Lava Man

22 Sep

Pliny was a trusted childhood friend of the Emperor Vespasian. So, when he approached the latter with a request that the ruler support him in an unprecedented project, his old chum felt obligated to help him.

The two men met at an Imperial hunting lodge in the hills east of Rome. This was where Pliny the writer opened his heart to his imperial friend.

“I am haunted day and night by an idea that came to me in the course of my long study of the science of nature. My mind concentrated on finding the foundation of life in all its forms. The focus of my work has been the secret behind living beings, the animating force in our world.

“Certain truths have become clear to me, my friend. For instance, that the earth is the mother of all animate beings, including the human inhabitants of the world. What I mean is this: the material source of the life principle is below us, in the earth. Therefore, the openings in the land surface permit contact with these original sources. Only down beneath us can we capture what is the essence of life. That is where our origins lie.”

Pliny paused, noting the intense interest of all-powerful Vespasian in what he was telling him.

“My dream is to go south to the Bay of Neapolis and study Vesuvius, the volcanic mouth of the netherworld. There, I plan something never done before.”

“And what is that?” begged his childhood companion, the emperor.

The naturalist, after drawing a deep breath, explained the enterprise he had in mind.

“The gods create each of us in the wombs of our mothers from material substance identical to what is found all about in the soil. What is the real difference? It is the breath of life, the vital potential, bestowed upon us at our birth. That is what makes objects alive.

“Now, I ask myself a question. Why cannot the intelligence of man duplicate nature? Is it impossible for learned man to take the material of our world and inject animation into it? Of course, not with any ordinary substance.

“But can molten lava be used, from deep underground?

“It is clear to me that the appropriate breath of life can be extracted from the magma flowing from the great volcano. That is where I hope to uncover the means of making a new form of life.”

By now, Vespasian had caught the infection of Pliny’s enthusiasm.

“Yes,” he smiled. “I shall help to bring that about. All my resources will be at your disposal. It must be attempted immediately.”

“The primal energy in the magma will allow me to put together a new, animated man,” predicted Pliny. “The result will be something never seen before: a human being produced by the human hand.”

The naturalist outlined the details of the project he had in mind.

Pliny rented a cottage for himself on the edge of the town of Herculaneum a short distance from the high caldera of the volcano. From here, he supervised the building of a work structure in the upper slope of Vesuvius. Near that spot, a small stream of hot lava appeared sporadically, at unpredictable moments.

Pliny studied with fascination the molten, flowing liquid that at times appeared. Ceramic jars full of it were carried to the workshops. Many experiments with the fluid substance from the bowels of the earth followed. Knowledge of how to make and mold it increased.

Letters from Pliny arrived for the Emperor in Rome.

What should the planned creature be called? The naturalist considered the label of simulacrum corporis humani, but it seemed too long and complicated.

He offered Vespasian the terms humullus, homunculus, and humuncio and proposed that his friend chose the most appropriate name.

The Emperor, interested in all aspects of the project, replied with the idea that the new creature be called the Vivax.

“It shall remain appreciative of the life that you gave it,” wrote Vespasian to his lifelong friend. “Vivax shall serve you faithfully.”

The name was accepted by Pliny at once, so that the construct had a name even before it existed as a real object. The word “Vivax” came to be used by everyone involved in the secret program up on Mt. Vesuvius. It symbolized the ambition to create a new form of human being.

Pliny faced a grimly difficult problem: the internal organs of the new being could not be produced from the life-giving magma of the volcano. The task was too difficult to complete.

He decided to find an illegal bustirapus, a professional grave robber who could provide a body for dissection into parts. But where to locate a latro tumulorum, an outlaw who dug up and stole the treasures buried with the dead in graveyards?

A solution was soon found.

By asking questions in the poorest section of Herculaneum, the naturalist was directed to an old man who lived near the volcano. His name was Cerellus, and his reputation was dark and unsavory.

