a novella by benjamin kerstein

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


Patient Zero had disappeared from the public stage following his initial brush with fame. Under the spotlight he had always emphasized his desire to embrace the miracle of normalcy. His celebrity was a temporary state of affairs, undertaken in the cause of Valintism. Soon to be abandoned once the new revelation had taken hold.

He was true to his word. After a year of whirlwind publicity and worldwide fascination, he vanished.

He did not vanish. He vanished in the historical sense. He dropped out. He became a normal American citizen. He married Julia Menken, founder and president of his fan club, and took up residence in a northern New Jersey suburb. He went to night school, where he excelled, and received a degree in business administration. He was licensed as a CPA. He and his new wife eventually had two children. A boy named Derek and a girl named Valint. She was mercifully referred to as Val. The young family bought a two story house on a tree lined street in a town of identical two story houses and tree lined streets. He worked for the local bank. Julia became a homemaker who dabbled in real estate. The children went to public school. They owned a German shepherd. The occasional request for a follow up interview was always turned down. Nothing disturbed Patient Zero’s normality. Perhaps the most hard-earned normality in human history.

The police were called at 7:55 am on Tuesday, December 12. As is normally the case, the neighbors complained of an unpleasant smell.

They found the door unlocked and the front parlor deserted. Patient Zero was discovered sitting on his living room sofa watching daytime television. The German shepherd lay next to him. Its head lay on a frying pan in the kitchen. White neck bones were visible through the ragged flesh.

Julia was also in the kitchen. Her skull was shattered on the left side by several blows from a blunt object. The blunt object was an aluminum bat. It was resting against the stove. It was streaked with blood and white matter. On which a cloud of flies were feeding.

Derek was upstairs in his bed. The blanket and been pulled down and the boy’s chest ripped open. Apparently with bare hands. The heart had been removed. It was never found. The police concluded that his father had ingested the organ.

Valint was in the bathroom. She had been drowned in six inches of water in the bathtub. Except for the inevitable bloating and discoloration her body was undamaged.

The murderer himself was singularly disturbing. He denied nothing. He answered all questions with impressive precision. As he did so, the true horror began to reveal itself.

Pateient Zero had never graduated night school, despite his obvious intelligence. His CPA license was acquired through forged papers and hacking into the municipal computer system. In the days following his arrest, the bank where he worked began to untangle the astoundingly complicated web of thievery and embezzlement woven by their star employee over the course of half a decade. The sum of 3.5 million dollars was eventually recovered. Investigators estimated that this likely amounted to less than one third of the actual amount. The remainder was secreted in anonymous and perpetually dormant bank accounts, collecting eternal interest in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.

There was more. The two story house on the tree lined street was triple mortgaged under five different names. His children’s college funds had been siphoned off. His wife’s stock portfolio was in his own name and that of several aliases. All of them anagrams of Derek Valint. His entire family had been the engine of a massive fraud.

The money did not go unspent. There were frequent calls from his cell phone to a five thousand dollar a night escort service. Generally, between three and five girls were ordered at any one time. His body showed signs of a regular and massive intake of cocaine and barbiturates. His frequent “business trips” to the Far East were high priced sex tours. Generally geared towards the traffic in extremely underage girls.

This discovery led the case to its hideous climax. With the aid of Interpol and the FBI, police began to draw unavoidable connections between Patient Zero’s frequent travels and a serious of unsolved murders of young prostitutes in Thailand and Burma. All of them under the age of sixteen. Two of them were eleven years old. All had been battered to death. Their chests had been ripped open. Internal organs were often missing. In three cases, the heads had been removed and placed in a frying pan on the kitchen stove.

The modus operandi was the deciding factor. The conclusion was clear: Patient Zero was a homicidal psychopath. And had been for a very long time.

Implications were no longer. They had arrived at the absolute of murder.

Initially, it was believed that Patient Zero had simply reverted to his previous state of derangement. Doubts were almost immediately raised. An historical examination of his case revealed that Patient Zero had never displayed homicidal tendencies despite his intense schizophrenia. His only violent actions had been self-directed. The team of police psychiatrists who examined him following his arrest discounted the possibility of regression. Patient Zero was pathological in the extreme, but he showed no signs of dissociation. In fact, they had never seen a more integrated personality.

