In the first quarter of 2012, a scientist named Alexander Stuart Khaimov discovered a technological means to immortality. That is to say, Dr. Khaimov fulfilled one of the longest running pursuits of the human race – the desire to defeat death.
Though many of his notes remain in the possession of the Russian security forces, and many more were wiped from his hard drives or burned in the oil drums behind his lonely research station, enough remains to piece together a little of this man’s life, and the thought process which led to what some consider the finest (and most unknown) scientific achievement of this generation, and what others claim to be the greatest abomination that the thinking world has inflicted upon man since the atom bomb. He called his magnum opus ‘Project Veelox’.
We know, for example, that Khaimov’s obsession with immortality may have begun at a young age. When he was five years old, his parents were involved in a terrible road accident near the border of the Autonomous Jewish Oblast. The collision left both comatose – a condition which surviving medical notes assumed would result in their deaths within a month. Instead, both lingered on the edge of life for ten years. During this period, they were relocated to a specialist facility in St. Petersberg, and the young, Jewish demi-orphan, Alexander, trailed in their wake. Less than a year after their arrival, however, both perished during a power-cut, and Khaimov was left utterly alone.
Despite the trauma of his young life – perhaps even enhanced by it – Alexander excelled in his schooling. At the age of just sixteen, he was offered a place at Moscow State University, where he read Neuroscience and Robotics. By the second year, however, he had dropped out of both, and was taking classes in Philosophy. He had no friends – he was a distant and aloof boy in a sea of young men and women – but former classmates note that he obsessed over Descartes – a philosopher who famously declared human consciousness (who we really ‘are’) to be entirely separate to physical existence. One roommate recalls walking in on Khaimov frantically tearing pages from philosophy textbooks and pasting them to the walls and ceiling above his bed. Still others recall how he would build strange contraptions out of dubiously-acquired computer parts, and second hand hospital equipment, which would emit a dull humming drone, even at night.
Noise complaints eventually resulted in Khaimov being evicted from his dorm-room, and his equipment confiscated. Distraught, he dropped-out of university altogether and disappeared from official records for almost twenty five years – appearing occasionally on employment rotas for the kitchens of backwoods bars, or the maintenance crews at hospitals. He spoke to few people and had no friends. He bounced across the northernmost territories of western Russia. He bought cigarettes with his parents’ savings, until they finally ran out in 2004. He applied for library cards in dozens of municipalities, most of which were revoked when he failed to return the texts he borrowed – books and magazines on all aspects of science, medicine, and computing.
According to scholarly estimates – the information on the human brain can be measured in data-storage terms – weighing in at around 2,500 Terabytes in size (slightly more, according to Khaimov’s estimate). Khaimov read studies regarding the digitization of the human mind with more than a casual interest. He wrote numerous articles for the New Scientist, and two for Time Magazine, between 2001 and 2009, postulating that not only was the transfer of a human consciousness from a body to an electronic brain within the bounds of contemporary science – but that it was even possible to create an artificial “afterlife”, where these consciousnesses could be together. Of course, I’m paraphrasing here, but Khaimov was adamant, in his writings, that what he referred to as “the preservation” of a human mind, post-mortem was entirely feasible.
…and then, shortly before the end of 2011, a curious advertisement began to circulate the local papers of St. Petersberg and other, northerly towns and cities. It read: “Умираете? Хотите жить вечно? Требуются волонтеры.” Roughly translated to; “Are you dying? Do you want to live forever? Volunteers wanted.” This was Khaimov’s first attempt to reach out to the world since his Moscow University days, and he signed the ad; “Dr. Khaimov”, despite having never graduated. Witness accounts hint at shady meetings in rented offices with a terribly thin, bearded man in a faded suit and scuffed shoes. He claimed to be working on a “great experiment”, with funding from Moscow University.
The University has denied any kind of financial involvement with its former student, but it is undeniable that Khaimov had somehow come into a great deal of money. The man who had resorted to stealing journals from libraries went on to purchase a ruined weather-station in the Ural Mountains, which he renovated and outfitted with medical equipment. He is thought to have considered more than two hundred terminally ill individuals that expressed interest in his ad, but approached only the most vulnerable of the group – those desperately afraid of their imminent death. Those without families. Those that would not be missed.
