Weave of Life
The heavily bandaged and obviously severely injured man was being given some water through a straw by a nurse when the tall, youthful man walked in, a decorative cane in his right hand tapping a syncopation to his steps.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Guild," the man said, in an upper-class English accent, taking a seat on the other side of the hospital bed as the nurse checked things. He folded both his long-fingered hands over the handle of his cane. "I am Sir Roger Landsworth. I wish to thank you for your help, and to sincerely apologize for your injuries."
"Not your fault," said Theo, his voice slurred by the painkillers, the damage to the right side of his face and the extensive bandages. "When I saw those guys after that woman I jumped in to help. I had no idea they had friends. Who had guns and grenades."
"Nevertheless, thanks to your help she was able to escape the first pair and call for help. By the time their backup found you two our backup were almost there. I just wish they had been a half minute sooner."
"No way to change that," said Theo, though there was grief and bitterness in his voice.
"We have here some of the finest reconstructive surgeons and physical therapists in the world, and they are at your disposal," said Sir Roger, seriously. "You most likely saved the life of one of our best operatives, and were severely injured in the process. We owe you the best that medicine can do, and more. Surgery and physical therapy won't give your a new eye, or a new arm. You should be able to walk normally, though."
"That's... pretty much what I thought," said Theo, sagging into the bed with an extended sigh.
"Do you know what we do here?" said Sir Roger, after a moment.
"There are... well, urban legends."
"Some of them are true. As I just said, we owe you more than what conventional medicine can provide, and I meant that. There are risks, but if the treatment works you could make a complete recovery."
"Treatment?" said Theo, perking up a bit.
"It started in England in 1944," said Sir Roger, leaning back a bit, his gaze going distant. "A medical researcher who heard about then-recent experiments in Switzerland with LSD decided to create a similar hallucinogenic to be used as a treatment for mental illness. It wasn't very successful for that, but it did give a few of those who took it more than human abilities."
"You're kidding me," said Theo, looking skeptical.
"Nurse, would you call Sandra in, please?" said Roger.
She nodded, turned and left. A moment later a mildly attractive young woman walked in, the nurse unobtrusively following and resuming her tending of Theo's IV array. The new woman smiled tentatively at the injured man.
"Hi," she said.
"Hello," said Theo, wincing as he tried to return the smile.
"Sandra Rasimus is one of our most able operatives," said Sir Roger. "However, this isn't how you know her. Show him, Sandra."
She nodded... and began to change. Short blond hair grew darker and longer, and her skin color and features shifted from vaguely Scandinavian to vaguely Mediterranean. She was now the woman Theo had saved a few days before. Theo gaped, then winced, then coughed. The nurse moved to help him, but he waved her away. Then looked at Sir Roger.
"It's real, then. There is a drug which can give people superhuman abilities."
"Yes. One of the more common ones is rapid and thorough healing. Even full regeneration in some cases. However, there's no guarantee you would even survive taking it. Under the best of circumstances, there is an eight percent fatality rate. Moreover, that rate is for a healthy person. With your injuries the odds would be worse, and that's no matter how much you heal normally before taking it. The best guess of our medical experts - and I mark myself chief among them - is that there is roughly a twelve percent chance you would die."
While he contemplated that, Sandra resumed the form she had first worn upon entering.
"Twelve percent, versus living like this," said Theo, considering.
"It's worse than that," said Sir Roger, frankly. "There's also an eight percent chance that it won't do anything more than get you high."
"If I survive, but nothing happens, can I take it again?" said Theo.
"Yes. However, then the chance of powers is zero. Every time. Trust me. We've been testing the various forms of this drug since the Forties and while there's a great deal we still don't know about it we do know that."
"Though if you survive the first dose, a second or subsequent one won't kill you," said Sandra, her voice now as different as her form. Even her accent had changed. "Some people even keep taking it to get high."
"Yes, yes, but that's irrelevant," said Roger, with a vague waving motion. "If you are interested, and agree to keep the information confidential, I'll give you the full briefing."
He looked at Theo expectantly.
"I think... No, I know that I want to take it," said Theo, sounding determined. "I wasn't an athlete, but I liked being active. It's worth the risk to me."
"Very well," said Sir Roger, nodding. He turned to Sandra and smiled a bit, before turning back to the patient. "It will take some time to inform you of the options available. If you begin feeling fatigued, let me know."
"I remember when you gave me this briefing," the woman said, wryly, pulling a chair beside Sir Roger's.
"It began when an English chemist heard about LSD shortly after its discovery, along with the speculations that it could treat mental illness, and decided he could do better..."
* * *
See notes at the end of this segment.
* * *
"It's hard to believe you're that old," said Theo, some time later, to Sir Roger. He then looked suspiciously at Sandra.