The full magnitude of what had occurred became clear only with Doctor Valint’s testimony at the trial. Patient Zero’s lawyer had decided, despite his client’s objections, to plead temporary insanity. This would be the first time that the terms “precipice moment” and “auto-personal deconstruction” were heard by the general public.

Contrary to the myths that continue to surround the incident, Doctor Valint did not dissent from the official diagnosis. Patient Zero was certainly an extraordinarily integrated personality. But he was very far from normal. He displayed extremes of behavior which could only be described as unique in their configuration and integration. These included a near total disregard for personal danger. A total lack of compassion for and identification which his fellow human beings. A startlingly rapid capacity for analytical thought. An almost total lack of such elementary emotions as sadness, joy, or anger. And, of course, a propensity for sudden and exceptionally brutal acts of spontaneous violence. His primary reaction to his surroundings was a studied indifference leaning towards outright contempt.

Neither the court nor the millions watching the live satellite and internet broadcasts were shocked by this testimony.

It was Valint’s second day on the stand that set off the explosion. Despite the fact that some of the Doctor’s more devoted disciples pointed out, after the fact and with the benefit of hindsight, but nonetheless correctly, that there had been numerous anticipations of Doctor Valint’s statements in his earlier work.

The Doctor testified the following: Patient Zero was no longer completely human. Biologically he remained the same. His genetic structure could not be differentiated from that of normal human beings. Nonetheless, asserted the Doctor, the subject was something else entirely. Something for which we did not yet have a name.

If the historical dialectic proposed by Valintism was correct, and humanity had defined itself through its terror of death, then our civilization, including our spoken and unspoken moral laws, all drew their origin from this initial realization of mortality and its concomitant angst.

Patient Zero’s existence had an entirely different and unique origin. It was L61938. The previous basis could have no meaning for him.

Death was not an unknown and unknowable phenomenon for Patient Zero. He had experienced it personally. Thus, non-existence had become an inalienable part of his personal history. Existence and non-existence had integrated themselves in the psyche of Patient Zero. A phenomenon previously unknown in human history.

The result was an infantile state. The total breakdown and reconstitution of the personality. Valint referred to the phenomenon with the term “auto-personal deconstruction”. This process began with the initial return from the effects of L61938 and reached its climax with a “precipice moment”, at which the entirety of the subjects socially and historically determined attributes collapsed entirely as a result of his alienation from their origin. The result was the annihilation of the personality and its total alienation from normal human society.

Patient Zero had committed his crime precisely at this precipice moment.

Doctor Valint freely admitted that the next stage of the process, “auto-personal reconstruction”, was mostly theoretical at the present moment. It was simply unprecedented and therefore unknown. There was only one subject to examine, and he was currently at the mercy of the court. However, if the dialectic of Valintism proved correct, as it had thus far, the newly reconstructing personality could well be the most fully reconciled psyche that had ever existed. Freed of the traumatic fear of mortality, existing in harmony with existence and non-existence, neurosis and pathology would be completely alien phenomena. Angst would become an antiquated theory. The possibilities could only be guessed at. But there was no doubt that they would be spectacular.

Patient Zero was not a maniac. He was the sanest human being who had ever existed. He was not a monster. He was a harbinger. The first fruit of the new human era predicted by Valintism. He was proof of Valintism’s psycho-historical dialectic. The entire human race would eventually undergo the metamorphosis Patient Zero had already begun. The question, Doctor Valint proclaimed before the astonished faces, was not whether we looked into the abyss or the abyss looked into us, but what we were going to do on the other side.

The outcry was indescribable in its size and virulence. Within two weeks of the testimony Times-Newsweek, ltd. Published a special issue featuring a glossy photograph of Doctor Valint’s smiling visage underneath the words, “The Mad Doctor: A Post-Modern Frankenstein?” Religious leaders who had held their peace while the growth of Valintism appeared unstoppable saw their opportunity. The Pope issued an official denunciation of Valintism and publicly called for an international ban on all research involving L61938. Reverend Everett Clawthorn of the Southern Baptist Coalition preached a sermon in Atlanta before a crowd of fifty thousand in which he denounced Valintism as “a sickening affront to God and a moral depravity akin to atheism and Nazism.” Secular humanists denounced Valintism’s amorality. The American Atheists Association called Valint’s testimony “an atrocity that has no connection whatsoever to secular humanist morality.” The anti-Valintists suddenly found themselves on the same lecture circuits, television talk shows, and bestseller lists that had been previously dominated by their nemesis. Baumgartner himself published a hastily assembled collection of lectures and interviews entitled “Valintism and the Cult of Scientific Murder”. It became an instant bestseller. Traffic on his personal website jumped by a factor of seven thousand. It was redesigned and relaunched within two weeks as the homepage of the newly founded Anti-Valintist Society. Within a month, the president himself felt compelled to announce that he had signed an executive order requesting the formation of a congressional subcommittee to investigate Valint and his research. The NIH was ordered to suspend all funds earmarked for L61936 studies. Doctor Valint was suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation.

