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The Marvelous Creatures We Become

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Every night on the Island was alive with sound, filled with the racket of birds and the buzzing of innumerable insects. It had been like that ever since Doctor Skinner had arrived, and he’d almost gotten used to it. Tonight, though, was quieter. There was a void in the clamor, a shape shown by absence, and it was shaped like the jungle cat, and the man who’d made him torture it until it howled day and night.  

Both were dead. The test animals were gone, and most of the orderlies had seen the writing on the wall and done the same. So Skinner stood alone, inside the lab where he’d made a life for himself and a death for so many others, and stared down at the manila folder in his hands. Franklin had been nothing if not meticulous. His death could have been barely a footnote in the Great Work; with these notes Skinner could have rebuilt the entire project from scratch. 

Measures would have to be taken, of course. Compromises made, and some promises broken, that’s how Franklin would have phrased it. It was easy, too easy, to do terrible things when you hid them under a veneer of propriety. They hadn’t taken “measures” , they’d taken three teenagers from their homes. They hadn’t made “compromises”, they'd made monsters. And, worst of all, he had broken promises, and by that means Franklin had nearly broken those poor kids’ minds.

Skinner threw the folder to the floor, and the documents within billowed out, joining their fellows amid the cabinets of the island’s archive. Everything was here, every scrap of Franklin’s work. He reached into his pocket, and for a moment his hand tightened around his Zippo. A flick of the wrist, a crackle of flame, and that work would be finished. Then his grip loosened. 

Goddamnit. ” Skinner mumbled, rubbing his temple. That was the problem with reality, he found; making the hard choices required detachment, and this was the one thing he couldn’t detach himself from. Burning these notes was right. They’d caused more than their share of pain. Certainly, the subjects--the children --would’ve told him to destroy them, scorch out every trace of the “great work” until it was lost to history. 

He felt a degree of responsibility, though. If he destroyed these records, there would be no accountability; nobody would know what had transpired here. Maybe that was the best outcome for the kids, and likely for him as well, but he knew that guilt would never leave him. Someone had to know, to carry on the torch so that the next person to try to follow in Franklin’s footsteps could be stopped before it got to this point. 

Reaching back into his pocket, he pushed the Zippo aside and grabbed his phone. There was no service here. The archive was sealed behind layers of steel and Faraday cages to prevent any damage to its contents. So he turned his back on it, and made for the exit. He kept his head low as he walked, trying to avoid looking at anything on either side of the hallway.  

The glimpses he caught painted enough of a picture, though. A spatter of blood on a door frame, a patch of slowly drying saltwater, a crumpled container of EEG gel--the ruins of a life’s work. Then he was outside, in the warm air of a tropical evening and already dialing the number. The dial tone repeated four times, and on the fifth there was a crackle as someone picked up the receiver, three thousand miles away.

“Liz?” he asked, listening desperately to the warbling reply. “It’s Charles. Yeah, Charles Skinner, from Brown? We were roommates--look, it doesn’t matter. I’ve got something you might be better suited to work with than I am. I know!” He threw up one hand, frustrated with the other person’s antics. 

“Yeah, I took Franklin’s offer. That’s why I’m calling you from an Ecuadorian island and not New York. I am aware of that , Liz. No, please, call the ethics board. But I need you to take possession of this data first. It’s amazing stuff, but I can’t trust myself with it.” A pause, as the volume of the other speaker intensified. “Then burn it! I’m done, okay. When I get back to the mainland I’ll probably go to jail anyway. Yeah. Mhm. Okay, I’ll email you tomorrow morning. Nice talking to you too.” 

He sighed, thumbed the “end call” button, then sat down on the concrete steps of their lab and stared into the star-strewn sky. Liz would be here next week, and he’d finally be free of all this. Finally. The night was no longer silent; at the edge of his hearing, he could hear the jungle cat howling.