“My homunculus is malfunctioning.”
I could feel it, shifting around in my chest, as I waited for the on-call doctor to respond. The doctor’s badge indicated that he didn’t have one, so I didn’t think he would understand, but as I began to speak, to describe what had been happening to me over the past few weeks, his questions and observations revealed that he understood quite well. And he came to this conclusion.
My homunculus was malfunctioning.
I lay on the operating table, still and quiet as blue-gowned men bustled around me. The room grew dark except for the bright lights above me, and the faint glow of a monitor just beyond my right foot. It was late, but the surgery team had assembled quickly. A hand hovered above my face and put a respirator over my mouth and nose. I felt my heartbeat quicken as I took deep and deliberate breaths.
My dreams were deep last night, but I don’t remember them.
Maybe they weren’t my dreams. Maybe they were his.
I remember waking from those dreams slowly with tears forming in my sleepy eyes, a pressure in my chest, images flickering and fading from view, a word or a name on the tip of my tongue. Someone saying, “tell me”? Tell me what? Why did I feel so strongly? What had I been witnessing?
Surges of emotion swelled and receded, swelled and receded, swelled and receded. I could hardly catch my breath. My stomach roiled. The cycle was exhausting. It would have been even if I were used to it. But I haven’t felt such strong emotions in a long while. It’s been an age, as my brother would say. I should have gone to him first. He has no homunculus. He doesn’t need one. At worst, his emotions may overwhelm him, but they won’t literally kill him.
There’s a mass wrapped around my heart, you see. It’s been with me all my long life. And if it wasn’t for my homunculus, that mass might have grown large enough to kill me, much like the ancient cancers. And without my homunculus, that mass will return. It will grow, and it will grip, and it will choke the very life out of me.
Far past my school-days, I could still recite the date, the time, the very second that humankind eradicated all diseases of the body. No more cancer. No more infection. No more parasites. No more chronic pain. No more diarrhea. Ah, but it was more than that. We put an end to permanent damage. Missing limbs could be regenerated. Organs damaged by abuse or accident could be regrown. Name a tissue, or a cell, or a molecule, we could synthesize it. We could make it in isolation. We could craft it within a whole system.
We finally found a way to do what all the king’s horses and all the king’s men had failed to. We finally found a way to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Of course, there were limits. We couldn’t bring people back from the dead. We couldn’t restore a body that had been damaged so badly that the…essence was gone. The soul, that is.
And there were still maladies we had not mastered. The brain we could restore, regenerate, revive. The mind, however, was still a mystery.
The mind and the heart. The figurative counterparts to the organs in our bodies. The seats of emotion and identity. Not only did they remain a mystery. But the absence of damage and disease in our bodies seemed to leave a vacuum that nature, the universe, or perhaps just bad luck sought to fill. The damage and diseases of our minds seemed to amplify, worsen, and spread as we aged further and further beyond the lifespans of our ancestors. One hundred years. One hundred and fifty. Two hundred. And these were twisted versions of the mental illnesses suffered by our ancestors. These new pathological emotions were terrible in far different ways. There was…psychic harm.
Treatments and therapies failed us. Drugs were unreliable. In my generation, about half the population suffered from diagnoses of pathological emotion syndrome. There was talk about returning to systems of imprisonment. There were rumors that some governments had already done so.
But there was also brighter, more hopeful talk. Of overcoming the worst parts of ourselves even as we embraced the best. Intense emotions were like great waves, some said. A wave could drown a person. But if he learned how to master it, he could ride it and rise to great heights. Some did not believe that the word “pathological” should be attached to what they deemed was an evolution of human emotion. We were stronger than our ancestors, such believers would say, and that was why our emotions too were stronger.
But no one could argue against preventing the death and torment that often resulted from untreated cases.