But Doctor Valint had already handed in his resignation.

The only thing more striking than Doctor Valint’s embrace of his fame was his abandonment of it. He simply disappeared. The gates of the Maryland compound were locked. Guards and security cameras manned the perimeter. All requests for interviews and official statements were refused. None were issued. The remaining faithful followed suit. The total silence emanating from the Valintists only intensified the ferocity of the attacks against them. The anti-Valintists now dominated all discourse on the subject. Doctor Valint was on his way to becoming the hated man in America, if not the world.

Then the Schism came. And it was as if nothing that came before it had ever happened.

Patient Zero was sentenced to death for twenty-one counts of murder in the first degree and three in the second degree. It was ruled that the death of his family was likely not fully premeditated. However, intense interest in his case on the part of several anonymous government agencies, including, it was rumored, the White House itself, and the extreme likelihood that he would be called as a witness before the congressional subcommittee on Valintism, resulted in him being remanded to the perpetual custody of United States Federal Marshals at Fort Leavenworth pending the outcome of various inquiries.

Leavenworth was destroyed in a missile barrage during the border campaigns. Like thousands of others, Patient Zero was listed as missing, presumed dead. Rumors persist to this day that he survived, and remained secretly in the custody of his creator, who continued his experiments into synthetic death. No evidence of this has thus far been discovered. Of the fate of Patient Zero only one thing is certain.

He was never heard from again.

Sunday, September 9, 2007


Valintism’s success was instantaneous and inescapable. Among scientists, it not only offered a bold new world of intellectual possibilities, it also reawakened a pride which had been degraded by decades of professional self-flagellation.

The advent of the atomic bomb ushered in the era of existential scientific guilt. In which knowledge was seen by its practitioners as an act of violation. A form of intellectual imperialism. Uncomfortable with the moralities of power, fearful of government suppression and the mistrust of the masses, scientists became increasingly skeptical of themselves and their calling. They had come to accept, if only subconsciously, the idea of knowledge as a form of rape.

Valintism instantly crushed this ethic of self-pity. Valintism promised a knowledge that could not violate. The conquest it prophesied was not of the physical but of the intangible. Valintism unleashed the full powers of science without guilt, remorse, or consequence.

Valintism was perfect.

It was not only the ideology but the man himself. Doctor Valint’s evolving persona was impossible for young scientists to resist. The quiet and disarmingly modest academic underwent a shocking metamorphosis. He began to wear immaculate white suits and drive European sports cars. He was accompanied to conferences and lectures by one or two of his young mistresses, who were usually photographed smiling and hanging on the Doctor’s arm. He bought a mansion in south Maryland and announced his plans to transform it into a center for Valintist research. Like most abnormally intelligent men, Doctor Valint was unused to attention or approval. He was determined to enjoy it. Before long, vague rumors of orgies involving the Doctor and his admirers began to leak out of the south Maryland mansion. The old maxim, for true than false, that genius is sexy began to be heard once again on the tongues of the gossip inclined.

But Doctor Valint did not neglect his scientific duties. An authorized plethora of books, CDs, internet sites, articles in the popular press and videotaped lectures fed the insatiable market for Valintism. Only a handful of these hundreds of products were geared towards the esoteric, academic discourse favored by Doctor Valint’s peers. They were overwhelmingly intended for the popular audience that bought them by the millions and hung on Doctor Valint’s every pronouncement. The appetite for Doctor Valint’s proclamation of a new stage in human existence was insatiable. Mankind has always been mesmerized by the possibility of apocalypse. The 20th century was rife with such phenomena. But Doctor Valint outdid them all. One lecture, entitled “The Metaphysical Imperative: Synthetic Death and the Future of Mankind” was delivered to an audience of six hundred seventy-five thousand at Madison Square Garden. Another half million hopefuls were turned away at the gate. Over one billion watched the internet simulcast. No scientist before or since has commanded so much non-professional attention. Derek Valint was the first of previously unknown species: the scientist rock star.

