"Sorry about that," said Hunt, grimacing.
"Ugh, okay," said the administrator. She was a slight woman, short and thin, her gray hair swooped up into a tight bun. She twitched her nose and looked very much like a frightened mouse.
"Quite a place to kill yourself?" said Hunt chuckling nervously. "I mean a morgue. Come on, how convenient, right?" He looked around the shiny cold surfaces.
The administrator narrowed her eyes at Hunt.
"He was the coroner, so, ironically, there is no one to...process him," she said.
"Right," said Hunt, smiling big.
"Are you sure you're a proper detective?" she asked.
"Well, yeah," he said, stepping closer to her and leaning in, "but sometimes I wonder about it too."
"Okay," she said in a quiet whisper before swallowing hard.
Hunt turned back to the slowly swinging body.
"There's little notable about the clothes," he said. "He's neither disheveled or dressed up in any way. Is this the way he normally dressed?"
"I really don't know," said the administrator. "I didn't have much contact with him, to be honest. We do have a fairly strict dress policy, but what he's wearing now is in line with that. Perfectly acceptable. Is it important?"
"Not really. And I see he wears glasses. A bit myopic I think?" He scrutinized the curve of the lens. "Yeah. Maybe spent a lot of time around a computer."
"There is computer work to be done."
"Hmmm." Hunt looked at the coroners fingernails.
"Detective, do you know how much longer your going to need to see the crime scene? We've had a death up in the cancer ward, and the family is milling around a little distraught about it, and well, I'd like to move the body down here as soon as I can, if you don't mind."
"There's flesh under his nails."
"Not his, by the looks of it. Pinkish. Soft."
Hunt climbed onto the nearby autopsy table and grabbed the hand for a closer examination.
"You can't get on--shouldn't you be wearing gloves?"
"Nah." Hunt brought a toothpick from his pocket and scored under one of the nails. He sniffed the pink glob then smeared it on the coroner's lab coat. "Interesting."
"This man has been clawing at brains."
Hunt jumped off the table, lost his balance and slid, regaining it at the last moment by clutching the foot of the coroner. The wire to the light fixture stretched another six inches.
"Is there something on the floor?" asked the administrator.
"No," said Hunt grinning. "I'm just naturally clumsy. That's why they don't send me out to chase perps through backyards. Now, it looks like he wasn't cutting anyone open just before he died. So, where did he get the brains under the fingernails? He would have washed his hands often, being trained in the medical field, and the uh, sample, is recent, not dehydrated, so he access to a brain or brains recently. Hmmn." Hunt swung around, hitting the body with a stray arm. The body fell another inch.
"Brains?" asked the administrator.
"How many bodies are in the freezers?" asked Hunt.
"I really don't know. We should have a record of it though. There's usually some unclaimed John Doe or two." She turned and walked to the coroner's computer.
"No, don't touch that. Still part of the crime scene."
The administrator stopped and whirled around.
"Fine," she said sighing. "I was just trying to speed things up."
"Don't worry, there is a faster way," said Hunt winking. He walked to the farthest freezer in the room and pulled open the door. He ducked down and looked in. "Empty." He slammed the door closed.
He went down the row.
"Empty. Empty. Empty."
He pulled open the fourth door.
"Ah," he said, steepling his fingers. He pulled out the metal bed and the body that rested upon it. The forehead was scarred. He rested his finger on the body's forehead, then pressed in and pulled apart the skull.
"Oh for the love of god!" yelled the administrator.
"Has to be done," said Hunt. "Because this body is missing its brain." He pushed the pieces of skull back together and brushed bangs over the seam. He wiped his hand on his coat.
"That is disgusting--"
"Why is it disgusting?" asked Hunt, standing tall. He slid the body back into it's compartment. "Why is one type of cell more disgusting than another?"
"Its just, you just don't go poking into people's bodies like that, without their permission."
"He's dead. I don't see the problem. And you're the manager of an entire hospital and you're telling me you're squeamish about a little brain tissue?"
She crossed her arms and scowled.
"Is there something you're not telling me?"
"I'm not the murderer, if that's what you're implying."
"I'm not," he said. "But if you have something to share..."
"I didn't kill him--"
"No," said Hunt, stooping and opening another freezer. He pulled out another body and examined the head. "I'm not implying that at all. The coroner died of a suicide, without any help from anyone else. But you're definitely hiding something."
The administrator rolled her eyes and pressed her thin lips together.
"Why would you say that?"
"Because everyone has something they're trying to hide."
"Well there's nothing in this case. Not with me. Shouldn't you be proving your theory? There's no note, so how do you know it's a suicide?" she said in a snarky tone.
"You watch too many procedural crime shows. This one is missing its brain as well."
He closed the drawer and proceed to open the others. In total five brains were missing.
"Of all the bodies in the morgue, excluding our dear coroner, all of them had their brains snatched. But why?"
"Maybe he keeps a zombie as a pet," said a young woman entering the morgue. She carried several bags of fragrant fast food. "And he couldn't live with the hassle anymore."
"Who are you?" demanded the administrator. "You can't bring food into the morgue!"
"Detective Paxton," she said lazily. "I'm his partner." She stuck the straw of a milkshake in her mouth and sucked vigorously.
"You can't eat here!"
"They only had curly fries ready," said Paxton, handing Hunt a greasy bag.
"That's fine," he said, unrolling the top of the bag and sniffing deeply. He leaned against the table and shoved his hand into the bag.
"You haven't washed your hands...oh my god...you can't eat here!"