Pliny arranged to meet this shadowy person late at night at the oldster’s dilapidated residence, masking a very lucrative criminal business.

A knock on the rotting door was enough to bring about the appearance of a short, stooped figure who identified himself as Cerellus. He led Pliny into a tiny room where the pair sat at a small circular tabula.

First to speak was the tall, stocky visitor. His carbonically dark eyes possessed a sparkle of fearless curiosity.

“You must be able to guess the reason for my coming here so late,” began Pliny.” Everyone hereabouts knows that I am engaged in an enterprise of enormous importance. It has been conveyed to me that you have the ability to supply certain items no longer in use, that will never again be needed by those who once owned them. That is what draws me to your abode this evening, Cerellus.”

The latter made a sardonic grimace. “You want certain specific parts, then?”

Pliny provided a list of the central organs that he needed: the all-important liver, the heart, and the two kidneys. “Those are the most necessary for maintaining a living state,” he said, staring at the latro.

“The cerebrum is the most important organ, of course,” said the latter. “Without a brain, no one can command or control the rest of the body.” For a bare moment, the writer was uncertain what to say to the criminal grave robber.

“Yes, I shall need that organ as well,” he quietly muttered.

In the recesses of his mind, Pliny foresaw the construction of the spine and bone structure of the creature made from magmatic material.

“I can supply you with these organs within a fortnight,” promised Cerellus. “You will have to pay ahead of time for my service, of course.”

“Fine!” exclaimed the visitor as he sprang to his feet. “No need for you to see me out.”

Pliny was quite happy to escape the cottage and the ugly face of the aged grave robber.

Where was one to find an artifex skilled enough to mold volcanic lava into bones and a skeleton? Who possessed such ability? he asked himself.

The best chance was in the great city of Neapolis. That was where Pliny took his hunt for the craftsman he needed. His hopes of locating such an expert were high ones.

Through the narrow lanes of the artisan sector next to the bay, he searched for a glass-blower who could make him what he needed. The first two workshops did not provide much promise. Only the third one presented a candidate with the right qualifications for the difficult task.

The master named Agatho was a large-boned giant with gigantic muscles.

“I have worked in glass for over twenty years,” boasted the Neapolitan. “All my time and effort have been dedicated to perfecting my skills and discovering new methods of producing vitrum. My knowledge of glass is the best of anyones’s in our profession.”

“You claim to be versatile, then?” asked the intrigued visitor.

“Indeed, sir. Let me show you some of the rare, specialized glass of mine.”

Pliny gazed in astonishment at the rainbow of color in the articles shown to him. He saw glass of hues he had never perceived before.

Here was the man he needed on Mt. Vesuvius, he was firmly convinced.

“I wish to hire you for a difficult task,” revealed the naturalist. “The work must be kept secret. You shall have to come with me past Herculaneum, onto the highest slopes of the volcano. Are you willing to join me there?”

Agatho replied that he was.

“When do I start?” he asked with curiosity.

“As soon as certain necessary objects are delivered,” answered Pliny with a grin.

Several small streams of flowing magma were diverted and channeled through ditches. Here it was that Agatho set up his glass-blowing equipment.

Pliny revealed the dimensions of the enterprise once Cerellus delivered the organs.

“We are going to revive these body parts by enveloping them in life-giving volcanic lava transformed into vitrinic form. Our goal is a functioning artificial man, encased in magmatic glass.

“You must create hard vitrum for the skeleton and glassy strings for the muscles and the skin. All the organs and tissues must fit together. Can you foresee how to construct a harmonic whole?”

“I am confident of success,” answered the artisan. “But how will the new man see? What will he use for vision?”

Pliny frowned. “I will have to talk with the organ supplier again. He is the only one who can help us solve that problem.”

The making of the new being progressed with amazing speed. The grave robber delivered the eyes of a recently deceased youth. They were bright and undamaged. The new lava man would be able to use them.

