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Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Sanctuary: Prologue

The polarized glass of the hospital suite window was set to screen the harsh glare of the afternoon sun to a dim glow that left the quiet private room in near darkness. Cynthia lay in the comforting emptiness of the constant morphine drip her PCA pump administered, gathering her strength for Charles’ visit. She lay trapped in a love turned bitterly sour over the years. A silent ribbon of light appeared as the door gently opened.
Entering the room Charles was saddened by the lighting, he thinks, ‘She keeps herself hidden in darkness for me when the light would be so much cheerier. She can't bear to let me see the scars where cancers and surgeons have had their way with her.’
“Cynthia dear, you should let in the light you know, it isn't good for you to hide yourself in the dark, it's depressing. You know you'll feel better in the light.”
Smiling for her benefit he crosses to the window and keys down the polarization to let in more daylight before approaching her bed.
Cynthia turned away from the window, away from the light and Charles’ pain and distress. Anger rose within her in spite of the soporific narcotic, acid flooded her empty stomach and began to burn. She resented the mild sensation of it, knowing without the comfort of the drug the pain in her stomach would be excruciating; she felt the absence of her pain keenly, its loss somehow symbolic of so many other things she had lost or which had been taken away from her.
‘Charles.’ Cynthia thinks his name to herself with tones of frustration, anger and resentment. Exploring her heart, searching for the pain of their diminished love, like a tongue probing a sore tooth.
“It hurts my eyes Charles, please, the light hurts my eyes”
She cannot look at him, framed in the glow of the window. She knows this is his trick, his innocent way of keeping her face turned away from him so that he needn't look upon the ruined remains of her face, or worse, see her feelings that lived amidst her scars, that burned in her eyes, furrowing stiff tissues in painful lines, etching pain, anger and resentment into her cancer marbled features.
Of all the pains the morphine could steal away from her, she missed the pain in her heart the most. The feelings were still there, muted, struggling to assert themselves through the smothering weight of the drug, but they were oddly distant almost as if they belonged to a stranger and not to herself at all. She mourned the absence of the brilliant emotions with which she was accustomed to burning, and accepted in their place this rankling love that twisted in her heart with anguished hate, confusing her, leaving her powerless to resist Charles' misguided ministrations.
Touching Cynthia’s temple tenderly, tears welled in Charles’ eyes. The denial that rose habitually to his tongue in his defense was caught in his throat so tightly he could not cough to clear it, to free the words that would weave comfort for him, comfort meant, so he wished to believe, for Cynthia. In her effort to reject him, and, so he thought, to spare him from her agonies, he saw the shattered remains of her love for him. He was filled with the overwhelming love he felt for her, which renewed his spirit and determination to see her through this illness and returned to life again. He missed her when he thought of her, which was often these days, far more often than before the first cancer had appeared.
Before the cancer began they had become estranged.
The life he provided her was enough to keep her close, but the youthful vigor of their love had deliquesced into a tar pit in which their feelings became mired and sank beneath the surface where the bittersweet feelings languished and then turned to stone as if they were dinosaurs suffering extinction and the smothering transformation into fossils.
Fear followed the blooms of cancer that come to gorge upon her skin. Cynthia’s fear and pain that had awakened her from her emotional lassitude and sent her flying back to Charles. For a few brief years they were once more happy together, happy in a way they had never know before. Together they fought the first few rounds of battles against her disease fooling each other into believing their victory was just ahead.
Meanwhile the cancers, indifferent to the punishments of chemicals, radiation, surgery, or denial, grew on.
“Cynthia, you must live on just a little while longer, please. Hang on. I love you. I couldn't bear to lose you now, not now.”
“Charles, you want to keep me with you forever, but I don't want that anymore, I just want to go. I want to die.”
“But you needn't die you know, not really. You really needn't die. How could you want to? You know how much it hurts me to hear you say that. The Sanctuary project is nearly finished, you can be saved; you'll live on, with me. Just hang on a few more days, I promise, I will save you.”
“Nooooo! Charles, no! I don't want to be saved by your project! It's horrible, it’s evil, and it’s insane! Let me go Charles! Please, just let me go...”

Dr. Robert Jenner was concluding some new tests When Charles Laughton entered the lab.