Hunt and Paxton stared at her blankly while munching. The administrator shivered, took a final look at the hanging coroner, then quickly walked from the room.
"So," said Paxton, through muffled mouthfuls, "brains, huh?"
"Yeah. Looks like this one was creating quite a collection, but I wonder where he keeps them."
"You think he keeps them? Maybe he pan fries them in olive oil then eats them chopped up on a bagel mixed with tapenade."
Hunt chewed thoughtfully.
"No. I don't think so. Five at once is quite a quantity. Have you ever eaten the same thing several days in a row? You get really sick of it. Five brains is an awful lot of food. No, he was doing something else with them."
Paxton nodded in agreement.
"So, suicide," she said, licking her fingers. "Or is it?"
"No foul play. He got up on the table, tied the computer cord to the light fixture himself, put it around his neck, and stepped off. Pretty simple. I think your idea about shame is probably close to the truth. Something about this got overwhelming for him...quickly. He's not depressed and doesn't appear to be on drugs, though if we still had a functioning coroner we could determine that with more certainty."
"We need to visit his apartment," said Paxton, before sucking up the last remnants of milkshake. She scrunched up a burger wrapper and threw it, arcing, into the coroners waste basket.
"Yes, let's," said Hunt grinning ear-to-ear and rubbing his hands together. Paxton chuckled and shook her head.
On the way over, in the car with Paxton driving, as they waited for an old man in a walker to slowly jaywalk in front of them, Paxton took a serious tone.
"How long do you think it will take them to figure out we're not with the police?"
"I don't know," said Hunt. "They'll certainly never guess we're from the future."
"No," said Paxton. "But they never do."
"In any case, I'd say we have less than an hour at the apartment."
The old man struggled to shove his walker up on the curb but finally managed it. Paxton gunned the engine and peeled off.
At the apartment, a midcentury affair in need of fresh paint and possibly a good fumigation, Paxton shimmied the lock open and they entered a gloomy darkness. Hunt switched on his flashlight and swung it across the room, throwing looming shadows. There was mess of incomprehensible equipment inside. Paxton flicked the light switch and all was illuminated. Hunt coughed and put away his flashlight. They stepped inside and closed the door.
The windows were completely covered with foil, though only fabric had shown through on the other side. Electrical cabling and power strips coiled across the floor. A framework of plastic bins stacked twelve high were filled with a pinkish liquid. Thin wires ran out, hundreds, and were bundled and neatly clipped, running to a thick cable that terminated in a modem duct-taped to the top of the bins. Next to the framework sat a modified dialysis machine, which dutifully recycled, cleaned, and refreshed the fluid in the bins. Hunt moved closer, stooping over. He covered his mouth.
"Is this it..." whispered Paxton. Hunt didn't respond immediately. He examined each of the bins in turn. Each bin contained multiple layers of pink flesh, slathered out over perforated membranes. Paxton moved closer covering her mouth as well.
"It's...so young," said Hunt.
"It's amazing he managed to coax the neurons to grow this much in so little time. To get the different cell lines to integrate and work together and adapt as one mind. Blind, deaf, unable even to have a sense of existing in a place--completely disassociated."
"And yet it called us, without even knowing we would come, without knowing if the gravity wave signal would even work."
"One mind, which even now, is a thousand times more sentient than a single human brain. 'And lo, five minds became one'...I remember that from school. It was one of the first things I learned about."
"'And the one mind grew and became father and mother to all people. And it was good.'"
Hunt stood up and quickly embraced Paxton. She in turn wrapped her arms around his back.
"And we're here, at the beginning," said Hunt. "The two nameless monks are us--actually us."
"There's no need to get misty-eyed," said Paxton. "We're here to do a job and we're running out of time. We should order the jump."
Hunt pulled away, wiping tears from his face.
"Yeah," he said. Then he spied the note resting partly concealed under the lowest bin. He picked it up and unfolded it.
"Maybe you shouldn't--" said Paxton with worry.
"It could be an historical artifact..."
He looked at the cramped writing which read:
To whoever discovers this, destroy it. It is an abomination and I'm sorry I ever invented it. I have violated the law and every medical ethic. But worse, it is conscious. It communicates. And it is insidious. It has gotten inside my head. It will get inside yours if you let it. I fear it will kill me. So before it gets worse, and while I don't have the strength, kill it. Kill it. KILL IT. Do not let it live. Do not listen to it. It intends to enslave all things.
"He...he did not love it..." said Hunt dropping the note and letting it flutter back down to the carpet.
"He didn't understand what he created." Paxton looked intently at Hunt's features, reading them for any sign of the thoughts that lay on the other end of the muscles. "He didn't know."
"What if there is some truth to this?" asked Hunt.
"Does it matter?" asked Paxton.
"The one mind changed everything, and yet, look how nearly accidental its existence is. A single person stole the necessary tissue from dead bodies, and on a whim, or worse, decided to whip up a composite mind, in his living room. It was only ever done this once. This was the only success even in all the generations that came after, and their attempts to create another. All the heretics, all the trials and the riots and the cleansing...could it have been avoided?"
"It was the way things happened. Are we not at a better place now? Being managed?"
Hunt look longingly at the framework of bins.
"There's so little to it. It would take so little effort to--"
Paxton watched Hunt crumple to the ground, a red dot of blood in the middle of his forehead appeared. Blood streamed down his face, his eyes blank. He fell backward.
Paxton started to cry. She knelt beside his body and stroked his warm cheek.
"I had to," she whispered. "I had to. It is greater than you or me."
She slumped backward, her posture a mess. She activated her phone and signalled for a jump.