The Empire of Corpses

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Empire of Corpses

屍者の帝国 (Shisha no teikoku) by Project Itoh & Toh EnJoe

Prologue

 I should begin by explaining my profession. And for that, we shall require a corpse.
    The faint, malodorous scent struck me the moment I stepped into the lecture hall. Already I had my handkerchief pressed over my nose. I was fairly certain of its origin—this was no commonplace classroom smell. It was the stench of death.
    An autopsy table rested on stout legs in the center of the octagonal hall. Beside the table stood Professor Seward, a gas stove, and another low table cluttered with instruments of the curious and complicated variety. Accompanied by my friend, Wakefield, I found a seat in one of the chairs that sat in a smaller octagon around the table. There we waited for the rest of the students to shuffle in.
    “I wonder who that was,” Wakefield whispered, pointing at the lumpy white sheet over the autopsy table. The other students arrived in silence, their attention held rapt by the body. Upon seeing that everyone had assembled, the professor took out an old lucifer, lit it on the corner of the table, and put it to the stove. The smell of coal gas and phosphorous mingled with the scent of death. The professor cleared his throat, and the lecture began.
    “The first thing I would like you all to know is that the cadaver we are to use today is clean. I am sure you’ve all heard of the scandal over in Cambridge, but I would like to assure you that such goings-on would never be allowed at London University.”
  “Bravo,” Wakefield said with a chuckle, but a glare from the professor set him wilting back in his seat like a frightened hare. Inwardly, I sighed. His churlish behavior reflected poorly upon me. I knew the professor’s eyes were already on me, and I didn’t want to lose his trust. I gave my friend a jab in the arm. Keep it down, you fool. Wakefield shrugged.

I

To tell the truth, I shared in his mirth at our professor’s overbearing sincerity. The body-snatcher incident had been covered by the press, from the hallowed pages of the Times down to the one-penny Daily Telegraph, each recounting the story of a certain unnamed professor at Cambridge who had purchased cadavers on the black market to use in his research. With the continuing shortage of good cadavers, there were doubtlessly many in the field who sympathized with the man. It would not be an overstatement to say that our free economy has advanced upon the backs of cadavers, yet there is a limit to the number of viable dead, and priests have more to do with their days than sit around stamping their seals on dispensations for the reuse of cadavers.

   “There was an article in the Daily Telegraph yesterday,” Wakefield whispered.
   “What is it now?” I snapped back.
   “A widow was walking through Piccadilly, when she saw her husband, dead several days past, leading an omnibus. She thought he was cold in his grave!”
   “Frankensteined without permission prior to death, was it?”
   “Precisely. The Lord Mayor threw a regular fit in the press. Went on about Britain’s dead resting in anything but peace.”
   “That bad?”
   Wakefield leaned closer. “According to the Yard, the number of people arrested for body-snatching is already nearly twice last year’s figures.”
   I sighed. The need for corpses was pressing, but one could neither till more farmland to increase the harvest, nor breed more milk cows as if it were as simple as making butter.      Failing a sudden plague, the count of the dead Her Majesty’s subjects could produce was a finite, immutable number.
   “Some graveyards have taken to posting a night watch,” Wakefield said, shuddering for effect. “I’ll pass on that job, thank you very much.”
   “Afraid of specters? You?”
   Wakefield shook his head. “Spectral essences are within the realm of science. It’s the vampires and werewolves I fear.”
   “Your innocence is charming sometimes, you know that.”
   “Mr. Wakefield!” came our professor’s raised voice. Wakefield and I froze in our chairs. Professor Seward was pointing his stick at each of us in turn. “If you have something to add to this discussion, I’d ask you to step out in front of the class and share it with everyone. Something about spectral essences, was it?”
   “No sir, Professor, sir,” Wakefield stammered.
   “Then let us begin,” Professor Seward said, pulling the white canvas off of the table in one smooth motion. The cadaver was clean—a perfect specimen, without so much as a blemish on the skin. The deceased looked to be somewhere in his mid-thirties. An absence of visible wounds suggested death by disease.