As with many cures and treatments in our history, the ones that worked best upon our pathological emotions were serendipitously discovered. A gene therapy combined with whole-body bombardment with special quantum particles. It allowed the mind and body to interact, precipitating the energies of emotions into substance, substance that was unstable in its solidity, but much easier to deal with than intangible emotion.
Even normal human emotion is intense, sometimes repulsive, and sometimes magnetic. When it came to the pathological emotions of some treated patients, such a statement could be taken literally. Some patients began to secrete and exude compounds when their normal emotional response converted to pathological damaging emotions. The secretions were their body’s way of expelling the condensed pathological emotions. This condensation and expulsion calmed and relieved the person, but repulsed others around them. Hatred, as it turns out, actually does stink. Love smelled lovely, but could be overwhelming and disorienting. The skin of these patients would leave behind a gooey residue, which always dissipated on its own, but was meanwhile unpleasant to see or feel. And then there was the inability of such a person to hide his or her feelings, as one must do at times in civilized society.
But this subset of treated patients were, in the end, the lucky ones. They were easiest to treat once dissipative therapies were developed. All they needed was their choice of a customized potion of neutralizing compounds and chemicals, or molecular disruptors strategically implanted in their epidermis, or special meditative training combined with periodic visits to “sweat” lodges. There were more dissipative therapies arising as time went on. They were inexpensive, and many were making their way over the counter.
But almost a third of those who were treated with the gene-quantum-particle therapy lacked the ability to secrete those condensed pathological emotions.
Within the bodies of these people, the pathological emotions condensed around their internal organs—typically within the chest cavity—until they formed a mass of variable density and corporeality. The patients still benefited from a calming of their emotions, but the mass inevitably and invariably threatened their lives by squeezing and suffocating their vital organs.
Surgical removal of such masses was tricky. They always returned, and a body could only endure being cut open so many times, even with advances in regeneration. It was…wearying. And risky. It was rare, but there were times the surgery would fail. The condensed emotions would resist cutting. One didn’t use a metal scalpel to cut away emotion, after all. The transdimensional blade might slip right through the condensate. Or worse, the blade might brush the condensate enough to alarm it. This was not a living creature. But it was a ball of emotion. As nerves conduct thought, this unnatural mass conducted feeling. And it often developed a rudimentary reflex. The condensate mass might “panic,” flicker into solidity, grip too tightly, and before the surgeons could cut it away with ordinary metal scalpels, squeeze its host to death.
Something had to be done. And something was. An implant was developed, much more sophisticated than the pacemakers that were once implanted in malfunctioning heart organs with the simple task of maintaining a faithful beat.
If only I’d been born sooner, in the early days of the implanted construct’s release. Not too early, mind you. Not the alpha-constructs with all their kinks. Not the betas with their eighty-five percent efficacy. The gamma generation of constructs. They were perfect. They suffered no malfunctions whatsoever. But I digress.
Serendipity prevailed again. A path of treatment that was once rejected was revisited.
A French scientist on the international team that first discovered the creature called it “le nourrisson affamé,” a hungry suckling infant. Because like a suckling infant, le nourrisson sustained itself on the nourishment produced and provided by another, larger creature, us. It fed on the “milk” of our emotions. This leech-like half-corporeal creature was first found within the bodies of even-keeled scientists working in exotic particle laboratories.
Unlike a vampire or a ghoul, le nourrisson did not suck the life out of its host. Le nourrisson seemed to cause no harm. It was observed that le nourisson could sometimes produce sudden and unexpected emotion. Perhaps on accident through regurgitation. Or perhaps on purpose as a defense mechanism to prompt the host’s fight or flight response. A subset of people in certain parts of the world carried the creatures. None of those people ever suffered or died from carrying their guests. How le nourrisson reproduced or found its hosts remained a mystery. It was only when a carrier died that researchers were able to study le nourrisson, for it died with its host.
Le nourrisson affamé could be found in no other animal. As we perished, they perished. And as we flourished, they flourished.
