He planted a new Garden of Eden. But the fences were porous.
|"What do you think we'll find inside?" Harpool asked as he put the key to the door. His hand shook so that the key slid and scratched at the lock, and he had to steady it with his other hand before he could properly insert it.
Harpool always looked like he had a case of the nerves. He had a pink, babyish face that flushed and sweated easily, and his pale blue eyes glistened perpetually. He was flushing and sweating and glistening now, and a visible tremble passed through his shoulders as he grasped the handle of the heavy steel door. But it was excitement, not fear—an ecstasy of anticipation—that rattled him. It rattled me too.
"I've no idea," I murmured back, and glanced over at Anderson, the third of our trio.
"I make no guesses either," he said from behind the tangle of his grey, brambly beard. "I try even not to anticipate! Perhaps we will find a latter-day superman, imbued with the vigor and stamina as was possessed by Adam in the days of Eden. Perhaps we will find only a man flushed with a health the equal of the supreme exemplars of fitness of our own day.
"Or perhaps," he added with a wry shrug—wryness was his signal trait—"we will only find Wendick."
Wendick! Though the newspapers always sought to exaggerate the scope of his intellect, the depth of his vision, and the grandeur of his achievements, in fact those privileged to work with the great man knew that their stories only captured a fraction of the glory of his real genius. Blessed as the common man is by Wendick's contributions to the sciences of electricity and petroleum energy, however rich the men of Wall Street grow off his patents in rocketry and submersibles, he regarded those inventions as merely a kind of thimblerigging.
"It is no great feat to cheat the laws of physics," he would sniff when some astounding new manufacturing process—one that could weave a fiber with the strength of steel from a spool of cotton, say—tumbled out of his private laboratory. He assured us he was playing for greater stakes.
For three years there had been a caesura in his delivery of miracles; there were even questions in Congress as to whether the great man was in decline. We who worked closest to him were nearly as mystified, though we knew he was as hard at work as ever. But he was secreting himself more often than was his wont, and traveling more. When we joshingly asked for hints about his work, he would only wink when in a good mood—and scowl when in a bad one.
Then came the day we found his laboratory emptied entirely save for a sheaf of neatly stacked papers and a key. In the notes we found directions to a cavernous underground vault—constructed by him without our knowledge on the grounds of his private research campus—and instructions to open the door to the vault only after a year had passed. The explanation he provided in a cover letter.
And what an explanation! Clues to his intentions, we realized later, he had dropped into earlier conversations. Speculations about the nature of mankind's Fall in the days of Adam; theories about the true capabilities hidden in the unused portions of the human brain and in the mysteriously useless parts of his animal cells; hints of esoteric knowledge to be gleaned from ancient Oriental manuscripts.
But the secret to his great work, we now learned, had been contained in what we thought were only joking references to "the dust of Death."
"Suppose," Wendick had told us, "that death is an allergic reaction. A reaction to death itself. Or, more accurately, to death's detritus, the dust we leave behind after we molder. It is all about us, this dust. It remains not in the ground, but is recycled into the ground, into the water, the food we eat and the air we breath. But what if it is poison—imbued with the curse of death itself—and eats away at us bite by bite, until we expire and become dealers of death ourselves?"
We thought it a strange fancy—though stranger fancies had led Wendick to great things before—but now in his papers he told us that although he had failed to isolate the hypothesized "dust of Death," he had accomplished something of far greater amplitude, for he had isolated that substance's antithesis: The dust of Life!
Preserved, he told us, in the frigid purity of Tibet—which before the Flood was the original site of Eden—were urns containing dust from the roots of the forbidden Tree of Life itself. One of these urn he had procured, and its contents studied, and he had revived it in all its potency. With it, he announced to us, he would subject himself to the greatest experiment since the erection of the Tower of Babel!
I will isolate myself in a chamber of pure oxygen-nitrogen, he wrote, scoured of all Death's agency. For food I shall subsist on vegetables grown in the soil of Life. In a year, I forecast, I will be the embodiment of Life Itself! Immortal, impervious, and lifted to the pitch that Man inhabited on the morning of his creation!
No wonder Harpool—no wonder all of us—were feverish as we wrenched opened the vault door when the appointed date came!
Prepared for we knew not what, we were astonished by the great fronds that burst out upon us. The rooms beyond were choked with pulsating vines and pulpy bushes, crowded with the boughs of trees visibly fat with sap. A green miasma—suffocating with vegetative vitality—poured out in a reek that left us fainting and yet strangely energized. We tore at the leaves and branches that grasped at our faces, then broke away long enough to fetch machetes.
Wendick, it appeared, had truly found the very dust of Life.
And yet, in the end, to what profit?
The roots and vines we transplanted and carried out withered within hours into dry, ropy husks. The fruits and vegetables rotted into green pools of fetid slime. The leaves of the trees and the petals of the flowers curled into brown paper and crumbled to powder.
Sealed within its specially prepared vault, Life had returned to the Earth. But once the vault was open, swirling Death had returned to choke, blight, and consume it.
In the first moments after we pried open the door, and recovered our breath at the wonder within, we shouted Wendick's name, and thought we heard an answering shout. But it was the work of hours to fight and hack our way to the back of the vault, through the choking Life it contained, and during those hours the cries we followed grew fainter and hollower and more despairing, until we heard nothing at all.
By the time we found the new Adam, nothing remained but a charred and blackened skeleton, its bones sprawling at the roots of an immense and overbearing tree.
Prompt: "The Dust of Death"