   There’s a certain cruel beauty to a body from which the spectral essence—the candle flame of life—has fled. Human when alive, a thing when dead. It’s not quite so simple a dichotomy as that, yet, in particular with this sort of cadaver without any injuries, their beauty is remarkable. It’s as though, when they’re alive, their very life hides it, that beauty of a functioning structure, of a delicate piece of machinery constructed from bones and intertwining tendons, the beauty of an “object” laid bare.
   “Mr. Watson,” the professor said, “tell us, what is it that separates the living from the dead?”
   “The presence of the spectral essence, or lack thereof,” I recited from rote.
   “The spectral essence, correct. Or, what in common parlance is called the ‘soul.’ Experiments have shown that when a human being dies, their total body weight is reduced by 0.75 ounces, or twenty-one grams. The weight of this spectral essence.”
   The professor used his stick to indicate the cadaver’s cleanly shaven skull. On the exposed skin had been drawn phrenological lines—a Gall map, indicating the function of various parts of the brain lying beneath, with a long metal needle inserted into each section. The needles were in turn connected to cords, a bundle of which led to a particularly devilish piece of machinery—the spectral encrypter and the Leclanché cells that powered it—that would, in effect, scribe a false soul into the dead man’s brain.
   “Today, we are fortunate to receive a visit from one of the world’s foremost experts on spectral essences, direct from the University of Amsterdam, and my former mentor. I have no doubt that his insights will stimulate your intellect and provide you with knowledge invaluable in your future careers—if you would, Professor?”
   “Thank you, Jack,” came a voice from outside the lecture hall. In strode a gentleman of stout build. He looked to be around sixty years of age. Though he wore a cheerful smile, it ended at his eyes, which shone with a hard light. He walked up to Professor Seward, top hat still on his head, leaning on a stick as he walked. “Introductions are in order,” he said, handing his top hat to the professor before addressing the class. “My name is Van Helsing, Abraham Van Helsing. You may address me as Doctor.”
   “The vampire expert? I’d no idea he was Seward’s mentor,” Wakefield whispered excitedly in my ear.
   I shook my head. “Dr. Van Helsing was doing research on a body of folklore, that’s all. ‘Vampire expert,’ indeed. You read far too many of those gossip papers.” 
   Professor Seward glared at the two of us and cleared his throat. I gave Wakefield another resentful jab in the ribs.
   “It is with great humility that I received my position as professor emeritus at the University of Amsterdam. Though it appears that some are under the impression that my expertise is in vampires or other such fanciful things”—the class chuckled politely—“my true specialty is, in fact, psychology. A field which, as you well know, includes the study of spectral essences. My research into vampire legends was something of a personal hobby, nothing more. Now then—” Dr. Van Helsing gave the cadaver’s diagrammed head a noisy rap with his knuckles. “The gray matter, that is the brain tissue, contained within this skull is currently empty. A blank slate, bearing no trace of spectral essence. As we have just heard, the spectral essence leaves the body upon death, but who was it who discovered that this spectral essence is, in fact, the basis for effecting life?”
   Perhaps taking a cue from Professor Seward, Dr. Van Helsing’s stick pointed directly at Wakefield. I saw him tense in his chair, and admittedly, I was pleased to see his brain working furiously in an attempt to come up with the answer.
   “Ah, um, Dr. Frankenstein?”
   “A common answer, but not one I would expect from a student enrolled in a prestigious medical school such as this.”
   Wakefield’s face went bright red. Just deserts, I thought, but I wasn’t entirely without sympathy. I raised my hand.
   “All right, you there next to him—what might your name be?”
   “Watson,” I calmly replied. “John H. Watson.” I continued, “I believe the conceptual basis for the spectral essence can be traced back to Dr. Mesmer’s research in the last century, specifically his theory of animal magnetism. He was the first to propose something of this kind, even before Dr. Frankenstein gave birth to his first creature.”
   “Quite right,” Dr. Van Helsing said. “Jack, am I right in assuming that Mr. Watson here is something of a star pupil?”