Khaimov took thirty of them to his isolated laboratory, where he presided over their final days. They weren’t exactly prisoners – for there were no guards, nor restraints – but the harsh winter outside, and the worsening condition of the patients kept most confined to their beds. Had they been capable of wandering the halls of the facility, they may have been awed by what lay beneath their feet – a maze of subterranean passageways, crawlspaces and rooms, built in a nonsensical, yet oddly specific spiral down into the earth, and furnished with concrete. All of it – miles of tunnel – lined with humming computer systems. A kind of data-storage mega-vault. Much of the equipment was outdated by the time he began his work, but rather than replace the enormous banks of machines, Khaimov simply set-about retrofitting more modern equipment into the existing system. Even now, years after its discovery, specialists working night and day are only just beginning to unpick the functions and purpose of the bizarre machine that slumbers beneath Khaimov’s Lab.
It is thought that Khaimov laced patients’ food with sedatives – keeping them agreeable, and slowly numbing their bodies over the weeks, as he wired their withering frames into a dizzying array of machines. Some of his surviving notes, leaked to the public by a sympathetic Russian Intelligence worker (since put on indefinite unpaid leave), suggest that the subjects reported oddly vivid dreams – mostly sensations of floating or flying, but with all of the lucidity of being awake. He specifically records their describing the feeling as “frightening” or “uncomfortable”. When we sleep, the way we use our brain changes, but Khaimov reported in his journal that the subjects’ brains acted as though they were still awake – reacting lucidly to the odd sensations of the dreamworld created by electrical stimulus from Khaimov’s machine.
In layman’s terms – Khaimov had separated the dreaming cancer patients from their bodies and pulled them into a digital environment, created by his lovingly-named ‘Lazarus Engine’. His journal excitedly quotes his ever-beloved philosopher, Descartes: “I think, therefore I am”, and scrawled beneath it; “All we are is a series of electrical impulses on the mind – and now we can be forever free!”
On New Years Eve, 2011, each of Khaimov’s patients fell into a coma, and flatlined. Khaimov’s journal entry that day simply reads; “…and now I shall go to work.” Electrical activity, mirroring that of a human being resting after physical exertion, was registering on the Lazarus Engine. They lived on in the digital afterlife that he’d created. In all, three patients died prematurely, due to the failure of the antiquated life-support machines. Their sheet-wrapped bodies were eventually found buried in the forest behind the facility, with graves carefully marked. Khaimov had placed a wreath on each. Ironically, it was one of these three who proved his undoing. Petra Fyodorov – a fifty year old divorcee from the suburbs of Moscow – like the others, had no friends or family. She did, however, have an irate ex-husband whom, when she failed to pay her alimony, endeavoured to track her down. The police were notified when the private detective he’d hired found fresh graves in the woods. Khaimov was arrested, but initially released on-bail.
Eventually, the police returned, and stormed the facility. Khaimov’s initial protests that he had to “care for [his] patients” were dismissed, but when detectives called in experts to read through the documents and examine the machinery below the floorboards of the facility, he was brought before his machines, and asked to prove that the human consciousnesses stored within were “aware”. He did this by applying an electrical stimulus, and pointing out the brain-pattern-like responses. The scientists presiding over the demonstration responded with wonder and dismay, but Khaimov simply flashed a bemused smile – as though all he had done were as natural as falling asleep.
Russian authorities wanted to turn-off the Lazarus Engine, but an international tribunal concluded that it could be murder to do so, and forbade Russia from any kind of contact with the Lazarus Engine until a better understanding had been gained. The machines were analysed, but nobody could make any sense of them. The notes were scrutinised, but the sheer volume, combined with the use of a cypher to keep them private, prevented anyone from being able to understand their contents. Meanwhile, Khaimov was interrogated. When asked what he hoped to accomplish, he rambled about a future in which the digital world intersected with the physical one, and where the dead soared on solar-winds of information, across a kind of super-internet firmament. When asked where he’d gotten his money from, Khaimov became incredibly nervous, alternating between private savings, theft and an anonymous donor. When asked why, if he was trying to advance the scientific community, he had burned his notes, Khaimov fell silent, and stared at his shoes.
Authorities growing increasingly concerned as to the well-being of Khaimov’s subjects, asked him how to communicate with them. Khaimov, visibly confused, stated that there was no way to speak with his “immortal children”. They simply ‘were’. With the situation growing desperate, and leaks to the press surfacing every day, the international investigatory body offered Khaimov a full pardon for his crimes, if he could develop a way for an outsider to contact the bodiless humans. The offer sparked outrage among some of the more passionate members of the delegation (and, indeed, those among the public who heard about it), but it delighted Khaimov. Under the supervision of a delegation of scientists, and with a detachment of UN peacekeepers permanently posted at the doors, he returned to his mountain lair and busied himself about his ever-rumbling machines.