‘In person,’ Robert thought, ‘this must be serious.’ Robert glanced nervously around, hoping that nothing was laying about that would convey anything but the most positive image about their project.
The prospective test subjects, lying comatose in their life support systems, were as clean and healthy as they could be in their circumstances. They hardly resembled the spooky living corpses that they appeared to be when Robert was alone with them.
The patient that occupied the center of the room was heavily drugged and stirred feebly. ‘The project couldn't look better, under the circumstances,’ Robert decided.
With a visible effort Robert pumped himself up to the effervescent personality that Laughton expected of him. Laughton himself was dynamic, overflowing with confidence; exuding an energetic mastery of the world around him. He distrusted quiet men, even his servants were expected to be vocal on occasion.
“Mr. Laughton, so good to see you.” Robert smiled as he approached Charles to take his hand firmly in his own and pump it the three firm stokes he had learned from Laughton. He wondered how many others, like himself, concealed grimaces with smiles in the presence of this powerful man.
“I trust your wife is doing well?” but Robert thought ‘Not,’ as he spoke.
He damn well knew that this visit could only mean that Cynthia Laughton was dying at last; that she might be dead in days or only hours. Charles Laughton was far too busy to visit the project on any but the most urgent business. He would not trust the reports that crossed his desk daily when it came down to the wire. He would trust only his direct appraisal of the man in charge.
“Thank you Robert, but no, things couldn't be much worse for Cynthia today. Is the project advanced enough to hope that we can save her now?”
“No.” The boldness of the truth coming from himself startled Robert, but that was how it was with Laughton, damn it. His charismatic aura seemed to cut through all pretension and make the most terrifying truth more comforting than risking a lie. It was too late to deny he had said it; vacillation would be presumed to be weakness.
“No, we can't save Cynthia; not today, not tomorrow, nor even next week. We can try, but we would fail.”
As if to contradict him the living corpse that lay strapped to the gurney in the center of the room groaned forth a “no” of its own. It was a lifeless moan, barely audible, a single nearly silent word that seemed to both support and contradict Robert’s statement; it was a feeble word spoken by a being almost certainly incapable of thought.
No mind could be venturing forth a reasoned opinion or response from the body on the gurney. Whatever shadowy remnant of a mind might live within that ruined cadaverous form could at best only fasten weakly on the form of a word it had once known and echo it back in mimicry of an ability to communicate that was now forever beyond its power to pursuit.
“noooo...” the decrepit form weakly wailed like the ghost it was, haunting a corpse that clung to senseless life. “noo..”
“I knew it Jenner. Who writes your damn reports, your lies, for you?”
Robert’s brief flirtation with truth was past, and in the face of blatant truth an outright lie would fly easily at this point.
“Sommers, sir.”
“She's fired.”
“I need to keep her on sir.” Laughton would respect loyalty, he admired it. He could save Sommers’ job for her.
“You're all fired.”
It was over.

“I did my best to save your job for you.” Glasses clinked and voices warbled softly in the quiet background noises of the bar. Muted punk rock hinted at the nostalgia with which the heedless listeners might have reflected on their youth.
“I can imagine your surprise when he killed the whole project, but why? We were so close, we nearly had it!”
“It was his wife; she's too close to death for us to save her.” Tom Landry ventured forth the secret that Robert thought was his privilege alone to know. “Don't look so shocked Bob, half the staff knows. It wasn't hard to deduce.”
“Damn!” Sheila rejoined, “His wife?”
“No, Damn his wife!” Bob blurted. ‘If she'd only lasted another year or three...’
“What's wrong with his wife?” Sheila pursued; she was disturbed to have been kept out of the very heart and soul of their project.
Sheila was habitually lost in her work had little interest in the world beyond her laboratory; between them Tom and Bob fleshed out the story for her, explaining the Laughton's tragedy and Cynthia Laughton's very imminent demise.
Sheila took it all in, relieved to learn at last that the project had had such a warm and human purpose to balance the clinical chill they had all worked in together.
The secrecy of their project, had been a numbing burden; but the murders? The truth of the murders was dangerously close to breaking free of the chains of rationalizations with which Sheila had shackled them to keep the terrible murders hidden away from the world.