There were detractors. Some objected to Valint’s vulgar and grandiose exploitation of his own celebrity. Others found his tendency to publish his theories in popular press rather than in properly reviewed academic journals distasteful and suspect. But there were some, Aluicious Baumgartner of Cambridge University most especially, who went raised serious questions about the moral content and scientific value of Valintism, ultimately attacking the basis of the movement itself.

Baumgartner’s book “The Perpetual Division”, considered the founding text of anti-Valintism, was published in 2051. It reasserted the scorned dualism of post-Enlightenment science in firm, some said violent, rhetorical terms. The partition of physics and metaphysics, claimed Baumgartner, was no tragedy. It was the liberation of science from the tyranny of superstition and enforced delusion. Far from a revolution in human thought, Valintism was reactionary in the extreme. It was repopulating the world with gods and demons. It resurrected nothing but the mirages which stood in the war of the true progress of human knowledge.

Baumgartner went further than this. From a strictly moral point of view, Valintism was a horror. It devalued the physical world to the point of negation. And it did so in favor of a suicidal embrace of nothingness. The deliberate induction of death was not a conquest but a submission. The ramifications of the Valintist delusion were terrifying. Baumgartner formulated a counter-historiography to Valint’s fear of death hypothesis. Human civilization, he claimed, was not motivated by the terror of death but by the will towards life. By the conscious or unconscious refusal to submit to despair even in the face of our inevitable non-existence. Valint’s belief that he had begun the conquest of the intangible realm was hubris of monstrous proportions. The fact that one could return from death did not mean one had conquered it. Non-existence was, by definition, beyond conquest. Human beings were physical creatures, said Baumgartner. We exist. Our existence is the definition of our existence. In his book’s most famous line, Baumgartner rewrote Decartes himself. “I exist,” he wrote, “therefore I exist. Non-existence was a negation. By definition, it could be nothing. And being was the possible state of being. Doctor Valint, claimed his critic, had erected a vast intellectual house of cards around his own terror of death. A terror he had sublimated by embracing it. Valintism, charged Baumgartner, was nothing more than an expression of its creator’s subconscious urge towards suicide. He famously nicknamed his target “The Pope of the Church of Thanatos”.

Baumgartner came too early. His book was dismissed by those who bothered to read it at all. It went through a single printing and was then relegated to the shelves of various university libraries. Nonetheless, an anti-Valintist trend began to gather momentum in elite circles, although the general public remained as enamored as ever. Particularly in the medical community, and despite the conclusions of various ethics committees that the practice was acceptable so long as the consent of the patient and his or her legally recognized guardians was obtained, the very concept of synthetic death raised serious questions which would not be easily quelled. Hippocratic principles remained deeply influential despite the ubiquity of the Valintist paradigm.

In the philosophical community a more serious criticism was gaining ground, particularly among the empirically inclined. They found Valint’s most grandiose claim, that of a fundamental change in human consciousness as a result of L61938, simply impossible to accept. It was, they charged, fundamentally unscientific because it was unfalsifiable. It could neither be proved nor disproved. As such, it was, in empirical terms, of no more use than a declaration of religious faith. Moreover, it was an extraordinary claim, and therefore required extraordinary evidence. By definition, such evidence would not be forthcoming. Edward Munchausun, professor of philosophy at Columbia University, emeritus, declared the entirety of Valintism “intellectual charlatanism”, and recommended the rejection of Valintist papers by all reputable journals. This statement was printed next to an article entitled “Valintism and the pre-Socratics: an Inquiry” by T.S. Honeydew, one of the Doctor’s most prominent disciples.

It is easy to understand the attractiveness of the empiricist contention. The inevitable byproduct of great success is the charge that the emperor wears no clothes. The rush of the sudden leap wears into something resembling an intellectual hangover. It was all too fraught with implications. Minds were exhausted. They wanted to climb down from the dizzying heights of Valintism and examine the new terrain. Even belief grows tiresome, and skepticism them seems a reflexive proof of the independence of one’s mind.

For these reasons, the anti-Valintist philosophers were enjoying some measure of success by December 2055, when events proved them all wrong.

Saturday, September 8, 2007


It was Valint who gave it to them.

