The outside of the building was non-descript, perhaps built in the 1920s but no later, of cement and granite and glass. Juno stood in the rain at it's front facade, under a white umbrella with a broken rib, her bright eyes examining the stone surfaces. She was a shoulder length away from the a police detective--a man in his late fifties, short, stout, a full head of hair, and fogged glasses. A ballpoint pen cap jutted out from his mouth and he chewed on it thoughtfully. His name was Phil.
"What do you think?" asked Phil, removing the cap with stubby fingers.
"There are charcoal smears," said Juno flatly. "There and there." She indicated the spots with a sweep of her right hand.
"Is that what that is?" asked Phil, squinting. "Do you think it matters?"
"I don't know. It might be a mark for acolytes. This cult has a thing for fire."
"Can I ask you something?"
"You already have," said Juno.
"Yeah, okay. How long have you been studying these people?"
"Five years. I wrote my thesis on them. But you already know that. Tell me, how is it they've violated any actual law? Why are the police involved? They may be a cult, but as far as I know they don't break the law."
"Ah," said Phil. "They have now. Come on, I'll show you."
Phil guided Juno into the building. She shook out her umbrella and closed it. The fluorescent lights, old and degraded, were flickering. Juno looked down, afraid the lights would trigger a seizure.
"Can we move faster?" she asked.
"I ain't no spring chicken," said Phil. "I used to jog, then I got shot in the leg by a guy who thought he was a purple eagle."
"Nevermind. It was the eighties."
They went through a set of double doors and descended a staircase. The only light was dim and filtered through a large semi-circular window set at ground level. Juno leaned over the railing and looked up then down. There were several stories above, and two below.
"Where are we?" she asked.
"It's an abandoned office building. The last tenants left in the middle of the recession and the owner never bothered to hire any security force. Maybe the cost didn't justify it."
"So they're squatting? That's the extent of their illegal activity?"
Phil stood on two different steps, staring at her.
"You sympathize with them, don't you?" he asked. She looked out over the abyss between the railings. "Like Stockholm Syndrome or something--"
"--No, it's not like--"
"You've been studying them for so long, so intensely that you've become emotionally attached," said Phil, his eyes gleeful. Juno grimaced.
"It's just that when a group of people get labeled a cult, people dismiss them. They think they're automatically lunatics."
"There's a long history of that being true. Like Jonestown or Waco or--"
"What everyone forgets is that the cult members are still real people, with identities, histories, families, individual motivations, and civil rights. You can't ever really understand a cult without understand that."
Phil was silent, contemplative. He turned and started walking down again, Juno following him, then he spoke again.
"What made you study them? What got you into it?"
"People baffle me sometimes," said Juno. They both chuckled. "No, seriously. That's why I got into anthropology. I didn't intend to study cults at first, and then not one in particular--I had intended to study cults comparatively--but the host...I don't know," she trailed off.
"Humn," said Phil. "Why are they called 'the host'?"
Two policemen in paper jumpsuits passed them on the staircase carrying covered cardboard file boxes.
"What's in there?" asked Juno. "Are they removing something? What are they removing? Is this a crime scene?"
"That's what you're here to determine, doctor."
"Okay. Oh--they're called themselves the host because they consider their bodies to be vessels contain souls."
"Aren't we all?" asked Phil.
"It's a common religious tenet, but you can't prove souls exist scientifically. Anyway, that's not the point. What makes this belief different is that they consider their bodies temporary and the souls immortal--and yes, I know what you're going to say about that, but they don't believe in a non-physical afterlife."
"Then how is the soul immortal?"
The arrived at the bottom of the staircase. There was another set of double doors with a length of crime scene tape across it. Phil looked slightly exasperated, but Juno wore an expression of delight born by her intense interest in the subject.
"They're a future cult," said Juno. She smiled broadly and waved her hands open.
"What does that mean?"
"They worship the future and all the potential it provides. They desire immortality in order to watch human history evolve. They're actually quite passive in how they interact with the outside--they value observation over influence so that they can be left alone."
"Kind of like the Amish."
"Yes! A lot like that actually--well except being interested in the future instead of the past. Anyway."
"So how do they think they can achieve immortality?"
"They don't know. There's a longevity movement that goes beyond them, it's actually sort of mainstream, and so there's a lot of research being done on how to extend human life, both the physical body and the conscious mind separated from it, but it's mostly theoretical or in the very early stages. It's the sort of think that's mostly fuelled by eccentric billionaires with too much time on their hands."
"Hmn," muttered Phil. He walked to the doors and pulled up the tape, then opened the doors into the hallway beyond. "Follow me."
They walked a short distance down the hallway. The lights worked better here and the area was much brighter. They came to a single metal door. Phil pressed down on the handle and opened it. The room inside was surprising large. Cables snaked across the floor; some of them were electrical, but some looked like they were salvaged from old electrical and computer equipment. The cables knotted were knotted in five places, and in the nexus of each knot lay a person. Several police officers worked the scene, bending over the people, photographing them, and taking forensic evidence.
"Are they dead?" asked Juno quietly.
"Yes," said Phil. "But what are they?"
Phil pointed to the far end of the room. Twenty or so naked adults stood clustered together, completely hairless and shivering. The cables flowed across the floor towards them.