Flesh and sinew of glass were molded into useable human parts.

A body mostly vitrinic took shape in the workshops. Glass fibers, woven into a fabric, encased the torso like a tight skin of flesh. Nothing similar had ever existed before.

Last of all, a stolen brain enclosed in an envelope of glass was installed.

Only Pliny, Agatho, and a few trusted servants were present when the artificial object was set on its feet and taught to take walking steps.

It moves! It feels! It thinks! realized all those who were present.

The overjoyed naturalist decided to write to the Emperor and inform him what he had done.

Why am I not told what my deliveries are for? wondered Cerellus. His seething anger rose even higher. What is so important that it has to be concealed from me? Why can I obtain no explanations from the Roman named Pliny? he fumed.

The grave robber decided to steal up the volcano and have his own look at what was going on there. His mind was ablaze with greed, jealousy, and curiosity. What is the purpose of the activities on top of Vesuvius? Why were body organs needed by those working up there? He imagined that the solution of these mysteries could make him a wealthy man who could afford to retire from cemetery raiding.

It was his plan to climb up the slopes in the hours before dawn so that he could survey the sleeping camp. The task exhausted him. But as soon as the little latro peered across the high caldera in the predawn light, he spied something strange and unnatural.

An extraordinary figure, tall and thin, walked about in the yellow glow of sunrise. It had no hair. The face was flat and almost featureless. There seemed to be something familiar about its large, almondlike eyes.

Cerellus watched as the monstrous shape approached the edge of the summit with slow, tentative steps. It seemed to be child learning how to walk.

His mind, calculating rapidly, constructed an explanation for what he observed.

Here was where the heart, liver, kidneys, brain, and eyes that he had himself supplied had gone. This object was what had resulted from the purchase of organs from him. It was a constructed kind of new man.

No one, though, is tending to the creature, minding its behavior.

It is wandering about on its own, exploring and exercising. Is the being moved by restlessness? he wondered. Is there something disturbing it?

An idea suddenly occurred to the old grave robber.

Why not take control over whatever it was, kidnap the object, and force Pliny to pay a high ransom for its return?

Why not profit from what he had just uncovered?

This moving creature was his as much as anyone else’s, he convinced himself.

Possessed at once by the thought of gain, Cerellus sprang instantly into action.

Over the rim he hurled his body, approaching the tall shape, surprising it by taking one of its giant hands in his two.

“Come with me,” he whispered to the surprised simulacrum.

Amazingly, the creature called Vivax gave no resistance to its abduction. It obeyed him at once, doing what was required of it.

Cerellus was astonished at how docile the strange form proved to be.

It fulfilled the silent command of the kidnapper, following him over the edge of the caldera. Slowly, the pair descended Mt. Vesuvius toward the city and the bay.

Vivax showed himself able to maintain balance as they climbed downward. His careful steps duplicated those of the old man. He was gaining control over his body.

It was when they reached flat ground at sea level that a thunderous explosion rolled through the morning air.

Cerellus realized at once what it was: the sound of volcano and earthquake. Major eruptions of magmatic lava are coming, he told himself. There is going to be a horrendous  disaster in a short time. Rocks were already raining all about, in every direction.

How was he to save himself and his unhuman companion?

He peered up into the unmoving almond eyes of the constructed creature, the man of lava.

Had the new being foreseen the coming volcanic explosion? Was that the reason for the obedient cooperation with the orders given him? Did the creature intend to save himself?

A flying stone struck the head of Cerellus, felling him instantly.

Undisturbed at seeing this, Vivax continued walking away in flight.

It was in the year 79 A.D. that the famed Roman writer named Pliny lost his life along with thousands of others in the colossal catastrophe of earthquake and lava eruption that destroyed both Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The creature with skin of woven glass fled into the Apennine Mountains where inhabitants of highland villages reported sightings of its tall frightening form over the many centuries to come.

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