   I felt a stirring in my chest at the praise. Though it did feel somewhat narcissistic to revel in profit gained from a friend’s failure, it wouldn’t stand to have the professor go on thinking that all the students at our university were of the same caliber as Wakefield.
   “Since antiquity, there have been numerous attempts to explain the soul in scientific terms. These eventually resulted in the concept of the spectral essence as we know it today, yet along the way there was another theory, that of animal magnetism. In fact, if one takes the time to go through what remains of Dr. Frankenstein’s research at the University of Ingolstadt, it becomes quite evident that the doctor had an excellent grasp on Dr. Mesmer’s theories, and, in fact, it is commonly accepted amongst historians of science that Dr. Frankenstein’s inspiration came more or less directly from his inquiries into animal magnetism.”
   The other students began taking notes. I hurriedly withdrew my notebook from my valise and began trying to catch up with Dr. Van Helsing’s rapid stream of words.
   “Animal magnetism, or mesmerism, as we sometimes call it in honor of its champion, was nothing other than the life force that flowed, via many thousands of separate channels, through the bodies of all living creatures. Though this differs from the understanding of modern science, in which the spectral essence is chiefly responsible for creating this aspect, this pattern, this manifestation within the human brain, regardless, it was only because Dr. Frankenstein took this basic concept of animal magnetism and built upon it through his research at Ingolstadt, that he was at last able to arrive at the theory of spectral essence, and the revolutionary idea which followed: namely, that one could place a pseudo-essence into the brain of a body which had lost its original spectral essence.”
   “But the theory of animal magnetism was disproven,” I noted aloud.
   “Indeed it was.” Dr. Van Helsing nodded. “Jack, you never told me you had such gifted students at your university.”
   Professor Seward smiled, the very image of a proud mentor.
   “In 1784, King Louis XVI formed an academy of science to further explore the theory of animal magnetism, resulting in the theory being disproven. There just wasn’t enough clinical research at the time to support it. It was Dr. Frankenstein’s success in making his first creature some years later that paved the way for an eventual reevaluation of Dr. Mesmer’s work as a critical step toward the realization of spectral essence theory—but enough of that. Why don’t we try installing a pseudo-essence into this body?”
   Professor Seward placed a series of punch cards in the encrypter’s card reader. I knew from an earlier lecture that the punch cards contained the latest standard model devised at Cambridge’s spectral analysis laboratory, purportedly the most stable version used in animating the dead. It was the result of multiple tests at the university’s analysis facilities, simulating the activity of various spectral essences over and over until they got it right. Cards in place, Dr. Van Helsing lifted the lever on the side of the machine, and the device began to read the spectral model encoded on the punch cards, while pulses of electricity from the Leclanché cells traveled through the cords and into the needles inserted into the skull, writing the shape of the essence onto the brain within.
   “It is thanks to the invention of the Leclanché cells that we were able to maintain the steady current required for this operation,” the doctor explained as precisely measured jolts of current worked to inscribe the artificial soul into the body. “In my younger days, steady current was something of a holy grail. Now, Mr. Watson, I don’t suppose you know how these cells work?”
   “They are batteries, with a positive pole consisting of a mixture of carbon and manganese dioxide, a negative pole coated in zinc, and ammonium chloride used for the electrolyte solution,” I answered without hesitation.
   The doctor nodded. “You know your chemistry as well! Batteries were still a new invention when Dr. Frankenstein was doing his work. It was in 1791 when Galvani invented the first battery, roughly one hundred years ago. I can only sympathize with the toils the man must’ve endured trying to install a pseudo-essence into the dead with such a weak, unstable current—speaking of which, Jack, I believe it’s about time.”
   “If you would do the honors, Doctor.”
   Dr. Van Helsing grunted and snapped his fingers by the dead man’s ear. The entire lecture hall held its breath, watching. None of us, including Wakefield and myself, had ever witnessed the moment when a corpse became a Frankenstein. Someone gulped, and I feared I would run out of oxygen before I was permitted to breathe again.