The murders were driving her mad is what they were doing.
The project had started innocently enough; lab animals and all that. The trials had gone well, although the animals never recovered completely. The shift to human subjects startled her, but she had come around to Bob’s arguments and agreed.
Their patients came to them in two ways, body donors and spirit donors. The body donors had all been lost to inexplicable comas where their brain functions had ceased with no apparent injury to their brains. These living ‘patients’ were legally dead, but were clinging to a life that would slip away from them with no known means to intervene and save them. The spirit donors were dying patients whose minds remained alive and vital while their bodies failed them in myriad ways through accidents, disease, or old age.
These two types of donors were brought together by the awesome Sanctuary project; each pair of donors was melded into a single new being, so far the conjoined beings created in their lab were barely able to go on living; they were by no means well.
Following the transplant of a vital healthy mind and spirit to a comatose nearly lifeless body the body would recover enough vitality to survive on its own without the intervention of the costly life support machines that had been required to hold the donor body in limbo as it awaited its fate.
The spirit donors died, helped on a bit by the rigors of the procedure which stripped the spirit from its dying host and delivered it into the waiting donor body. It was becoming evident that the spirit donors could only make the leap from their native body to their new host body by dying. The spirit donor’s roles as guinea pigs in the Sanctuary project had been their final hope, they were, after all, doomed to die anyway, right?
But, the ‘new’ patients, the melded creatures whose bodies were hosts to spirits they had not been born with remained helplessly incapacitated; they were eventually terminated. It seemed like murder to Sheila.
‘Murder, she thought, ‘what else could you call it?”
Sheila wasn't aware of the murders at first. And then for awhile she was; but she denied it. Then she started investigating and discovered coincidences in the records of the new patients’ deaths that couldn't be coincidence. Tom or Bob had attended every death. None of the twenty or so technicians and nurses that staffed the project was ever present. The staff was always away from their monitoring stations at the time. At last she confronted Bob, deciding it would be safe to go to him first rather than to call the police. Her career would be as totally ruined as his if the murders were made public, never mind that she was innocent of any wrong-doing herself.
So Sheila had gone to Bob to hear his side of the story; to be fair to him, not to protect herself or her career. Or so she had told herself.
Bob already knew she had been investigating the deaths and new she considered them to be murders. But they weren't really murders, he had argued.
Bob had argued that the creatures they destroyed were hardly human any longer. Their awareness of themselves or the world around them scarcely existed. They could neither learn nor grow, nor participate in life in any way that mattered to themselves or anyone else.
‘Perhaps so’ Sheila had wanted to agree.
Sheila had argued that the point of the project was to save the dying patients by transferring their consciousness into the living bodies of brain-dead patients, she argued that if they gave their melded patients every opportunity to live they might eventually develop into people again, especially the newer ones who were obviously less remote and inhuman than their earliest subjects had become.
If the subjects were killed, any potential they might have would die with them and no one would ever know. Wouldn't the data gleaned from the slightest recovery of a patient be meaningful to the advancement of the project?
Bob allowed their ruined patients to live on for months and even years while Sheila studied them carefully and finally came to agree with his conclusions.
But they were running out of room to keep so many subjects in secret. There wasn't time to slow the pace of new tests of their procedure.
So the murders had resumed, the melded patients died.
It had rocked Sheila to her core when Bob had accused her of equating the patients' situation with that of fetuses being aborted. She had thought herself resolved to the needful justifications of abortion and to the rights of women to choose to have them. Sheila had chosen to have an abortion herself.
The parallels to the patients she defended and the fetuses she would allow to be sacrificed disturbed Sheila.
Clinging to her hard won belief in the right to choose an abortion had finally led Sheila to accept Bob's point; Bob had made the accusation precisely for that reason. She resented having her own inner conflicts turned against her; her doubts persisted even though she went along with the program.
In the end her pragmatic self-interest was always strongest.
Now, at last, the murders could stop; but the secrecy would live on to haunt her.

Internet News Service:
Cynthia Leah Boight-Laughton, wife of industrialist Charles Laughton died this morning at 4 am. At 52 years of age Cynthia Laughton finally succumbed to cancers that had consumed her life for more than twenty years.