Short, gray haired, clean shaven, slightly overweight with extraordinarily vivid blue eyes, Valint looked nothing like the ghoul the assembled were expecting. His soft voice and unassuming yet palpably passionate manner gave him that rarest of appearances: that of a man who is extraordinary without being intimidating. It was feat which only Einstein had achieved before him. And even Einstein had never raised the dead.

This was the unspoken profundity which made Valint the most famous scientist of the modern era. Einstein had given us abstractions, concepts, intangibles. One could not look into the face of Special Relativity. Valint offered them flesh and blood.

More specifically, he offered them a lanky thirty-two year old Caucasian male who wished to remain anonymous. He was referred to by Valint, and then by the rest of the world, as Patient Zero.

Three dozen television cameras recorded the case history. Attention and rage disorders in childhood. A family history of mental illness. Psychotic episodes throughout adolescence and early adulthood. Paranoid schizophrenia followed by total dissociative breakdown at the age of twenty-three. Extensive use of electroshock therapy had likely exacerbated the situation. Patient Zero was a lost cause. For the last nine years he had been confined to a permanent care facility in northwest Virginia. Most of this time had been spent in restraints due to multiple suicide attempts. His family had given consent to his participation in Valint’s experiments. They considered his suicidal tendencies to be tantamount to a terminal illness.

They were hoping for a miracle cure.

What stepped in front of the microphone could not have been called anything else.

It was dark haired. He was dark haired. He had hazel eyes and wore horn-rimmed glasses. His three-piece suit and neatly arranged tie were an unassuming navy blue. His shoes were polished. His appearance suggested a banker’s secretary or a Wall Street stockbroker.

The eloquence of this twenty-six year old suicidal mental patient shocked the assembled press. Not a few members of the Washington press corps were glimpsed with carefully concealed tears in the corners of their eyes.

“A man whose mind has betrayed him is a prisoner,” he began. “Such a man does not live. He exists only. He is tyrannized by his thoughts. His mind torments his mind, his soul torments his soul with a suffering which is unspeakable and unknowable to his fellow human beings. He is a child locked in a cage with a monster who is himself.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “I have been set free. This…” And he gestured towards Doctor Valint, standing to his left, head bowed, hands clasped together, “is my liberator.”

And the two men embraced. They embraced before the crowd of journalists astounded to find themselves on their feet, weeping openly and applauding with a childlike joy. Cameras flashed and zoomed. In bars and restaurants across the world, men and women felt a lump in their throats as they watch the live feed. A billion eyes locked on the flashing cathode rays looked up from their dinner trays and choked back an inscrutable emotion. The strangest of collective derangements, the pop culture phenomenon, had begun.

The Doctor and his patient were instant celebrities. The Doctor’s fame was fed by the fact that this is a role for which no particular accomplishment is required. As a result, more than a few admirers were secretly gratified that their attentions were now directed towards a personage of genuine substance. But is was Patient Zero who truly “captured the hearts of the nation,” as laymen are wont to describe the phenomenon of mass fascination.

It was Patient Zero who was chosen to appear on the daily talk shows, the evening news magazines, the weekend inserts, the product endorsements. Sometimes in the company of his creator, usually not. He displayed a charm and wit that led some to question his genuine status as a recovered mental patient. A question which was quickly answered by the production of the relevant official documentation. He revealed his guilty affection for Hershey’s chocolate kisses and synthmilk. He retold his harrowing experiences of madness and confinement. He extolled the genius of Doctor Valint. He expressed the hope, and the faith, and that others would soon be liberated as he had been. On special occasions, most notably the Jennifer Clay Christmas Personality Special and the Jose Manolo Comedy Hour, he appeared with his aging mother, whose face was respectfully pixilated and her voice lowered to a sluggish moan to conceal her identity. Despite these technological precautions, viewers knew she was weeping as she retold the sordid details of her son’s suicide attempts.

They wept with her.

Doctor Valint confined himself to the highbrow conversation shows and satellite channels geared towards science and technology. The rarified audience and admiring reception he received began the Doctor’s transformation from scientist to guru/prophet. Because it was not only the virtues of synthetic death that Doctor Valint preached before a watching world.

It was revolution. Revision. The fundamental transmigration. Total rebirth.

His sermon began always with the same words: For three hundred years science has confined itself to the observation of the physical world.