   The dead man’s eyelids snapped open.
   “Ahh!” Wakefield gasped and shot back in his chair. The dead man, too, seemed somewhat startled at the abrupt reversal in his fortunes. His eyes were empty, fixed perhaps on some vision of heaven or hell—whichever his intended destination.
   Just like that, before our very eyes, the dead had risen.
   As though it were the most natural thing in the world.
   Yet, I reminded myself, this was not truly a rebirth. This was merely a cadaver, moving at the instructions of the encrypted pseudo-essence. Still, the sight of something that had lain there one moment devoid of life, and the next in motion, however artificial, pressed an icy dagger against my spine, and it was difficult to suppress the feeling that something which should not have happened, had happened.
   Only a hundred years earlier, through the end of the eighteenth century, it was accepted that once a person’s body died it would not rise again until Judgment Day. But now, clearly, that was not the case. Even in death, the dead were quite busy.
   “The control system we have placed in this body is a perfectly standard, all-purpose Cambridge engine. When a Frankenstein is to be employed in actual work, further modules are customarily installed to meet whatever duties the Frankenstein might be called upon to perform. This might be a carriageman module, a butler module—there are individual specialized modules for all kinds of factory labor as well—Stand!”
   At the doctor’s command, the dead man descended from the autopsy table and stood, straight as a rod and motionless.
   “Through the development of phrenology, in particular the science of craniometry, we have been able to map the functions of the brain with a high degree of accuracy, in turn enabling more natural methods for controlling a Frankenstein’s actions. Of course, in terms of appearance and movement, it will probably require another century’s worth of research before we achieve levels indistinguishable from those of the living—Walk.”
   The dead man took a single step forward, his movement devoid of the natural fluidity with which we, the living, move—the so-called “Frankenwalk.” It was not unlike watching someone stride through shallow water.
   An ironic smile came to Dr. Van Helsing’s lips. “It will soon be the centennial of Dr. Frankenstein’s first creature—and you can see all our progress, and lack of it, right here in this specimen. Though military and industrial Frankensteins have spread from England as far as Canada and the colonies in India, the dream of walking dead indistinguishable from the living remains just that: a dream.”
   “I was speaking with a colleague in Copenhagen,” Professor Seward began, turning to Dr. Van Helsing as though he had forgotten the presence of the students. “He had high hopes for a new limb-control system, global entrainment.”
   “Yes, a nonlinear control system, I believe? I’ve heard the rumors. Though apparently it’s quite unsettling to watch. Very similar to the motions of the living, but somehow decisively different—making it all the more macabre.”
   “Yes, the macabre valley.”
   The bell sounded, indicating the end of the lecture, and the two men were shaken from their private conversation.
   Sheepishly, Dr. Van Helsing turned to the class. “My apologies, it appears we became somewhat distracted. What we were discussing was a higher level of spectral essence modeling; I’m sure Seward here will be happy to lecture you on it next time. It was an honor for me to be able to speak before you today.”
   He bowed curtly to polite applause from the class.
   “So the dead really do wake,” Wakefield said as he stood to leave. From the tone of his voice, it sounded as if he were eager to see it again, right then and there. I replaced my notebook into my valise, buttoned my overcoat, and made to exit the hall.
   “Oh, Mr. Watson,” a voice called to me from behind. It was Professor Seward, standing with his guest. Both men were looking in my direction.
   “There is a matter we would like to discuss with you after classes. Drop by the laboratory later on, if you would.”

II

The two professors and I made our way beneath the ashen London skies toward Regent’s Park in silence. We road in a slowly rocking landau, and passed all manner and variety of carriages—here a hansom cab, there a cabriolet, an omnibus, a brougham—at least half guided by the hands of dead carriagemen. Such was the state of the labor market in London those days. As it happened—by luck, or his misfortune—our carriageman counted himself among the living.
   “Where exactly are we headed?” I asked Professor Seward.
   After a long period of silence during which his expression seemed to indicate that he was searching for the right words, he said, “Mr. Watson, do you think of yourself as a patriot?”