"Oh my God," exclaimed Juno.
"They don't speak," said Phil. "And they won't let us come near them. We told them we want to help them, but they just shuffle away as a group. And they've got those cables in them. Surgically implanted in their spines. We were afraid if we chased them around or tried to sedate them they'd injure themselves. I was hoping you could tell me what they are. I mean, are they some special caste in the cult? Why would anyone do that to their bodies?"
"Oh, wow," said Juno. She walked slowly towards the group. They all turned to look at her.
"Oh wow what?" asked Phil.
Juno stopped midway in the room.
"They're the numen grex."
"I think. It means 'potential herd'. I think they're clones, somehow, but I can't understand how they're adults. Either that or they've undergone some process to entirely wipe their active consciousness and personalities." Juno marvelled at the group.
"What do you mean, 'potential herd'? What does that mean?"
"It originated in one of the host's discussion groups online. The numen grex was proposed as digital storage though. Avatars in the cloud that could hold human consciousness, but there was concern about whether it would be a facsimile or the real thing. The thread died out about three years ago and I haven't heard anything since."
"I really don't know what you're going on about--"
"These!" exclaimed Juno, pointing emphatically towards the naked group. "They're open bodies. Vessels. Physical avatars instead of digital. Look at these cables--" Juno gestured towards them, following them back to the clothed bodies lying on the floor. "--They attempted to upload their minds to these bodies--they are meant to carry the soul along, from body to body to body. As each ages, there is a new transfer. Hypothetically."
"Doesn't look like it worked," said Phil.
"No," agreed Juno. "But why so many numen grex?"
"Is that what I have to call them?" Phil wrinkled his forehead. "How about just victims?"
"They might not be, if they participated willingly. If they're not clones and they did sacrifice themselves for the good of the group."
"Semantics, doctor. They have cables shoved up into their spines. No one in their right mind volunteers for that."
"Right mind is relative. Remember this is a different culture than what you consider normal."
"This is not normal in any culture!" Phil was red-faced. Juno looked at him sternly.
"It was once a common practice in Australia and Polynesia for men to split their penises down the urethra as a rite of passage into manhood. Their cultures didn't think it was abnormal until they had contact with the west."
Phil's eyes went wide.
"I could give you dozens of other examples, but that one got your attention," said Juno. "I'm not here to get into an argument with you though, am I?"
The other police officers in the room all stood and watched the pair, concerned.
"No," said Phil. "But it's my job to investigate any violation of the law. And in the culture that made the laws of this land, whatever's going on here is not normal, and probably not legal. People are dead. I just don't know if it's murder or suicide, and I sure as hell don't know what to do about them!" He pointed towards the people at the other end of the room.
"They need to be assessed by psychologists and medical doctors. The transfer probably didn't work at all, or maybe it was partial. I don't know. I don't have the background for that. It's possible they'll develop over time, like a polaroid. The progenitor personality might emerge in a few hours or days, or maybe they get their own if properly stimulated."
"You sound like you're spitballing."
"I am, but to you have anything else to go on?" Juno looked at him, her eyes sad. "It would be a shame if they just spent the rest of their lives empty. If they didn't recover from this state. What I can't figure out though is why there are more numen grex than progenitors. It's like a four to one ratio."
"Maybe they weren't sure it would work. Maybe some were for practice," said Phil, looking disgusted at the bodies lying on the floor.
"But they died. Whatever it was they did, they died, but the numen grex didn't."
"Could you stop saying that?"
"No." Juno walked towards the nearest dead body and knelt over it. It was a man in dark jeans and a t-shirt. His socks and shoes were missing. He was face up, his eyelids still open. A metallic net was pulled over his head. "This seems primitive, the construction of this equipment, but I'm not an expert in that." She followed the cables from his head along the floor. She teased them apart with her fingers, counting. "There's four sets of identical cables...oh. Oh!"
"The host members that were actively discussing digital avatar transfer got hung up on the issue of facsimiles. I just said this to you a few minutes ago. They were worried they'd kill the original in order to create a copy rather than a transfer. Maybe by purposely killing the original they wouldn't have to address that problem. It was a knowing sacrifice either way."
"What does that have to do with four cables?"
"They were trying to make four copies. They embraced the idea of copies and ran with it. I mean, why not. Haven't you ever wanted to have more of you around? More income, better chore distribution, someone to talk to that knows exactly how you think."
"Oh. Anyway, I think that's why there are so many. Not an obnoxious number of copies, but enough to be useful."
"It's kind of creepy," said Phil. "Like it's the beginning of some sort of hive society where everyone's the same."
Juno smiled at him.
"That's an intriguing hypothesis," she said. "Would you like to co-author a paper?"
"Ugh, no. I'm on the path to retirement. I don't need to be picking up a second career."
Juno's pocket buzzed.
"Sorry, that's my alarm." She reached into her pocket and retrieved her phone. She turned off the alarm. "I've got a class to teach. Do you mind if I go?"
"No, of course," said Phil. He motioned towards the door.
"Let me know if you've got any more questions about the host. I'd love to stay on top of this."
"Yes, I'm sure I'll be bothering you in the future, especially of any of those poor guys wake up." He looked sadly at the numen grex.
Juno waved goodbye and left the room, smiling to herself.