And he continued. The death of metaphysics, he claimed, had created an absolute but artificial division between the scientific and the spiritual-psychological. Despite the clumsy attempts of Einstein and Freud to reunite the two, this division had remained precisely demarcated and zealously guarded. The result was that the post-Enlightenment scientific tradition was based upon an absolute dualism between the physical and the non-physical.

Doctor Valint preached: the dualism can no longer hold.

The continuing observation of the physical world had resulted not only in increased knowledge but also in increased control. Man could harness the atom. Manipulate electricity. Artificially reconstitute the sights and sounds of existence. The entirety of physical phenomena was falling under the dominion of scientific knowledge. This eventuality required only time. It was not unthinkable that in the very near future man would be capable of controlling the earth’s climate and even the energy of the sun. Experiments in terraformation were in their infancy, but there were no insurmountable obstacles in either engineering or physics that precluded the inevitable outcome: man would have the power to create worlds.

The price of this accomplishment was increasing differentiation. Disciplines were fracturing, specialties were narrowing, their terminologies were becoming incomprehensible to each other. As science expanded it diminished its mass. Turned in on itself. Collapse of the structure was inevitable. It was already collapsing. It was the duty of scientists to contemplate what would happen afterwards.

The only possible solution was reunification. A reunification whose essential characteristics were already becoming clear.

It was essential to remember that the ancient founders of science considered the study of the physical world to be inseparable from that of the metaphysical. True knowledge required an understanding of both the tangible and the intangible. The relatively recent phenomenon of the Enlightenment had destroyed this tradition.

Valintism would be its resurrection.

He did not call it by this name. A man creates a discipline. It is christened by others.

But Valintism and its followers never deviated from its founder’s original thesis: science had destroyed itself through the conquest of life. It would resurrect itself through the conquest of death.

L61938 was only a first step. It was the beginning of knowledge’s expansion into the realm of non-existence. The elementary principles of death had been successfully manipulated. Man, through his discovery of L61938, now stood on the border between life and non-life. The artificial border drawn by his own science. The way forward was clear. Death was no longer unknowable. All that remained was to smash the barricades. This was accomplished by realizing that they did not exist.

A man of Valint’s ambitions could not stop there. The implications of L61938 would change not only science but humanity itself.

This claim was buttressed by the Valintist reading of human history.

According to the Valintist psycho-historiographers, the greatest of them being Valint himself, the primary motivating factor in human history was the terror of death. All other determinative factors: economics, climate, political power, geographical advantage, religious and spiritual development, paled in comparison. All the great works and all the great atrocities of human civilization had been impelled by the desire for immortality, aroused by the rarely spoken knowledge of inevitable non-existence, the raw energy generated by existential fear. This ghost in the machine was the origin of our great religions, our vast empires, our epic wars, our monuments to God and beauty, our sexuality, our mores, our social organizations, our manners, our artistic masterpieces, even our own dreams. It was no coincidence that the first great works of monumental human architecture, the Great Pyramids, works which required a concentration of mathematical knowledge, building techniques, hydro-engineering, and brute labor, were tombs vital to a cult of resurrection and immortality. Gateways to the world of non-existence.

The coming conquest of death was therefore the end of history. As a result, L61938 and the conquest of death posed a challenge infinitely greater than the conquest itself. They demanded a primary recalculation of the entirety of mankind’s unconsciousness existence. In the form of a short but impossible question: Would civilization be possible after the fear of death was obsolete?

It was with this question that Doctor Valint would inevitably end his lectures and interviews. Variations of it appear in every one of the seventeen books he published before the Schism.

It has now been answered.

I am its answer.

Saturday, September 1, 2007


The technological feasibility of artificial death was already a scientific fact by the mid-twentieth century. The first crude forays into cryogenics were undertaken almost simultaneously with their theoretical plausibility. Despite the popularity of the process as a striking new field of research, and the ghoulish fascination which took hold of popular culture, giving rise, for instance, to the macabre legends surrounding the severed head of Walt Disney, it is now well known that these experiments were a complete failure. The early hopefuls of immortality were all defeated. Most of them by lack of funds. Although a few specimens were thawed when the cure for muscular dystrophy was developed in 2022, it was quickly discovered that tissue decay was as inexorable a process in a frozen state as it was in an embalmed corpse. Albeit a decay of a distinct and different kind. No one in the heady early days of cryogenics guessed that cessation of cellular movement on a molecular level could be as destructive as its opposite.

