Science

Metamorphosis

The complete record of the most Earth-shattering invention ever

BY


Every scientist says their latest discovery, their latest invention, will change the world as we know it. In my decades-long career as a science reporter, I’ve heard every permutation of the phrase, and in every case, it’s been false. The discovery fails to break ground, the invention to shatter the Earth. But one man came close. His work might truly have altered the course of human history. Instead, it changed only him—and me. It’s been thirty years since he approached and then fell away from greatness, thirty years since he reshaped my understanding of the world. Now, at the end of my career, I want the world to understand him. This is his story.

We met one night at the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, where some research firm or other had rented out the great hall for a meet-the-press event—a mingling of bored reporters and awkward scientists, most of them drinking heavily to combat the boredom or to relieve the awkwardness. I had already interviewed a few people my editor had instructed me to seek out. But with just three left to cross off the list, I was accosted by perhaps the most intense and nervy of the introverts that filled the room.

He was dressed in the ageless attire of the scientist: grey dinner jacket, white shirt, red tie, black pants, brown shoes. It was blandness all the way down. He, too, was working on something that would, as he put it, “change the world and human life as we know it”—and after a few drinks and several tedious interviews, it bugged me that he’d trotted out the old cliché. But when I tried to cut the interview short, he followed me, insisting that I would regret it if I didn’t hear him out. He invited me, then and there, to visit his lab and offered to make me a cappuccino on arrival, as if that, and not the promise of a big story, would tempt me. He was insistent and irritating, yes, but he was also somehow intriguing. Or maybe he’d just worn me down. At any rate, I went along with him.

Or, rather, he came along with me. Being the more sober of the two (he claimed to suffer from carsickness, but it was plain that he’d had too much to drink), I drove us to his lab. It was farther from downtown than I’d expected; after fifteen minutes or so of over-careful driving, we found ourselves on a lonely road in the west end of town, near Parkdale. I pulled up in front of an old industrial building—the kind that’s probably filled with loft apartments today—and he led me inside.

As soon as we entered, I realized that this wasn’t just a lab. It was his home, too. Without even taking off his oxfords, the scientist sat down at an old upright piano and began riffing. Maybe he was trying to impress me; I was too busy taking in the place, its greyness, its cold utility, its pull-out couch topped with a splayed red sleeping bag. It was here that I would be made to unlearn everything I’d ever known about the physical world.

He wanted to show me his invention—a pair of machines resembling steel beehives and set about fifteen feet apart, with only a few cables connecting them (he showed me an old prototype, too). But first, like some magician, he asked to borrow something of mine, something personal, like jewellery or an item of clothing. I was already charmed by this man, but, looking back, I must’ve had more to drink than I’d thought. I removed one of my stockings, a lacy black number. He inserted it into one of the machines then ambled over to a computer and spoke something unintelligible into a microphone affixed to it. There was a whirring, a buzzing, and then nothing. Looking unaccountably excited, my interviewee bounced over to the other machine. The stocking was inside.

I woke up late the next morning; it was almost noon when I reached the office, just off Bloor Street, so I rushed upstairs to see my editor before he left for lunch. This was my big break. I didn’t fully understand what I’d seen the night before, didn’t yet grasp the mechanics of it. But I knew that my stocking had travelled without moving. I explained it as best I could to my editor, but he wasn’t convinced. “It’s an old nightclub routine,” he said, “the two cabinets. And you fell for it.” Just then, he turned up—the alleged conman. He wanted to talk to my editor, but my editor was not interested, and anyway, he had to run. So he took me out for cheeseburgers instead.

We went to a nearby diner, and he laid out his plan: he would give me round-the-clock access to his lab and himself, to every trial and every error, enough to fill a book. His only requirement was that I not publish anything about him until he could work out the final and most important bug in his invention: it could move only inanimate objects, nothing living. (I asked him to explain what happened when he used his machine on animals. “Not while we’re eating,” was his reply.) But if I waited just a little while, he said, I could watch him travel “fifteen feet through space,” from one futuristic beehive to another—the perfect ending to my future bestseller.

I agreed to keep quiet, and that evening, I returned to the lab, excited to start gathering material for my first-ever book. I brought along my video recorder—partly to make sure I didn’t miss anything, partly to convince a later version of myself that it all had really happened.

He wanted to demonstrate the effects of his machine on lab animals, he told me, and disappeared into another room to get one. I was expecting a rat; he returned with a baboon. He directed the animal into one of the machines and ambled once again over to his computer. There was the same whirring, the same buzzing, the same nothingness as before. And then a pounding on the glass. Startled, I jumped back as the machine opened. It was spewing fog, and I could detect the coppery odour of blood. When the fog cleared—I cannot properly describe the horror. Shrieking in agony, writhing amid its own scattered entrails, the baboon died.

Neither can I describe what I felt for my subject in that moment. He stood in front of the camera, distraught, as I asked him what he was thinking. “‘Fuck’ is what I’m thinking,” he shouted. His contraption simply couldn’t handle living flesh, he explained, before walking away from the camera in defeat. I followed him to the pull-out couch. He was tortured, brilliant, unlike anyone I’d ever known. He was creative and humane and profoundly weird, and he was sad, and I wanted to comfort him. At least that was my intent; it didn’t take long for comfort to turn into kissing, for sympathy to grow into passion. Of course I shouldn’t have done it. I was a reporter, and he was a source. It was an unspeakable breach of journalistic integrity. But I was falling in love with him.

Over the next several days, I continued to visit the lab, watching as my subject (and now lover) worked with manic energy, trying to “teach” his computer how to interpret living flesh. I never managed to find out how he did it—his mania didn’t lend itself to patiently instructing laypeople on the ins and outs of genetics—but, one night, after days of constant experimentation (including a taste test of a steak he’d fried up and subjected to his machine), I witnessed the remarkable fruit of his labour. He placed another baboon, the brother of the previous specimen, into one of the beehives. Seconds later, through the lens of my Betamax recorder, I watched the monkey emerge from the other beehive and bounce into the arms of his master, who smiled and said, “I think it’s time for champagne.”

In reality, it was only Freixenet, served in juice glasses—but that hardly mattered. As we celebrated, each of us began to ponder what this invention could mean, this device that seemed destined to make the very concept of transportation obsolete: for me, a book that no publishing house could reject or reader put down; for him, fame, fortune, perhaps even a Nobel Prize. And no more carsickness.

Then, suddenly, the mood was broken. I noticed a large folder on a table; it had my editor’s name on it. Apparently, he’d slipped it under the front door of the lab, knowing I’d come across it sooner or later. It was a mock-up of a magazine cover featuring my story—the story I’d taken away from my editor to pursue a book. I knew he’d been annoyed, even upset, by my decision. But now I was afraid he would scoop me. Shocked, I went to confront him, leaving the lab without much explanation. It was a decision I’d come to regret.

He began raving about society’s “sick, grey fear of the flesh,” about diving “into the plasma pool,” and stormed out of the lab and into the night.

I returned to the lab late that night and found the scientist asleep. He sat up, groggily, when I sat down beside him. “I went through,” he said. I was stunned, both because this represented a potentially world-changing achievement and because I’d missed it. He’d done it without me. He’d become jealous, he explained, having convinced himself that I was sleeping with my editor—so he’d polished off the cava and broken our deal, testing the machine on himself while I was away. It turned out, though, that he’d enacted his jealous anger in the most considerate way possible. Just as I began to get upset with him, he replied, “Don’t worry. I taped it.” We kissed and we made love and we settled down to sleep on one of the greatest scientific achievements in history.

A few hours later, I woke up in an empty bed. Rising and wandering into the lab, I saw something remarkable: this jittery, reclusive scientist, by no means an athlete, raised himself slowly out of his chair using some newfound strength in his arms and abdomen and steadily raised his legs until his feet were pointed skyward, his entire body weight resting on his hands. A moment later, he leapt down from the chair, grabbed onto a steel pipe that ran just overhead, and began to swing on it, like an acrobat, all the way around so that his feet touched—and even seemed to walk along—the old slatted ceiling of the lab.

Buoyed by this new energy, he took me out for the day. We strolled through Kensington Market before settling in for cappuccinos and cannoli at an Italian café on Baldwin Street. I had never seen him so enthused; he told me that he felt like a new man, a man who’d finally found his purpose in life. He spoke frenetically and in the abstract: he’d been “purified,” he said—“cleansed.” It was as if he’d become a born-again Christian. He was so engrossed with his own musings that he seemed not to notice how much sugar he’d been scooping into his coffee. By the time I mentioned it, he’d nearly filled his cup.

As the day went on, his behaviour became increasingly erratic, and his appearance had begun to alter, too—there were pockmarks all over his face. His temper quickened, and his sexual appetite became insatiable. I was exhausted, but he wanted to keep going. Suddenly, he came up with an idea, a way for me to keep up with him. “I want you to go through,” he said. “Come on, right now!” He grabbed my arm and pulled me in the direction of the machine. When I managed to escape him, he called me “chickenshit” and a “fucking drag.” It was clear that something had gone terribly wrong the night he went through. He began raving about society’s “sick, grey fear of the flesh,” about diving “into the plasma pool,” and stormed out of the lab and into the night.

It was weeks of worry before I heard his voice again—and when I did, it sounded different somehow. I was working late on a story when he rang. He told me I’d been right all along, that his condition had worsened and he needed desperately to see me.

A sickly sweet smell like rotting garbage pervaded the lab. There were empty cans of Pepsi and Orange Crush strewn across the floor, chocolate bars and packs of half-eaten doughnuts on the table. I called out, afraid. Turning, I saw him emerge from behind one of his machines. The sight of him was both hideous and pathetic. He moved slowly with a cane in each hand; his hair had mostly fallen out, and his skin was grey and leprous. There appeared to be vomit on his shirt. The smell was revolting. He told me he suspected he’d developed a bizarre form of cancer, and he seemed resigned to death. He picked up a morsel of food and immediately threw up a whitish liquid that looked like a mixture of eggs, milk, and honey. (This, he later explained, was how he ate: unable to digest solid food, he used his newly corrosive emesis to dissolve it and then ingested the result.) Then he scratched at his right ear, and there was a moist, squelching sound as the diseased mass of skin and cartilage was severed completely, falling into his lap and leaving behind only an outline of itself, drawn in pus. I begged him to see someone, to visit a hospital, but he refused, saying he didn’t want to be a burden to anyone. I was conflicted. Not because of what he’d said, but because of what I feared—that he’d spend what time he had left disintegrating in some laboratory and die alone, nothing more than a medical curiosity.

Before I’d gotten very far, I heard, somewhere behind me, a man’s scream—a guttural cry that described some unspeakable agony.

I left him then, but I couldn’t stay away for long. Each time I returned, his condition had worsened. Some parts of his body had disappeared, while others fused together; on both hands, his middle and ring fingers had become one horrible misshapen digit. He jerked his head to and fro seemingly involuntarily, like some nervous bird. With his knurled skin and increasingly deformed figure, he resembled Joseph Merrick. Unlike that of the mild-mannered elephant man, though, his mind had begun to deteriorate along with his body. He retained, for some time, his dark sense of humour, asking me once if I wanted to visit his own personal museum of natural history—the medicine cabinet in which he stored his teeth and ears and other relics of his former self. But he was anxious, too, and quick to anger, placid one moment and climbing up the walls the next. Although his behaviour led me at times to fear for my safety, I was too scared to tell the police—and scared of what they might do when they saw him. Needing to confide in someone, I told my editor instead. Despite his earlier veiled threat to scoop my story, he cared deeply about me; we had a long history. He urged me to stay away from the lab, saying, “Let me think about it. I’ll come up with something.”

But I couldn’t stay away; I had to see him. Despite his grotesque transformation, I could still see hints of the man I loved—a man who was suffering. One night, as I stood before the mangled frame of this once-great scientist, he experienced a moment of terrible clarity, a realization that it was not only his body and his mind that were falling away from him, but his very humanity. The sickness, whatever it was, had consumed him so entirely that he had, in a strange way, become the disease. “You have to leave now,” he warned me, his tongue flicking intermittently between his now-barren gums, “and never come back here.” I didn’t understand what he was saying, or perhaps didn’t want to accept what was happening. “I’m saying,” he continued, “I’ll hurt you if you stay.” Sobbing and terrified, I fled.

Before I’d gotten very far, I heard, somewhere behind me, a man’s scream—a guttural cry that described some unspeakable agony. Realizing where it had come from, I turned and rushed back to the warehouse. When I peered into the lab, I found the source of the sound that had staggered me: just as he’d promised, my editor had tried to solve the problem of the scientist. He lay on the ground between the two beehives, his left hand and right ankle dissolved into bloody nothingness, his right foot torn from the leg, revealing a corona of tendons and shattered bones. On the floor beside him was a double-barrelled shotgun, and kneeling over him was my subject and former lover, poised to release a coup de grâce of caustic vomit.

I shouted for him to stop, and he turned, twitching, toward me. “Help me,” he begged. “Help me be human.” By now his disfigurement was total; not an inch of his body had been left unmarred by the sickness. I felt a consuming pity for him that overwhelmed my urge to run away screaming. But when he told me how, exactly, I could help, I became more scared than I’d ever felt in my life. He wanted to put me in one of his contraptions and put himself in the other. We would merge in the prototype machine, he insisted; he’d linked it to the other two, and with its help, he said, the two of us would become “more human than I am alone.”

He was now completely insane, his humanity reduced to primal urges, but I could not escape his grasp. I pushed back violently, grabbing at his face, and felt his mandible come apart from the skull. I clutched it in my right hand; it was covered in blood and pus and still wriggling. I threw it at the ground and screamed as he, still gripping my left wrist, hobbled backwards, dragging me with him. As he moved, his gnarled skin began to fall away in sheets, striking the floor with a sound like raw meat against a butcher’s block. Within seconds, he had sloughed off what was left of his human form so that a monstrous insectoid creature was all that remained. He hurled me into one of the machines and locked the door before entering the other beehive himself. I pounded vainly at the walls of the machine that was set to destroy me. Just then, my editor came to. Taking up the butt of the shotgun in his right hand and resting its barrel on the bloodied stump that had once been his left, he fired at the cable connecting my machine to the prototype, freeing me from the twisted experiment and allowing me to escape from my metal chamber. Seeing this, the creature tried to escape from his own pod, but it was too late—the computer carried out its assigned task, and the scientist was merged with what appeared to be parts of the prototype machine.

I picked up the shotgun, with its single remaining shell, as the wretched and ruined mass crawled painfully toward me. At the pathetic sight of it, I began to cry and lowered the barrel of the gun so that its muzzle rested on the floor of the lab. Seconds later, I felt the gun move and, looking downward, watched as the creature took hold of the barrel and aimed it at its own head. It moaned sadly as I, unable to kill the thing I’d loved, backed away in protest. Then I pulled the trigger, fell to my knees, and wept.

It’s been three decades since that terrible night. For months afterwards, I couldn’t work. For years afterwards, I needed therapy. But no doctor believed my story—my delusions and confabulations, as they would call it. And so I kept my experience a secret.

Last summer, I received a phone call from an editor at The Walrus named Graeme Bayliss. He was writing an article on bio-cremation—a new, environmentally friendly way of disposing of human corpses—and in the course of his research had come across a few stories I’d written about so-called green death options. In the end, I’m not sure I was much use to him; certainly he doesn’t quote me in his piece. But he admired my work as a science reporter, and we began to develop a friendship.

Earlier this year, during one of our longer chats, as Graeme and I discussed quantum mechanics and human genetics over a few gins, I let slip that I’d once known a man who had changed my conceptions of both scientific fields. When he questioned me, I found myself telling him everything. It was such a relief to share the burden of my knowledge after decades of silence. He didn’t believe me at first, understandably enough. And so, for the first time, I unearthed the video recordings I’d made. I couldn’t watch them myself, but he did—hours of them—in one sitting. He was astonished. He pressed me to write about it, insisted I write about it, but I wasn’t ready. Not then. Yet after weeks of gentle encouragement (and occasional ungentle badgering), I relented and resolved to publish this, the story before you, my last before retirement.

Most of you probably won’t believe me either. And why should you? This is the stuff of horror, of science fiction. I won’t be making the videos public yet—perhaps not ever. I don’t want him to become a spectacle, a gruesome media sideshow. But it has become increasingly clear to me that his work, and his tragic end, should be known. He should not be forgotten. Although he never did change the world, he changed mine—and he will be forever etched in my memory. Even as I type this, I can recall every contour of his face, every tone and shading of his voice, every taste and touch. It’s hard to believe that thirty years have passed since his death. I suppose time flies.

Veronica Quaife is a former science reporter for Particle magazine.




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