Over time, enough was known about le nourrisson that biopsychic engineers went to work adapting le nourrisson’s form and function into a construct that they called the homunculus. They intensified the construct’s hunger and focused it on negative and pathological emotions, emotions that served no purpose other than to damage us.
Inspired by the natural mutual symbiosis between people and the creature that served as their model, the engineers created an artificial construct that could be described as neither biological nor mechanical implanted within people to soak up pathological emotions. Our harmful wastes fed the homunculus; the homunculus drank away our disease.
Humanity finally dreamed of leaving torment and violence behind, a bloody history exchanged for a peaceful future. The homunculus was touted as a cure-all for those who chose to use it. And of course there was a contingent of people who believed the technology manipulated human emotion by dampening it.
I was not one of those people. When I was diagnosed with pathological emotions, I was happy to get the homunculus implant.
You don’t have to feel afraid to be afraid. I haven’t felt fear, or anger, or sadness since I can remember. But I knew something was wrong with me and had been for almost a year. The homunculus wasn’t supposed to care about our so-called positive emotions. Elation, mirth, love. And yet, I hadn’t felt any of those either. And what about pride? What about relief? Was I just not feeling those feelings at an older age? Or had it been feeding on everything? Had it left me nothing? I wondered. But not having any emotions at all, just being in calm, was something I could live with. So I never went in with any complaints.
But in recent weeks, I noticed that there was one emotion my homunculus was not helping me to dampen. I kept feeling worry. My stomach would flip and flutter over the smallest decisions or the slightest comments of others. It was troubling. It was…worrying.
I went in and got the construct adjusted. It was a non-invasive procedure to recalibrate, they said. First they made me drink a bitter-tasting fluid and wait half an hour before putting a scanner against my chest. I’d never seen my homunculus before. I was shocked at how big it was. It was the size of a lung. The technicians had me stand between two neck-high plates of stony-looking metal. Or metallic-looking stone. I couldn’t tell if anything was happening at first, if the device was even on. But even before the procedure was done, I began to feel calmer, more balanced. And I was fine for a while.
But then I began to feel sudden fear at the oddest and most inopportune moments. I was at a gathering with friends and I suddenly felt as if something was crushing my chest and I couldn’t breathe. When the feeling subsided, I went home at once, not wanting to make a further scene. I thought it must have been some side effect of the recalibration procedure. A very upsetting side effect.
My brother was there when I got home. He joked about how pale I looked, but then he saw my wide eyes and my struggle to breathe, and he sat me down and asked me what happened. He’s the one who told me what the emotion was that I’d felt. Panic. Fear. It had been so long, I hadn’t recognized them.
That night, I started having dreams that were not my own.
I don’t know how I knew they were not my own. I felt another presence, not a character in my dream, but another presence that was aware. Aware of me, as I was of him—it. Him.
Someone found me screaming in the alley behind the restaurant where I’d gone to lunch with some potential clients.
I never conquered my emotions. And thought I never would. Because I wouldn’t have to. He would conquer them for me. He would feed upon them, devour them. They would vanish, and I would be calm, no matter how much all the people around me infuriated me, frightened me, saddened me. He would gulp down my rage and fear and sorrow before the feelings ever amassed, before they even reached my gut, my heart, or my mind.
But he wasn’t…it wasn’t doing its job. It wasn’t just malfunctioning. I was malfunctioning. I was—we were suffering.
I was told about the risks before my implantation surgery. It was more dangerous not to have a homunculus, of course. More dangerous to let the condensate of pathological emotion continue to grow. But there were also dangers in using a construct that was based on a creature whose nature was not completely understood. Variables had been accounted for. Extraneous functions had been disabled. But there were rumors of “adverse reactions” even years or decades after implantation. Rumors of homunculi becoming…active. None of the rumors spoke of pain or death on the part of the host. All homunculi came with lifetime guarantees. If adjustments didn’t work, if a malfunction could not be fixed, the homunculus would be removed, and another transplanted in its place.