   I chose to ignore his breach of etiquette to answer a question with another question, and told him that yes I did fancy myself a “loyal subject of Her Majesty.”
   “Excellent. I’d heard that you had plans to join the Army after graduating from medical school?”
   “Yes. I had assumed I would be going to Netley after graduation, where I would receive training as a military doctor.”
   “Which means you’d likely be sent off to India or Afghanistan. Are you sure you’re prepared for that?”
   “Of course,” I replied, but in truth, I had only a vague conception in my mind of those places. Still, I was committed to the cause, and while I had briefly considered joining the Army as a soldier when the war began, it soon occurred to me that this would be tantamount to tossing into the gutter all I had theretofore studied. As I had chosen the physician’s path, it seemed to me that becoming a military doctor was the most logical choice.
   Professor Seward nodded. “You are the most passionate and gifted of my students, you know. Were you to have said that you wished to join the staff of some large hospital after graduating, I would gladly have written you a letter of recommendation. Yet, I see your patriotic spirit moves you to a higher calling. And in fact, makes you well suited for a particular line of work I had in mind—a mission, suitable only for someone as gifted and as patriotic as you.”
   “Whatever could that be?”
   “It is the occupation in which I find myself presently employed,” Dr. Van Helsing said with a wink. “And one in which, I believe, you might excel. A rather exciting opportunity.”
   Our landau passed through Marylebone, stopping before an old tumbledown building alongside Regent’s Park. The building was gray, and half again as tall as any of the others that huddled up against it. A copper plate that read UNIVERSAL TRADING was set inconspicuously into the wall beside a rather heavy-looking door.
   “A commercial trading company of some sort?”
   “To outward appearances, yes. Let’s go inside, shall we?” Professor Seward opened the door and waved me through. I followed Dr. Van Helsing into the building. We crossed the room to a small reception desk, our shoes making sharp reports on the marble floor. Professor Seward gave his name to the woman seated at the desk and handed over his visiting card, announcing that he had an appointment to see a Mr. M. The woman nodded, took his card, placed it in a small cylinder fashioned out of clear resin, securely fastened the lid, and then inserted it inside a pneumatic tube in the wall behind her. She then closed the airtight hatch, pulled a lever, and there was a sound of compressed air.
   “Just a moment, please.”
   Soon after, there was another sound of compressed air, and the woman reopened the pneumatic tube and withdrew the same cylinder she had placed inside it moments before. Opening it, she produced a piece of note paper.
   “He’s been expecting you,” she announced. “Eighth floor, take the lift.”
   Professor Seward and Dr. Van Helsing proceeded without the slightest hesitation, as if they knew their way through this place well. The empty corridors were uncomfortably winding and complicated, and I quickly lost any sense altogether of where I was in the building. Someone visiting for the first time would be lost in a matter of moments. And yet, there were no guides or floor plans to be seen. “It’s like a maze,” I commented.
   It was Dr. Van Helsing who answered. “Intentionally so, yes.”
   “In heaven’s name what for?”
   “To catch the uninitiated. You can imagine how plainly someone on their first visit here would stand out! Call it a method of architectural identification.”
   Eventually, we arrived at the lift, and with much pulling of levers and opening and closing of doors we soon arrived at the eighth floor. Here, too, Professor Seward and Dr. Van Helsing walked without hesitation, past dead men wearing bright red Army uniforms who stood with Martini-Henry rifles on their shoulders. (The Martini-Henry had taken the place of the Snider as the official rifle of the armed forces some ten years prior.) We came to a door at which Professor Seward gave a knock, and presently a voice from the other side beckoned us in. Professor Seward opened the door and waved us inside.
   A somewhat thin gentleman in his early forties stood from his desk and came over to greet us. “Jack, Abe, it’s been a long time,” he said, shaking both of the men’s hands before turning his attention to me. “Is this our next player in the Great Game?”
   “That is a matter for him to decide,” Professor Seward replied.