Once considered to be a very promising artist, with several successful exhibitions Cynthia's career in art came to a stagnant conclusion following her marriage to Charles Laughton at age 22.
Five years later Cynthia Laughton began her battle with cancer.
Cynthia’s withdrawal from society following her marriage caused some speculation that her marriage might be headed for divorce. She surprised everyone with a sudden return to society that seemed to have been precipitated by her disease.
Her spirit in battling her disease was heartening to the millions throughout the world who shared her plight, and her continued survival against all odds inspired many others to resist and overcome their own cancers. Cynthia used her powerful husband’s enormous wealth to make many endowments to charities and research institutes which battled cancer, either by promoting research, or by providing treatment and comfort to those afflicted by cancer.
Perhaps the most important of all her endowments were those which were made to empower citizen groups to promote green movements and curb the pollution and degradation of the environment which has been identified as the cause of the alarming rate of growth of cancer.
Services for Cynthia Laughton will be held Tuesday at 2 pm in Boight Park before the ‘Fountain of Life.’ The park will be closed to the public for the duration. The public is asked not to attend. Please send charitable donations in lieu of flowers or gifts to: The Boight Foundation for Global Health.
The sun shone harshly on the black umbrellas that sheltered the small crowd by the fountain. UV rays were eating away at the mourners; their grief was disturbed only by worry for their own skins.
Those gathered in the park were some of society's most elite members who were rarely seen in the light of day without full dress, capes, sun block, sunhats and umbrellas, and even then, they were seen only briefly.
Charles Laughton was not among the throng of mourners, nor were Cynthia's remains present. The crowd was anxious and uncertain how to proceed without the charismatic presence of either Charles or Cynthia to lead them. They were sycophants for the most part, many of them knew this but they would deny it in good grace.
Their discomfort was Charles’ jest and revenge. He could never tolerate the weaker people that had always seemed to hover about his wife. Indeed, for awhile he had managed to drive them off after they were married. He managed to hide his knowledge of his culpability for having destroyed Cynthia's career from himself. In driving off the flies (as he had thought of them) he had isolated Cynthia from the energy that had driven her artistic inspirations.
As she had pined away in the isolation Charles had imposed upon her Cynthia’s artistic genius had atrophied and died.
Charles had always been confused by art and he had presumed that art only had merit within the context of the social fabric that sustained it. Charles had viewed Cynthia’s legions of friends as weak vapid creatures bankrupt of character or merit. That society would find talent anywhere to suit its purposes; whatever merit might be possessed by the individual artists their society currently lauded or disdained seemed to be impugned by their attentions.
Art threatened Charles; when Cynthia's precocious talent dried up he was comforted, albeit disturbed as well, since her ardor for him seemed to wane along with her talent.
Charles had been attracted to Cynthia by her captivating presence. While others claimed to be drawn to her talent, although Charles had not known it, Charles had been drawn to Cynthia by the huge number of others that gravitated about her. In Cynthia’s ability to enthrall so many people Charles seemed to recognize himself, he therefore considered her to be a woman as powerful as he. A woman of such incredible power was the only sort he believed he could desire.
In driving off Cynthia’s ‘flies’ he had driven off the manifestation of her power that had caught and held his attention; then as her interest in him was waning, so, too, was his own interest in her.
For Cynthia this period was one of bitterness. She had come to understand that Charles would not compete for her attention but simply drive all others away.
At first this had pleased her. She had been unaware of the importance of other people in her life since they had always been there. Then, in the isolation imposed by her husband she began to languish without at first understanding why.
As she began to realize what she had lost, Cynthia began to resent Charles' interference, but it was already too late. In her isolation with him she had come to adopt his view of her old friends; and, seen in that merciless perspective, they were no longer particularly attractive to her. When she tried to return to them she found she had become a stranger and an outsider among them. The few who exhibited any eagerness to once again exalt her only put her off.
Cynthia then found that she didn't know where to turn; she was without direction in her life. She turned inward upon herself and adopted the isolation that Charles had imposed, accepting her isolation she made it her home.