This was not ideal. It was not a simple construct. A homunculus implanted in patient at a young age grew with that person, and developed according to the special stew of emotions that the individual host released during his or her life. A fresh homunculus might never reach the level of optimization that the original had.
When they wheeled me into emergency surgery, it was only by the benefit of sedatives that I was not still screaming. Under the fog of the drugs, I felt the sharp spikes of panic jabbing through the unyielding coating of fear that wrapped around my gut.
Memories flooded my mind. I heard my brother’s voice speaking with one of his friends, having one of those meaningful academic conversations with a friend after coming out of a philosophy class.
“We underestimated them,” my brother said. “We took them for granted.”
His friend shook his head and recited a line from one of their texts. “‘Ah, the age-old tale of human arrogance. Nothing ever seems to affect that one emotion, though all the others be calmed.'”
They were talking about the homunculus, quoting some obnoxious author they were both obsessed with at the time.
A man within a man. What a horrific and twisted thing we have wrought.
I don’t know when it was that I fell unconscious.
Inconceivably, though my veins were coursing with anesthesia, my eyelids flew open. The shock of a new emotion, worse than any of the others, woke me. I couldn’t name it. I was groggy, and it was bright, but I turned my head and I saw him in the hands of one doctor. My homunculus.
He looked like…a person. Small, no bigger than an infant. But his face was proportioned like a man’s. His expression was one I’d never expect to find on an infant. His gaze was turned toward me and he was afraid, but he also looked betrayed. And without him in my chest to temper it, I felt a surge of emotion. It was unbearable, but it was not pathological. It was normal. It was for him. It was not pity. I thought for such a small and wretched creature, I would surely feel pity. It was not anger. I thought for his malfunctioning, his betrayal of me, I would surely feel anger.
It was sadness. Sadness swelled within my chest as it lay open to the room. I…lost. It was loss.
My arm felt heavy, almost impossible to lift, but I managed to raise it and pull off the mask over my nose and mouth. It was an effort to speak. The doctors sprung to action. They tried to calm me. I glimpsed the hole in my chest, a neat squared lined with blue cloth, not a drop of blood anywhere. I told them to close me up. I wanted to see my homunculus.
As he was being carried away, he spoke. The doctors were shocked.
And another emotion surged within me. Rage. It condensed around my gut, searing and roiling.
My mask was restored. My homunculus vanished into the shadows beyond the operating lights.
When I woke, I was in a room with soft sunlight streaming through cracks in the drapes. There were balloons and bouquets of flowers in the room. My brother was dozing in a chair nearby, an open magazine lying on his lap. I no longer felt the surge of emotion I’d felt when my homunculus was removed. I touched my chest and winced at the soreness that lingered. There must have been another one in there.
When my nurse came by to check on me, I asked him if I could see my old homunculus. He smiled sympathetically and told me I could not. I worried—though I didn’t feel the emotion—that my old homunculus may have met his demise. He might even then be lying in a bin of medical waste. But I didn’t think that was so. I had a…feeling. He was still alive. Alive. My homunculus was alive.
Later, when my doctors came by, I asked them too. And they too would not tell me anything other than that my homunculus would be studied. My suffering would not be for nothing. They would learn what went wrong and build a better homunculus.
I felt a weight on my heart, a weight that could not be lifted by the new homunculus.
I haven’t been bothered by much in my life. I’ve always been able to let things go. But I could not stop an unbidden thought from invading daily thoughts. It took me a few days to recover, so I began to read some of my brother’s books.
Some thought we had gone too far, as we often did, in tampering with ourselves, our natural selves. We reached beyond treating and preventing true disease and began to prevent part of what made us human. Homunculi were only to suckle on our darkest emotions. But over time they seemed to dampen all of them. In an effort to curb violence, we had also curbed passion. In an effort to relieve pain, we had dampened our desires. In an effort to temper our impulses, we had drowned our interests. We were tamer. But we were no wiser. Because we had cheated.