Nonetheless, the momentum of scientific research was clearly moving towards the arena of non-existence. Techniques of artificial resuscitation and the possibility of a near-infinite prolongation of the physical processes, even in a state of brain-death (the “persistent vegetative state” described in the popular press) demanded new definitions of the concept of non-existence and invited the theoretical possibility of technologically induced immortality. The most obvious and far-reaching implication: that death was no more natural or inevitable a phenomenon than smallpox, occurred to most of the leading authorities on the subject at almost precisely the same moment. Coincidental revelation is a not at all unusual phenomenon in the expansion of human knowledge.

Of all the various phenomena examined in these early stages; cloning, digitized consciousness, the gradual replacement of the physical body with synthetic components; the most fascinating subjects was undoubtedly that of the “near death experience.” A product of modern advances in resuscitation technology, the phenomenon was first noted by paramedics and emergency room doctors, though later studied dew clear parallels to such earlier manifestations as the Apocalypse of John and the works of Hieronymus Bosch. I myself have noted distinct similarities to Poe’s “Arthur Gordon Pym”, although this may simply be a product of Poe’s opium fantasies.

Generally involving feelings of intense euphoria and visions of angelic figures and tunnels of white light recounted by functionally brain dead patients later successfully revived without major damage to cognitive functions, the near death experience was originally considered a subject for New Age fanatics and credulous believers in the paranormal. Nonetheless, a few scientists, albeit quietly, did note the implausibility of the generally accepted scientific explanation: that these visions were the product of a dying brain seeking to ease its own suffering in the face of imminent non-existence. Such a theory, the dissidents claimed, was clearly implausible in patients who were, by definition, brain dead already, although some concessions were made to the possibility of transfer of dream activity to the brain stem in the event of intense trauma. The brain stem is, after all, the last to die, and continues to function even in otherwise persistently vegetative patients. However, no aspect of the conventional wisdom regarding the near death experience, they emphasized, had been scientifically proven.

I cannot speak to the accuracy of the near death experience. My experience is limited to the death experience itself. Nonetheless, the historical importance of the phenomenon cannot be overestimated. It marked the first indication that science was beginning to reach beyond the limits of life.

But these were precursors only. Valintism was the breakthrough. The precipice moment. Like all such moments, it occurred coincidentally. Its implications were understood only years afterwards. I am certain of this. I am one of its implications.

Despite his early training as a neurologist, Doctor Derek Valint had shown no interest in mortality before his discovery. His specialty was severe neuro-psychiatric disorders, especially schizophrenia and dissociative personality. This likely prepared for the possibilities offered by the less than exact sciences.

The limits of psycho-pharmacological therapies were already becoming clear at this time. The late 20th century revolutions in the manipulation of brain chemistry were proving less and less effective in treating advanced forms of mental illness. The long term ineffectiveness of drug therapies was becoming obvious. The conviction was once again growing among the experts that certain disorders of the mind were fundamentally untreatable short of reducing the patient to a vegetable. Such desperate measures as electroshock therapy and lobotomization were once again under serious consideration. Despite the outrage of more humanist members of the scientific community, perpetual confinement was growing in popularity in the courts and the medical community. The situation was reaching a crisis point. Such moments are moments of breakdown or breakthrough. Had he been born twenty years earlier, Doctor Valint would have passed his life in anonymity.

And I would never have existed.

According to legend, the revelation came late one in the Washington laboratories of the National Institutes of Health, where Doctor Valint was employed as a researcher. At seven minutes after midnight, a time to which some would later attribute a certain mystical significance, Doctor Valint’s computer malfunctioned. To be more precise, the X and Z keys exchanged places. That is, when Doctor Valint pressed the X key, a Z appeared on the screen and vice versa. The specialized vocabulary of science demands the use of these letters to an extent far greater than conversational or literary English. As a result, this sudden transmigration left the Doctor more distressed than a layman might at first assume. He could have simply adjusted himself to the situation at hand, but scientists are not noted for their practicality.

Doctor Derek Valint summoned the janitor.

The janitor looked the machine over. Then he reached behind, found the power switch and shut it off. A few minutes later he restarted it. The malfunction had corrected itself.

It was at this point that the light bulb, which always appears in such tales, ignited over Doctor Valint’s head and the obvious occurred to him: total shutdown followed by near instantaneous revival. The implications were astounding.