When Cynthia’s disease began to bloom upon her fair skin she was trying to revive her talent by turning from portraitures to landscapes. Her passion for the natural world had come to replace the passion she had once felt for her friends and Charles, and she courted her new passion dangerously, flirting brazenly with a sun unbridled by the polluted ruined sky beneath which she worked.
No one was surprised, least of all Cynthia, when the cancers had appeared upon her. She could admit to herself that she had somehow perversely been courting cancer and death rather than life and the sun as she painted. Cynthia suspected that it was this dark romance with death that had tinged her paintings with disturbing undercurrents. Galleries accepted fewer of her works, admirers turned away in confusion wondering what had happened to the great vitality her art had formerly portrayed.
Cynthia accepted responsibility for the failure of her new work to find a home with her old audience, and she accepted the success with which her new cancers found a home in her.
What had finally surprised Cynthia was the brevity of her acceptance of her disease. Once her courtship with death had borne its deadly fruit Cynthia’s romance with death had turned to terror. Cynthia then turned to Charles who was the only potentially accessible person remaining in her world.
Charles did not spurn her, for at last he held her entirely in his power.
Charles had always tried to deny his own will to dominate Cynthia. He denied any cause and effect relationship between his driving off her friends and the disintegration of her spirit. Now, seemingly without any effort on his part, she was wholly in his power.
Charles exulted! He understood that her cancer had driven him into his arms but he had no problem with that. He never would accept that he had helped her to court her terrible disease, either by the privation of company which had set her adrift from humanity, or by the degradation of the environment that followed his factories wherever he might build them.

Charles had felt free to enjoy his new found power over Cynthia without guilt, he scarcely noticed how much she had changed from the woman she once had been. Where before he had believed he had sought a powerful partner, he now found himself with a child-like wife, this pleased him because his authority over her was assured.
He indulged her in her every whim and fancy, as only he could, for his wealth and power in the world were great enough to buy small nations, or even half of California.
As she learned to use his wealth more and more toward her own purposes Cynthia’s spirit was rekindled by the breadth and depths to which she could aspire. All the smoldering resentment toward Charles returned with new inspiration and she turned his wealth against him with a vengeance, funding any number of causes that she hoped might choke his factories with enough regulations to restore some semblance of health to the world she had watched him carelessly destroy.
Charles was too infatuated with his role as father figure to his child-like wife to mind the conflicts of interest that arose between Cynthia's projects and his own. His wealth was more than enough to weather the inconveniences that sprouted from her social movements, and in the long run he began to find it cheaper to anticipate her growing influence and go along with it supportively, than to pay lawyers to fight her on his behalf when he himself could not resist her.
As her sickness overtook her life Cynthia’s spirit grew stronger, she found herself once more at the hub of society. Before her marriage, the sycophants she had attracted had admired her talent; but guided by Charles, Cynthia had eventually learned to spurn her former admirers for their weaknesses. Now there were new sycophants who were drawn to the wealth and power she commanded and she forgave them their weaknesses and tolerated them, provided they proved useful to any of her multitude of causes.
She treated them all with warmth and compassion and respect and they loved her for it in return.
By the time Cynthia took to her bed in her hospital suite she had built an empire of her own from the coffers of her husbands wealth, but then she found herself once more alone with her pain, bitter and angry with herself, her husband, and the world.
In Boight Park the umbrellas of the sycophants closed quietly as dusk descended; the inertia which had held everyone there nervously carrying out their final devotions to Cynthia’s memory finally broke. As if excused by some stern teacher, they all began to drift quietly away, a little puzzled that no one came to guide them in their mourning. Insulted, they failed to understand they had been invited there by Charles to be deliberately insulted.
Charles sadly laid Cynthia's ashes to rest in the earth of his own grave; he then left his life to rest with her. His suicide was quiet and anticlimactic. His lawyers were well paid to keep his final moments private, and they succeeded in downplaying this last event to the press.
Charles immense estate was but a fragment of its former glory, for he had allowed nearly all his wealth to whither under the onslaught of Cynthia’s projects. Yet he was still incredibly wealthy when he died. The bulk of his estate was endowed to the project upon which he had staked all of his hopes for Cynthia’s salvation and their future.

The Sanctuary project had survived, but Sheila, Tom and Bob were still fired and they resented being dismissed from their creation.