Within one week (a time period so absurdly short, some postulate that he had prepared the technology ahead of time; anticipating the pardon-offer), he announced that he had completed his assignment. A surgical table, bristling with monitors, slots for morphine drips, and a helmet filled with electrodes and other, less appealing protrusions. All of it the faded cream colour of old tech. A young Montenegrin doctor; Luka Lazovc, offered to test it. The assembled staff watched with mild concern as Khaimov restrained the young volunteer, ran the IV into his body, and fitted the helmet to his head. He fell swiftly into a deep, all-consuming sleep. Occasionally, his pock-marked face would twitch, and at one point, he suffered a light nosebleed, which Khaimov stemmed. On the whole, the ordeal seemed mundane. Indeed, Khaimov appeared impatient – tapping upon the vitals monitor, scribbling notes and tutting at observers. An hour ticked by. Then two.
…and then Lazovc awoke. His pupils, which had been huge when he opened his eyes, took an unnaturally long time to narrow beneath the harsh, electric lights, and he opened and closed his jaw repeatedly. Tears welled in his eyes, and a stream of saliva began to trickle from his mouth. “What happened?” asked someone, “Did you see the others?” Lazvoc’s body was wracked with sobs. As soon as his arms were freed, he curled into the foetal position, and cried into his hands. “They’re screaming,” he said, “we were all blind, and we were all screaming, and there was something… in the dark. Oh God, the screaming…”
The others pressed in, jabbering away with questions, but Lazvoc said no more. Would not or could not, none could decide. He just cried until he was taken away. Khaimov’s face was blank throughout Lazvoc’s testimony. Afterwards, he smoked outside, and stared intently at the sky, before returning to his sinister machines.
Luka Lazvoc was put on an intensive counselling program. Despite his vivid (and rather ramatic) exclamations, he claimed to have no memory of what he had glimpsed inside the Lazarus Engine – in the way that a person’s nightmares fade from their mind, once they re-enter the waking world. He made good progress, or rather – he appeared to. In early 2012, police responding to noise complaints from neighbours at Lazvoc’s Berane apartment building discovered his boyfriend dead from a massive head-trauma. Lazvoc was found in the building’s basement, curled into the foetal position. A blow to the front of his head had left him in a coma – a condition in which he remains to this day. The investigation is ongoing.
In the immediate aftermath of the Luka incident, Khaimov became increasingly isolated. When his work first became known to the world, public response had been surprisingly sympathetic: here was an eccentric old man with a burning desire to further mankind and being punished by that most fashionably despised demon of society – bureaucracy. Interviews had been negotiated and papers commissioned from him. But now, intentional or no, a black shadow hung over the whole affair. Exposés ran, drawing parallels between Khaimov and the Japanese eugenicists of the Second World War. On January 9th, Russian police brutally dispersed a crowd of human rights’ protesters, outside the gates of the compound.
Khaimov observed the protests dispassionately, from an upstairs window. A few minutes later, he was seen shuffling out through a rear door – carrying an armful of paper folders. He struck a fire inside an old oil drum and dropped the files inside. This process was repeated, half a dozen times. In an hour, he had destroyed countless notes, including patient profiles, of which he had made no electronic duplicates. Moments later, UN observers noted that he received a call on his cellphone. The conversation lasted approximately eight minutes, and saw Khaimov crying and pleading with the unknown caller in hushed tones. Eventually, he emerged from his office, his eyes red. Wearing a suit, and no coat, he walked out through the main gates of the compound, and into the forest. When he failed to return, a full-scale search was mounted; to no avail. He remains on numerous “missing persons’” registers.
As I type-up this report, it is late 2014. My neighbours clear snow from their windowsills, as though Moscow’s Old District is blinking last night’s white dust from its eyelashes. The war in the Middle East is escalating, and the world’s media has turned its attention to that. Khaimov is forgotten. The United Nations squabble over what to do with the Lazarus Engine, and on the rare occasion that they agree on something, Putin shoots the idea down and claims the Lazarus Engine as his own jurisdiction. Now, and forevermore, twenty seven souls hang in digital purgatory. In that unknown darkness, they are screaming.