This legend has maintained its place in the popular consciousness, though its veracity has been largely dismantled by the later revisionists. There can be little doubt that this account of the origins of Orpheus is an urban legend. Doctor Valint’s revelation, and no one denies that it was a revelation, was more likely a slow but steady process leading to a precipice moment. (Again that phrase, laden with irony) As early as 2038 there are cryptic notes in Valint’s diaries referring to a “Eurydice complex” and “the transformational praxis offered by the imminence of resurrection.” The Doctor’s mind was working towards the moment, albeit a moment whose nature was unknown to him at the time.

It is uncontested that the Doctor had received his revelation by 2041, when he received his five year research grant from the NIH. Declared Top Secret and limited to Doctor Valint and his immediate staff, the undertaking was listed as Project Macedon in all official documents. Details were unknown even to Doctor Valint’s NIH superiors. While the revisionists have reliably concluded that they must have run into the millions, funds for the project were not in annual NIH budget reports. Rumors persist, in fact, that the funding came from other sources entirely.

I believe this to be true. I have my own reasons.

The initial synthesis of compounds required over two years to complete, and it has now been reliably established that clinical trials were not begun until 2043. Put in its proper historical context, this is a remarkably swift pace, and it must be assumed that the major theoretical problems had been solved long before Doctor Valint applied for his grant.

This became relevant only after the fact. When Doctor Valint first made his findings public in 2044, it was of interest to no one.

Valint’s official paper was published in the NIH journal as “L61938 and the Significance of Induced Brain Death to the Treatment of Neurological Disorders” and was immediately ranked with Eisentein’s Theory of Special Relativity as one of the most significant single publications in the history of science. Its author did nothing to dispel this conviction.

Like all great scientific theories, synthetic death as a cure for mental illness was essentially simple and based on a briefly stated principle: the reconstitution of the mind via its complete annihilation.

The instrument of annihilation and reconstitution was L61938. Valint and his assistants referred to it as the “black and red.”

We called it something else. Something entirely more appropriate.

Roughly the size of an average painkiller, L61938 was oblong and gel coated. One end of it was red and the other black. Hence its official nickname. The black end of the pill was a compound of synthesized opiates, designed to induce a gradual shutdown of all physical systems, beginning with the extremities, followed by complex thought and voluntary actions, and eventually all cognitive functions and the central nervous system. Within ten minutes, the brain stem ceased to function and the internal organs began to die. Colloquially, this is known as “flatlining.” There was no debate over the fact that it qualified both medically and legally as total brain death.

The red side of the pill was a time-release dose of highly concentrated adrenaline. Within three to five minutes of brain death the adrenaline restarted the heart and shocked the subject back to consciousness. Normal brain activity resumed shortly afterwards.

Reaction to the paper was intense and largely negative. The journal received five hundred and twenty eight emails within the first twenty-four hours of publication. Overwhelmingly, they claimed that Valint’s study raised terrifying ethical questions. Fully sixty percent of the messages accused Valint of violating the fundamental principle of the Hippocratic Oath: “first, do no harm.” It was impossible, they charged, to argue that the induction of death, however synthetic, did not constitute an injury to the patient. The most notorious message was sent by the president of the Columbia University School of Medicine. He called Valint’s technique “the most ghoulish perversion of the medical arts since therapeutic bloodletting.”

He was correct. But no one argues with success.

And success was what Valint displayed to the world on May 15, 2044. Three days after the initial publication of his findings.

Its name was Patient Zero.

The press conference began as a hastily organized attempt at damage control. The reputations of the NIH and Valint himself were on the line. Journalists from the scientific and popular press were flown in at government expense. Prominent members of the scientific community were formally invited. There was a surprisingly large delegation from Japan. A free web cast was available via the NIH website. It collapsed three minutes into the conference due to the massive number of visitor. It was later estimated at nearly seventy-five million, including three from the permanent Russian research station in Antarctica. Valint’s superiors hoped for a manageable disaster.

What they got was a triumph.

About Me

My photo
Benjamin Kerstein is an Israeli-American writer, editor, and novelist.

Michael J. Totten, the prize-winning author of The Road to Fatima Gate, has called him "one of the finest American-Israeli authors of his generation."

Jay Nordlinger of the National Review has referred to his work as "some of the most intelligent, clearest, most honest writing I have read in a long time."

He lives in Tel Aviv.

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