Some thought that governments were disposing of the malfunctioning homunculi, but most believed governments were trying to study them, not to prevent further “adverse reactions,” but to find out why and how they were happening. Of particular interest were malfunctions that made the constructs more complex, and consequently more problematic.
Some believed they knew the answer. Le nourrisson affamé, the leech-like creature on which the constructs were modeled, were moving against their competition. They were possessing the homunculi, using them to advance in complexity, to become corporeal. They were even taking the shape of their hosts, or trying to. They were gaining sentience.
I read all these things, all these sensational things, these paranoid things, these potentially true things. But I didn’t find the one truth that I had uncovered.
And I could not stop the unbidden thought from invading my daily thoughts. The words my homunculus spoke as he was being carried off.
They had to remove my new homunculus. It happened sometimes. It was bad luck, they said. The pain, the pain that started as soreness in my chest, just got worse and worse. Nothing was wrong with me, physically. But I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t bear the constant ripping and tearing.
When I woke, I began to feel my own emotions. I imagined the mass already growing back around my heart, pathological emotions condensing now that there was no homunculus to devour them. I spotted the new homunculus lying in a jar beside my bedside. It did not look like a little human. It looked like a pulsing mass of tissue, flickering in and out of my sight, no discernable limbs or eyes or mouth.
I was worried about what might happen. Would I be found screaming in an alley again? Were those even my emotions that I felt that day?
I felt something else shift in my chest, something I had not felt with the new homunculus implanted within me. I felt the thoughts and feelings of another, and I knew who this other was. My old homunculus. His presence was faint, like an afterimage in my mind. But it was certain. He wasn’t there beside my heart, but I could still feel him. We were still bound somehow.
I recovered quickly this time. And it took a while, but I did find the truth that I was looking for with the help of my brother’s more paranoid friends. My homunculus’s particular “malfunction” was once rare, but was becoming more and more common. Governments feared the rise of sentience among the homunculi. They rushed to replace the malfunctioning ones. They studied them. They tried to learn how to prevent the malfunction. They tried unsuccessfully to communicate with the newborn homunculi. Surely they were also trying to tap the secret of how the discarded homunculi remained connected to their hosts. A very small subset of people, less than fifty in all the world, were like me. They were unable to withstand the implantation of another homunculus and therefore had to endure a lifetime of constant monitoring and multiple risky surgeries to remove the condensed pathological emotions.
It’s strange that despite the sweat, jittery, nerve-wracking terror I sometimes feel when I wake in the middle of the night, I don’t want my emotions to be tempered for what I must do next. I need their strength. I need their chaos.
I am a wretched creature. And I have birthed a wretched creature. Wretched, because he was abandoned. He is my responsibility, but I left him in alien hands. How long could he live outside of me? Could he live without me?
He was not my child. But he bore some of my burdens. To him they were not burdens. They were sustenance. He needs me. But I need him too. We are bound together. He is not just a piece of me. He is more. Perhaps he is like my child after all. He saved me from my disease, before he woke. I’ve got to return the favor. I must be brave for once in my life. Brave enough to feel. That’s how I’ll find him. I know his thoughts. He knows my feelings. We are bound. Our minds and hearts are entangled. He told me his name in a dream. I finally remembered it. He took it from a dream we shared about my brother, the scholar who studied ancient stories of mythical miniature humans, of homunculi, mandragora, and anthroparions.
He is not a construct, my homunculus. He is not a tool to be kept in a jar and prodded and peered at. He is a person.
I’ll cut a hole in my chest, with the self-guided surgical first aid scalpel. It’s the only way I can get him out. No one will expect it. No one will expect this fussy hypochondriac to pull open his chest and smuggle his homunculus out of that unholy excuse for a laboratory. I speak my oath.
“I am coming, Telesphorus.”
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Emergency Implantation Surgery” by Sanjay Patel.