"I'm thirty-one," she said, smiling. "Just a bit older than I usually look."
"That's so amazing," said Theo. "You can change your appearance, and what else?"
"That's about it. A little faster and tougher and quicker to heal than I would be otherwise."
"If you do get useful powers we would be interested in adding you to the payroll," said Sir Roger. He spread his hands, cane dangling from one set of long fingers. "However, that would be your choice. The treatment is without strings."
"All this..." he made a sweeping gesture with that cane, which took in far more than the hospital room, or even the entire building, "...is expensive to run. To pay for it we provide everything from technical consulting to personal security services. We also do favors for various interests, in return for favors from them. Sandra was acting as a courier when you met her, something I'm not at liberty to discuss further. We still aren't sure what went awry."
"I want Crescendin C," said Theo.
"Are you sure?" said Sir Roger, a bit surprised. "There's roughly a twenty percent chance it will kill you."
"Yeah, but if I understand it correctly, there's also a better chance I'll get powers than with Thirteen." He sighed, looking grim. "I'll need powers to recover from or compensate for... this."
"There's also a larger chance you'll experience physical alteration."
"I want physical alteration!" said Theo, loudly. "Look at me! Almost any change which doesn't kill me will be an improvement."
"All right," said Sir Roger, nodding slowly. "It's your choice."
End Part One
In late 1944 Dr. Simon Naggy - a British medical researcher - received approval to try his new therapeutic drug, Para-Ergot 56, on several criminally insane men. The psychedelic properties of LSD-25 had been discovered by Swiss experimenters just a year earlier, but already people were speculating that it might be useful in treating mental illness. Dr. Naggy - who followed the Edisonian philosophy of trial and error in his work - decided to make his own drug, based on chemically altered natural alkaloids produced by ergot fungus. After several months of work he had a variant which produced symptoms in laboratory animals matching those of LSD-25. However, it also killed nearly a third of them. Interestingly, some of the animals displayed odd physical changes (1). That, however, was not what Dr. Naggy was looking for; he noted the alterations but gave them little thought.
With a war on, and with criminals of all types seen as a burden on the war effort, he received approval to try the drug on a group of condemned men. They were volunteers, who were told that if they survived their sentences would be reduced. As expected, nearly a third died. Over a third survived with no lasting physiological changes and with nearly half of them were deemed "improved" mentally.
Just under a third demonstrated the development of fantastic, in some cases superhuman, abilities. One of them walked out of the prison, leaving a large hole in the wall.
The prison authorities - after losing several guards, having to call five manhunts, and with dozens of innocent civilians killed and injured - threatened criminal proceedings against Dr. Naggy. However, the War Department heard of these events and commandeered the Doctor and his laboratory and personnel. Dr. Naggy was greatly upset by both these turns of events, and at first refused to have anything to do with the government. After being informed that he could either cooperate fully or face charges of aiding and abetting several murders and assaults, he decided to cooperate fully. Para-Ergot 56 was renamed Crescendin One, and the search for a drug to create superhuman soldiers began. (The codename came from the fact that many of those who took the drug later described experiencing a climactic moment. One of them used the word "crescendo" to describe this, and the term stuck.)
Dr. Naggy had been operating under a very small budget, and only had one full-time assistant. Roger Landsworth - later Dr. and eventually Sir - was a brilliant young biochemistry student whose approach was far more analytical than that of Dr. Naggy. Now the project had a larger budget and a larger staff. However, except for Roger, all the new personnel were acquired by the Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development, with the former part-time staff being summarily dismissed. While the new staff were talented chemists none were medical specialists. This led to some embarrassing gaffs the first few weeks, but with a bit of cramming the lab was soon synthesizing and evaluating dozens of variants per month. All were first tested on laboratory animals.
For the first year and a half the laboratory continued to follow Dr. Naggy's preferred method of operation. This despite Roger's suggestions for a more optimized approach. During the first test on humans under the new organization - the second human test overall - Dr. Naggy spoke of those who gained powers as having been "Triggered." This became the standard term for a successful Crescendo. A drug which could cause Crescendo subsequently became known as a Trigger.
While some success was obtained - at first using non-violent prisoners serving long sentences, and later with regular military volunteers - during this time the high death rate, high failure rate and general low level of powers - as well as the sheer unpredictability of what powers would be developed and the odd side effects - made the drug undesirable for military application.
The formulas for various Crescendin versions were given to the United States as part of a technical exchange package, but by this time success with conventional forces (along with the development of the Atomic Bomb) was seen by the Americans as the key to winning the war in Europe and no actual trials were performed there.
