was under the mistaken impression that we only wanted your brain tissue – and that he could have some of it in exchange for bringing you here. But he’s just a foolish, somewhat insane Standard. A useful tool, though.”
I looked at Galton, who was struggling in futility against the grip of the very large men, his eyes bulging in anger. “What are you going to do with him?”
“Don’t worry – he’ll be put to good use.” Keynes nodded and the thugs dragged my cousin away. I could still hear him yelling and screaming long after the double doors were shut.
“What do you want from me?” I asked, a whole-body shiver passing over me as a result of the ordeal.
“Nothing. You’re free to go. But you must sleep on it.”
“I want you to go lay down in that bed over there in the corner. And I want you to go to sleep. Just for the night. If, in the morning, you still want to leave – to return to your hopelessly banal existence – no one will stop you.”
“What’s the catch? How do you know I won’t blab to the world about this place and the weird secret organization you’ve got up here?”
I took a deep breath and started to calm down. Something about the dim green lighting in the room was comforting, despite the bizarre nature of it all.
“Fine. I’ll sleep on it. Besides, I’m exhausted,” I said, breaking into a yawn. I looked at the blood on my hand and touched the back of my head again. “You got a Band-Aid or something?”
Keynes called for a nurse who didn’t speak the whole time she treated me.
After that, I was “tucked in” by Keynes, who smirked as he said, “Pleasant dreams, Alex.”
And then, rather quickly, I fell into a deep, incredibly surreal sleep.
© 2012 Michael D. Britton/Intelligent Life Books
All rights reserved.
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