   Being the only one in the dark, I had grown increasingly frustrated, and so now, my irritation plain, I let loose with a great flood of questions. “You will excuse my directness, but what is this place? And Professor, who is this man? What is the Great Game? Why have you brought me here?”
   Ignoring my outburst, Dr. Van Helsing asked for a light, pulling a silver cigar case from his waistcoat pocket, from which he took a single cigar and placed it between his lips. The gentleman withdrew a match from his pocket and struck it on his match case.
   “Everything in its due time,” the gentleman said as he put the flame to the doctor’s cigar. “I can’t answer all of your questions at once, can I. Have a seat, and let’s chat.”
   Dr. Van Helsing offered me a chair and so, somewhat moodily, I sat.
   The gentleman took a step back and leaned against the corner of the desk to get a better look at me. “First,” he began, “let me ask you —”
   “Might I have your name?” I said.
   “Excuse me?”
   “Your name,” I repeated, well aware I was being brazen. “What is it?”
   The professors took one look at me in my fit and began to smile merrily. This, of course, only increased my aggravation. The man did not respond, so I asked him again his name. Now he, too, smiled and said, “I am M. That is what they call me here.”
   “And your real name?”
   “You needn’t know that; not yet at any rate. You haven’t the proper clearance, besides. You’ll just have to be patient. Regarding your earlier question, I would ask you: what do you think this place is?”
   “Well,” I said, my temper making me unwilling to state the obvious, “the plate by the door said it was a trading company.”
   M took a step forward and rested his hand lightly upon my shoulder, looking into my eyes as he did so. “We both know that that is not the case.”
   “Perhaps.”
   “I understand your surprise, and I apologize for any undue alarm it has caused you. Yet you are not a child, and I would appreciate it if you would abandon this display of stubbornness.”
   I sighed, looked at each of the three men in turn, and said, “You’re spies. This is some sort of government espionage organization.”
   “And what brought you to that conclusion?”
   “A mazelike design for the building to throw off newcomers suggests a need for secrecy. And you have military Frankensteins for security. A trading company would have no need for the Army, and the Frankensteins provide a further benefit in that, unlike human guards, they can be trusted not to reveal anything they might overhear.”
   “Excellent observations. I should introduce you to my younger brother.”
   “Excuse me, sir, your brother?”
   “One of our consulting detectives—it’s not nepotism, I assure you, he’s quite talented. Though I’m afraid we have far too little work for him. So his fate is to while away his days at the library and squat in that place down on Montague—but I digress,” M said, coming over to stand next to me. “We are an espionage organization in service to Her Majesty the Queen. Though officially we belong to the Foreign Office, we answer directly to the Prime Minister. Few even in the government know our name.”
   “The Walsingham Ring,” Dr. Van Helsing said from behind my back. “After Sir Francis Walsingham. You do know of Sir Francis, yes?”
   “Spymaster to Queen Elizabeth I,” I said without taking my eyes off of M. “He exposed two plots to assassinate the Queen and established a network of spies throughout Europe.”
   “That is true,” Dr. Van Helsing said, giving his lips a smack as he removed his cigar from his mouth. “As it is true that I am one such spy.” He walked over to stand in front of me. “I occasionally travel the Continent tracking down folktales, vampire legends and the sort—as far east as Romania in my research on Vlad the Impaler. In the name of this research—I do, in fact, perform some research—I travel at my university’s expense, and at the same time, draw up military maps of Eastern Europe for Britain, and make inquiries as to Russia’s intent in the region.”
   “It is a fact that the Russian Empire is continuing its plan of expansion,” M joined in. “On two fronts: West, into Eastern Europe, and South, into Central Asia. The Crimean War served to cauterize their western advance, and ever since that conflict we have sent several gifted individuals, such as Dr. Van Helsing here, into Eastern Europe, where they have formed a spy network, a web of sorts, to catch the Russians’ every move. We cannot afford any lapse in vigilance—the Czar’s secret police are everywhere. And as for Russia’s southern advance, well, I hardly need tell you about the current situation in Afghanistan.”

(Translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith)