MARCH 2, 1987
IMB CRYOGENIC RESEARCH LAB
Light snow was falling when Dr. Ralf Verson left the coffee shop and crossed the narrow cobbled street to his office building. A burly company security guard let him in the front door. Verson headed down the polished marble stairs towards the basement and the restricted area of the cryogenics laboratory, a steaming cup of cappuccino balanced in his right hand. In his left hand he carried a bulging briefcase that was hand-cuffed to his wrist. It was early. Other than the guard he had not seen another employee in the building. The only sound was Verson's own shoes echoing on the hard floor, the noise ricocheting from wall to wall.
Verson absorbed the warm comfort of the building and whistled to himself as he approached the basement laboratory. Oddly, the usually locked door of the lab was ajar. How many times had he chastised the damn maintenance people for being so lax? He pushed open the heavy metal door with his left elbow. He sniffed the air. A pungent smell crept into his nostrils and overcame the sweet aroma of the cappuccino. He stood silent for a moment. All he could hear was water dripping and the whir of a small fan coming from the restricted cryonics area. That's where the smell was coming from, too.
Verson took a small key from his jacket pocket, undid the hand-cuff from his wrist, and laid down the briefcase full of laboratory secrets. He shook the melting snowflakes from his head and ran both hands through his thick, wavy hair. Then he heard a faint sound as though someone was scratching their fingernails on a blackboard.
His pulse started to race. Was someone in the other room? After all, the lab door had been open. He was ready to call out but stopped himself. What if some kind of small animal had somehow gotten into the room? Maybe a squirrel or a rat? He pushed open a swinging metal door and entered the shadowy restricted cryonics area.
The room was used to store two prototype stainless-steel dewars--protective vaults for bodies that had been cooled to the boiling point of liquid nitrogen. Verson didn't know what to expect, as the scientists had been on a four-day holiday and this was his first day back after a short vacation in Geneva. One of the canister-like dewars sat empty, awaiting a future patient, as yet they did not know whom. The other contained Jutta Kell, a thirty-nine year old physician who had died from sleeping sickness four years earlier after a sabbatical in Central Africa. Her husband, multi-millionaire Suisse banker Hartmut Kell, had her suspended at the IMB research laboratory.
The dewar was a prototype with a full-length Plexiglas window in the front of the pod. Dr. Kell's dewar held only one patient, but it was built to hold as many as three bodies in one hollow unit. (Each body was suspended upside down in the unit in case there was ever a leak. That way the frozen head would be the last to thaw.) The window was riveted to the stainless steel container with fastener bolts one-half inch apart to prevent leakage. The Plexiglas was installed so the research scientists could have a way to view Jutta while she was suspended; they had wrapped her body with gauze, leaving only her head, neck, and shoulders exposed. Over time they would monitor her for any potential physical changes.
During the four years Jutta had been suspended, she had hung upside down in a perpetual frozen state without the slightest change in anatomy, the pale blue liquid nitrogen lazily drifting around her body.
Verson surveyed what little he could see in the semi-darkness. The scratching started again. It was almost inaudible in the distance. His huge palms became moist with sweat. The slow water drip pounded in his ears along with his heartbeat. He took a small step forward and his foot landed with a squish on something soft and boneless. He leapt sideways and bumped into the wall, then groped along the stucco until he found a light switch. Instantaneously the overhead halogen lamps lit the room. In the middle of the corridor lay a large, damp sponge. He almost laughed at his foolishness, but then he looked over at the dewar containing Jutta Kell. The dewar had leaked. A crack from one of the rivets ran about three feet upwards into the Plexiglas. The liquid nitrogen had evaporated as it leaked out, leaving only a noxious odor and a thin film of frost on the interior of the dewar. What Verson saw looking back through the window of the lab door wasn't possible. His massive body stumbled back through the swinging door, which knocked over the coffee, spilling it onto the briefcase.
Jutta Kell was no longer hanging upside down. Her protective bandages and the nylon cord that hung her by her feet in the dewar were lying on the bottom of the pod in a pile like a mummy's wrappings. She was sitting up, her face and hands pressed against the Plexiglas.
She had written in the frost, "HARTMUT, BITTE HILF MIR!"
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