As the War wound down and Crescendin remained too raw for actual field use, the lab's budget was cut in half. With rumors in the air that it would soon be removed completely, and frustrated by his inability to get his own ideas tested, Roger synthesized a variety to his formulation, tested it on rabbits and rats, found it to be - as he predicted - much safer than any of the other variations previously tested or under development, and used it on himself. He later described the result as "An interesting experience." As did all human test subjects - and presumably all animal subjects - he experienced a powerful psychedelic effect. He also developed low-level superhuman abilities. In his case, this was a boost to his immune system and ability to heal - the latter now so complete as to replace a pulled tooth and remove all his scars, with the healing proceeding roughly eight times faster than normal - and a significant boost to his intelligence.
Dr. Naggy's reaction to this was to fire Roger.
Several of the other workers protested, but the lab was, indeed, being shut down. All work involving Crescendin and Para-Ergot - including those names and the fact of the drugs' existence - was declared Most Secret and all surviving participants ordered never to reveal anything about the drug or the project. Interestingly, this meant that those who had gained superhuman abilities were prohibited by law from using them. Which may explain why many of those who didn't go into secret government work turned to crime.
As the Korean War began the project was reformed. Dr. Naggy was hired as a special consultant and allowed to pursue his own vision of the work. However, the main branch of the project was now under the direction of a retired British Army Colonel who had been involved in supervising some of the trials. Possessing a strong technical background and an open mind, Theodore Carstairs was very close to the ideal man for the job.
The first inkling that the secret of Crescendin had escaped came late in the Korean War when the Chinese complained to the international community that the Allies were using "Nazi supermen" in the War. (No Triggered actually saw action in that - or any previous - conflict.) An irate high ranking member of the British government held a press conference in which he violated the Secrets Act by indignantly revealing the existence of the project.
A mostly successful attempt to cover for this was made, with a spokesman explaining that the tattler was being sent off for "a long rest." However, others - in Britain and outside - soon began talking about Crescendin, and what it could do. Most responsible members of the press took little or no notice. Among other reasons, the whole thing seemed so much a childish wish fulfillment they couldn't take it seriously, many believing it a bit of leftover propaganda. However, the topic remains popular in the more colorful magazines and papers to this day.
In 1951 the Soviet Union announced the creation of their own super soldiers. The release was supported by numerous photos, many of them obviously faked. In reality, Stalin forbade the creation of superhumans.
For the next decade and a half development continued at a slow pace. The purpose was more to have information on the phenomenon in case it was used against Britain and its allies than with the intent to create supersoldiers. The main team created a model which did a fair job of predicting what a particular version of Crescendin would do to humans, though this worked well only for the "main line" of formulas. In large part, the development of this model was the work of Roger Landsworth. There was still much trial and error involved in the creation of new variants, but more and more the team was able to design a molecule with the properties desired. Meanwhile, Dr. Naggy ran tests on over a hundred variants, killing thousands of lab animals in the process. None of his potions from this period were approved for human testing.
With the death of Dr. Naggy in 1959 in a car crash, work slowed even more. The lab was on the verge of shutting down. One reason was that there was still no understanding of how the Crescendo process worked, or even of what made one person Trigger and another just get high. Still, the potential for the successes - especially considering the very few who had gained great power - was undeniable. Which actually worried those paying the bills. The operation was spared - or, more appropriately, given a stay of execution - when the Vietnam War began growing more active.
In 1965 the last product of the lab - Crescendin Eight - was tried on twenty volunteers. This formulation tied for the lowest death rate to that point, while producing the second highest number of subjects who developed superhuman abilities. Even better, the number with medium- or high-level powers was by far the highest yet.
All twenty of the subjects survived. Eleven of them Triggered. Five of the twenty subjects were actually used in Southeast Asia. However, their application was limited by the fear of failure on the part of their managers. The propaganda windfall if the Vietcong manage to kill or - worse - capture one of them and figure out what they were would have been devastating. All five survived the war, though three with injuries. One was never able to walk unassisted again. Also, there appeared to be a high level of mental instability among all the test subjects. (Later evaluations found the rate to be in line with non-augmented veterans who had similar wartime experiences.)
The lab was shut down in 1968, and all materials ordered destroyed except for a single copy of every record, which was placed in secure storage. However, the lab crew still knew their work. Roger Landsworth had quietly amassed a sizable fortune over the previous two decades. He hired most of his coworkers and some of the test subjects and formed Special Resources, Inc.
Forced by the British government in 1970 to leave the country or be arrested for violating the Official Secrets Act, SRI moved to a privately-owned island in the Caribbean. Sir Roger and his people continue work on Crescendin to this day, further improving safety and performance.
If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudos!
Click the Thumbs Up! button below to leave the author a kudos:
And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks.