by Robert Meyer
Video of the mouse had been plastered onto every available screen in the office, and a throng of people, their immaculate clothing at odds with the fluorescent lights and dingy ceiling tiles, crowded around the televisions on the walls. Christopher, a stocky scientist whose work was implicated in the day’s proceedings, was not among them. Instead, he had been given a seat of honor by the mouse’s plastic habitat in the middle of the room. His seat gave him ready access to the refreshments, and currently he was shuttling a bamboo boat of curried shrimp puffs over to his red-headed colleague. His colleague’s name was Susan. She wore the same customary lab coat, and occupied herself with a podium wreathed in wires and byzantine controls.
“Hey!” He said. “Look what I got!”
Susan looked up from the podium with hawk-like attention, but her hands stayed down at the controls. She opened her mouth, “Ahhhhhh,” and Christopher stuffed it with a shrimp puff. Crumbs of breading rained down over the priceless array of experimental technology at her fingertips.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Sure,” said Christopher. “You can’ control on an empty stomach.” Christopher fed her the rest of the shrimp puffs as she finished preparing the machine, and looked out over the crowd. “I’m surprised so many people showed up. I think I see actual generals out there. I knew we’d be big, but it’s nice to see everyone in person.”
“Eh,” said Susan. “These people give me the creeps. Look at that guy over there. He showed up in uniform and he’s wearing more metal than his wife. He’s even got a holster.”
Christopher looked at the couple in question and shrugged. AriaCorp—the company that he worked for—sold equipment for ‘nonlethal pacification’, which meant that it tended to attract an officious, super-powered kind of customer. Everybody here was somebody, and they dressed to look the part. Besides, if it wasn’t for the lab coat that the occasion demanded, Christopher probably would have joined them.
“It’s just appearances,” he said. “They have to act like people expect them to, you know?”
“I know that,” said Susan, “but I think that’s what bothers me. Maybe it’d be nice if someone would show up and be like, ‘I’ve got ten thousand people that I need to bludgeon out of rioting and I can’t kill any more today. What’s the biggest thing you’ve got?’”
Christopher laughed. “That’d be nice, but the way I see it it’s already so much easier for these people to just buy guns or tear-gas or something. The fact that they’re coming to us means that fewer and fewer people are going to die, and that’s nothing but good.
Susan looked out over the crowd of starched collars and dark dresses, and Christopher watched her lip as she bit it. Something about the way her teeth showed over the curve always made his stomach flutter. “It’s better,” Susan agreed, “but somehow, I don’t think that it’s ever really their idea.”
Susan gave a signal over a radio and microphone static filled the air as a PA system went live. All of a sudden the amicable chatter of the room was overthrown by the bright, syrupy voice of a man. “Good evening, everyone!” said the man. “I hope you’re all having a wonderful time. Before we begin, I’d just like to thank everyone for being a part of tonight’s special demonstration. Confrontation, as all of you know, can be a terrible thing. It can be ghastly and violent, but in our imperfect world it has also become increasingly and tragically necessary. That’s why we at AriaCorp salute you, our loyal customers, for your continued support of our mission to soften the inevitable blows. Tonight, however, we would like to share with you the demonstration of a device that promises to cushion them entirely. It is called the Mesmis, and finally offers us what we’ve all been wishing for: a means of resolution without confrontation. If you would all direct your attention to the screens, you will be able to watch our brave volunteer, Hansen, as the demonstration begins. I’d like to thank you again for of your time, and hope you see the same potential here that we do.”
There was a brief applause from the crowd followed by an attentive silence. “Here we go,” Susan murmured, and she flipped a lime-green activation switch. A thin, mechanical noise perforated the quiet and a small antenna rose from the podium until, swiveling like the tail of a scorpion, it was leveled at the mouse’s habitat. A soft track of incongruously peaceful new-age music started playing over the intercom and then, almost imperceptibly, the mouse stiffened.
The Mesmis, as the name implied, was a mind-control device, and Susan proved it with a throw of a few more switches. There was a low murmur of delight from the audience as Hansen, in response to some unseen stimulus, began a slow trot around the inside of his habitat. He moved like a tiny horse, utterly un-mouselike, as a recorded woman on the intercom narrated his orders in a serene monotone.
“Let’s go forward, Hansen. Now, how about backwards? Let’s give those hurdles a try.”
The horse motif was Christopher’s idea. He figured it made the show more impressive if it looked unnatural, and he was pleased to see the wonderment and curiosity stamped on the faces of the audience. A glance at Susan, however, dulled his enthusiasm. She was focused on the machine, but as she took the show through the expected paces she punctuated her work with sour glances at the crowd.
Hansen trotted placidly on. With Susan’s guidance he ran on exercise wheels, flipped levers, and navigated an intricate three-dimensional maze. He did all of this with an unhurried serenity, and each feat was met with mounting excitement. Finally he came to a large platform whose only feature was a smooth red box at the opposite end and it was here, as Hansen came to a stop, that Christopher began to feel uneasy. It wasn’t that he was squeamish about mind control. He and Susan had, after all, spent the last year of their lives developing exactly that, but for some reason the way this demonstration ended always made something inside of him go cold.
“Unfortunately,” said the woman on the intercom, “real-world people aren’t as cooperative as Hansen here, so what we’d like to do is show you how the Mesmis deals with conflicting stimuli. First, let’s turn it off.”
The walls of the small box in the habitat fell outwards to reveal an apple, and whatever compulsive force had been applied to Hansen seemed to evaporate. He scurried towards the apple, sniffed it, and after a few moments of perfunctory investigation, began to gnaw.
“After not eating today, Hansen has quite the appetite. He’s going right after the apple and I think we can all see that, left to his own devices, he’s not stopping any time soon. Now, watch what happens when we flip the machine back on.”
Hansen convulsed and froze. It was a brief movement, but the violence of it made Christopher sweat. Running circles and navigating mazes were meaningless compulsions to mice and they accepted them easily, but when their appetites got involved there was always, before the Mesmis cudgeled them back into serenity, a flash of wild rejection. A crumb of glistening fruit dropped from Hansen’s paralyzed mouth, and the narrator continued.
“Observe how, despite the proximity and strength of the external stimulus, the Mesmis is able to keep Hansen in a state of peaceful stasis. Unless we tell him otherwise, he is incapable of moving.”
A round of soft applause came up from the customers and the space filled with ambitious murmurs. As he continued watching, however, Christopher saw that something was amiss. Hansen wasn’t eating, but neither had he fallen into the expected stupor, and in the magnified resolution of the televisions his muscles flexed against an invisible restraint. His paws trembled, curled and uncurled, and a hint of red crept into his dark, unfocused eyes.
The narrator chimed up again. “The Mesmis can even get him to leave the fruit behind. Come on, Hansen. Let’s walk to the other side of the cage; there’ll be plenty of food for you after you’re done.”
Hansen stooped onto all fours and then recoiled back onto his hind legs as if he’d been burned. His muscles knotted, swelled and shuddered against his skin as they tried to move, simultaneously, towards the fruit and away. Christopher saw a strange look on Susan’s face. “What’s going on?” he whispered.
“He’s fighting it,” she said. “Some of the mice can do that, but it never ends well. If he doesn’t come around it’s about to get nasty.”
“Shouldn’t we turn it off?” asked Christopher.
Susan shook her head. “In front of all these people? Not a chance. Besides,” she sighed. “They’re probably going to enjoy this anyway.”
Susan fiddled with the controls as the intercom narrator droned on about the Geneva Convention and “humane pacification,” but Hansen’s contortions only intensified. His legs slipped out from under him, his head snapped one way and then another, and sinuous undulations ran down his spine. Confusion, pain and fear pulled his lips into a snarl and then, suddenly, his teeth began to chatter. It began as a sort of tremor, but soon the tempo increased until his teeth flashed like the blades of a woodchipper. Faster and faster they came together until flecks of red lined his habitat and the sound, through plastic and space, reached Christopher’s ears like the growl of a locust. There was a flash of pink as Hansen’s tongue slipped between his incisors, and then there was a bloom of deep, wet scarlet.
A quick-thinking attendant threw his lab coat over the habitat and the televisions went abruptly dark, but it was too late for Christopher. The image had already burned itself into his mind, and as the soft thumping of the mouse quieted under the cover, visions of its death played behind his scrunched-up eyes. He saw a white and twisted body, wild eyes and streams of vivid blood. A ringing silence invaded his ears, and a mounting pressure in his stomach pushed bile up into his throat. He was nearly sick in his seat, but the sound of Susan’s sigh beside him cleared his mind and filled it with the memory of her deep, red hair.
◊ ◊ ◊
The atmosphere outside of the demonstration room was almost oppressively cheerful. A company representative apologized for offending the clients’ sensibilities, but when Susan and Christopher met in the hallway they were met with a departing woman’s tasteless imitation of the mouse’s seizures. Her pearls rattled musically.
“You’re right,” sighed Christopher. “These people are terrible.”
Susan took off her lab coat and slung it over her arm. She was wearing a superhero tee-shirt that made Christopher feel, in addition to clammy and nauseous, painfully overdressed. “At least the project nets us serious money,” she said. “It’s hard to argue with a penthouse.”
“You don’t sound convinced.”
Susan sighed. “I worry sometimes. I like it here, but then I think about what we’re making and what people will do with it once it’s out there. I’m going to be responsible for that someday.” She bit her lip, but Christopher shook his head.
“If it wasn’t for us,” he said, “it’d be somebody else. The Mesmis is going to exist regardless of whether or not we make it happen. At least the science is good, you know?” He smiled. “The things we get to work with, well, on the outside they’re not even theories. In here we get to be pioneers.” It was true, too, and Christopher always imagined this was the bond they shared. They were born experimenters. It flowed in their veins. If you cut them, it would only be a matter of time before they grew a pair of clones.
“Scary, scary pioneers,” laughed Susan. She ran her hand through her hair and took a deep breath. “You’re right, though. And it’s not even forever. In a few months this project’ll be over, and then I’m going to ride into the sunset with a mountain of cash.”
“Where do you want to go?” Christopher asked.
“I have no idea. But then again I’m going to be rich, so I don’t think it matters, right? Maybe I’ll go cure Alzheimer’s to make up for everything.” Susan looked wistfully up at the fluorescent lights. “Cure it somewhere with palm trees.” She never took herself out of the picture. It was, among dozens of other things, something that Christopher liked about her. Suddenly she looked back at him; her expression was strangely intent.
“Listen,” she said. “There’s something I want to show you. Can you meet me after work tomorrow?”
Christopher tried to smile, but there was something in her voice that stopped him. He shrugged instead. “What’ve you got in mind?”
“There’s a place I like to eat. I’ll text it to you tonight. There’s something—” She looked away, then she shook her head. “Can you come?”
“Sure,” he said.
“Cool,” said Susan, and then she nodded, apparently to herself. “I’m going to try to get home early today, but I’ll see you there tomorrow.”
She turned to leave, but something swept through Christopher’s mind. He spoke before he had time to think about it.
“Susan?” he asked. “How often does the demonstration kill the mouse?”
Susan turned back and shrugged. “Every once in a while. The truth is that while we can tell a set of muscles what to do, and even calm the stress response, we can’t make the mice stop fighting us if they really want to.”
“I think I would have had to turn it off,” said Christopher. “I mean, the customers seemed to like it, but…I don’t know, part of me wants to sympathize. They just want to eat, you know?”
“It’s rough,” she admitted, “but the truth is that it gives us a ton of good data when they go like that. When we can finally keep them still even when they’re starving, that’s when we’ll know we’re done.” She smiled a little sadly. “Don’t worry about it too much. After all, we’re scientists and they’re mice. The odds were against them from the start.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Susan’s restaurant, in the end, was a shabby-looking retro diner in a desolate plaza filled with evening glare and shadows. Christopher pushed open a protesting door, shouldered through a forest of white-haired patrons, and found Susan sitting in a sticky booth. She grinned as he sat down across from her; his sharp clothing stood out in the gloom.
“Nice blazer,” she laughed.
“Nice restaurant,” he replied. “I didn’t know you were the nostalgic type.”
“It’s a weakness. Eating here feels like I’m doing something nice, like visiting my grandpa. Besides, they make me a mean burger.”
They chatted for a while as the sun slipped towards the horizon, and when a waiter brought them coffee the steam curled around shafts of melancholy light. Then there came the burgers, huge and utterly unsentimental.
“So,” said Christopher. “What’ve you got for me? You looked like you had something on your mind last night. Other than the obvious, I mean.”
“Obvious?” said Susan. “Oh, you mean the mouse.” She furrowed her brow, wiped her hands clean of burger-grease, and produced a sheaf of paper from a bag beside her. She handed it to Christopher. “I wanted to show you this. I found it in my email. I figured whoever sent it had made a mistake, so I printed out a copy before it vanished. And it did.”
Christopher flipped through the papers of what looked like a medical report. Mostly it was full of obtuse codes, but he recognized graphs of certain variables, of blood-pressure, heart-rate, and brain-activity. Most of the values were unremarkable for a person, but they were punctuated by spikes of spectacular activity and ended in an erratic plateau that never quite returned to the baseline. “Whose is this?” he asked. “I don’t see a name anywhere.”
“That’s the thing. It came right from the mail server with no sender, and there’s nothing indicating who this data’s about. But look at this.” She handed him another report. It was almost identical in appearance, and the graphs traced the same contours. The only real difference, to Christopher’s eye, was the header that ran across the tops of the pages, “Hansen 37.”
“Hansen 37 was our longest-running mouse,” Susan explained. “We only used the Mesmis in short bursts with him, and he held out a whole three weeks. To see his charts recreated with human numbers is…suspicious.”
“But isn’t human use the whole point?” Christopher said.
“That’s true, but it’s not cleared for trials at all. We can’t even keep a mouse alive with it. Who knows what it does to a person.”
Christopher scratched his chin. AriaCorp was a secretive company by design, so the idea of preliminary human testing didn’t surprise him. But while he—whose job was concerned only with technical design—expected to be in the dark, it was strange to see Susan there with him. She was head of the biology team, and he heard she was the only person that could run the Mesmis and keep the mouse alive afterwards. “If they’re actually testing it on people,” he said, “wouldn’t they tell you? I thought you were the only decent operator.”
Susan made a noncommittal gesture. “That’s what I thought too, but here we are. And it really shouldn’t be used on people yet. Even volunteers. We all know it’s dangerous, and we don’t know what it does in the long term. If you even get a long term.” Susan punctuated her words with a bite of her burger, and Christopher watched her lips glisten with fat and late sunshine. Something occurred to him.
“It could be,” he said carefully, “that whoever’s using it isn’t supposed to be. All of the measurements tell us that we’re looking at a scientist, but what if they’re doing the tests for someone else? Like a competitor. I’m sure that’s something corporate would like to know.”
Susan smirked. “How loyal,” she said. “But I think you’re right. It makes more sense than the company keeping it from me. There has to be two of them, too. One of them has to be volunteering.”
A conspiratorial spirit welled up inside of Christopher. Mostly he didn’t concern himself with his co-worker’s doings. But here, in a seedy booth striped with lengthening shadows and Susan sitting sun-lit and across from him, the promise of a mystery seemed enticing. “I suppose we’d better check it out,” he said. “And I think I know how to do it. The Mesmis puts out a pretty unique sort of radiation, so I say I just build an antenna and wait. If it picks up signs of the Mesmis when nobody’s supposed to be using it, we go ahead and tell the company.”
Susan shook her head. “It’s better if we see it with our own eyes first. I like your plan, but we need to rule out a fluke. Besides,” she said. “I think I want to know exactly what’s going on before I talk to someone about it.”
“You still don’t trust the company,” said Christopher.
“I guess I don’t. You’ve always been easier on them, I suppose. I like their money, but on the off chance these tests aren’t a mistake…” She shook her head again, and began to pick over the last of her fries. “Honestly,” she said. “I’m just glad you’ll help me. I was worried you’d blow it off.”
Christopher watched as the sun slipped into her eyes. They were a bright, beautiful, green, and he noticed she was smiling at him. “Well,” he said, “we’ve worked together for a long time, you know? Of course I’d do it for you.” And then, in the last glimmers of daylight, he was surprised to see her wince.
◊ ◊ ◊
A week later Christopher was in his office, proudly brandishing something that looked like a metal wishbone strapped to a screen. The screen read ‘400 feet’ in a cheerful green font, and a pixelated compass pointed swiveled towards the door. Susan was grinning over his shoulder.
“Not bad,” she said. “And it’s always at the same time?”
“Yeah,” said Christopher. “I’ve been getting Mesmis radiation around seven-thirty for the last three nights, and the rangefinder’s always around four hundred feet. Wherever they’re at, they don’t move.”
The readings on the screen suddenly vanished. “That keeps happening too. It goes down for a minute, then comes back.”
“That makes sense,” said Susan. “Whoever’s doing this must know the procedure we used on Hansen 37. At least they’re being responsible.”
“Even spies have to have standards, right?” Christopher grinned as the measurements on his device came back. “Speaking of spying, I guess we should probably figure out where ‘four hundred feet’ actually is. I’m not sure how you want to do that.”
Susan looked pensive for a few moments. “I suppose we could…start walking?”
There was a long silence as the two looked at one another, and then they burst out laughing. Neither of them had the faintest idea about what espionage looked like nor how to conduct it, and the prospect of skulking around a building after hours—even a building where they were gainfully employed and welcome—seemed strangely childish. It was, nevertheless, exciting, and the potential seriousness of their investigation seemed far, far away. They gathered their usual possessions with more-than-usual care, and stepped out into the hallway.
The offices of AriaCorp were, at first glance, completely innocuous, but there were details that gave up the game. The fire alarms, if you looked closely, came printed with instructions on how to deploy bulletproof barricades from the ceiling. The hallways, in the dim after-hour lights, glowed with rows of retinal scanners. The staff lounge, when they passed it, was dominated by an enormous espresso machine that one of their co-workers imported from Italy. It was four feet high and emblazoned with angels of solid gold. Most days Susan and Christopher ignored these details but now, as they followed Christopher’s device like a dowsing rod through the abandoned halls, they formed a looming reminder of the wealth and power that surrounded them.
Christopher angled the device down a hallway as the number on the rangefinder fell. He couldn’t stop himself from grinning. “It feels like we’re secret agents,” he whispered, and Susan stifled a chuckle. By unspoken agreement they moved with as much stealth as they could muster. The halls were electrifyingly quiet, and even as they pantomimed the movements of burglars and super-spies, some instinct within them dared not break the silence.
Finally, as they came to the corner of a new hallway, the rangefinder dropped to forty feet while the tiny compass sprite pointed encouragingly around the corner. Susan and Christopher grinned at one another, and then Christopher flattened himself dramatically against the wall. He made a show of putting on a straight face, pretended to brace himself, and ducked his head around the corner. He snapped back so fast that he almost hit the wall.
At the end of the hall was a thin man in a jumpsuit. He could have been a custodian, but his cart of cleaning supplies was drawn across the door behind him like a barricade, and there was something tense in the way he was standing. Christopher had been lucky; the man had been adjusting his starched—starched?—uniform, and he hadn’t seen Christopher looking around the corner. Christopher led Susan back the way they’d come, and only spoke when he was sure they were out of earshot.
“There’s a guard,” he hissed. “Just standing there, blocking the door with a cart.”
Susan scowled. “We should have guessed. We’ll have to wait him out. If we wait in the staff lounge I bet we’ll hear him leave.
“What’re we going to do? Chat about movies until we see him leave? He’ll see us for sure.”
“People work late all the time. Don’t chicken out on me. We’re just going to wait until he leaves and see what’s left, right?”
It was Christopher’s turn to scowl, but finally he consented, and the two of them settled into an awkward silence just two short halls from the guard. They sat on stools and drew huge cups of frothy cappuccino from the ostentatious machine on the counter. More than a few times they tried to strike up a conversation, but each effort floundered in the silence. Their ears, as they strained to make out the movements of the distant guard, had little left for talk.
Ten minutes passed, then thirty, and that dragged out into nearly an hour before Christopher’s device finally stopped giving him readings. “I guess they’re done,” he said. “Do you hear anything?”
Susan shook her head and closed her eyes as she continued to listen.
“Do you think he has a gun?” asked Christopher.
“Shh!” said Susan. “I mean, yes, probably, but— Shh!”
Christopher gulped down his third cappuccino and stared intently at the door. In the end, neither he nor Susan actually heard the guard coming. He was simply there in the doorway, wheeling a pristine janitorial cart that had been oiled into total silence. He smiled at them, and it was everything they could do not to gape. He was muscular, handsome, and his bright brown eyes watched them more intently than either of them were comfortable with. “Having a nice evening?” he asked them. His voice was warm and rich, and his smile was oddly luminous in the dim lights.
“Um…” said Christopher. “Yes. We’re having a great night. Thank you.” He tried not to glance back at Susan.
“That’s great,” said the man. “I’m having a good evening too. But I’m afraid I can’t chat.” He gestured at his cart. It was covered with orderly rows of cleaning supplies and accented with a bright-orange biohazard bag. “I have lots of work to do. I’m sure that you do too.”
Christopher swallowed. “Yes, that’s right. Always…working late, you know? But we’ll have a good night. If you do, I mean.” The custodian gave him a look that was almost apologetic, and Christopher decided to stop talking. He told Christopher that he would, in fact, have a wonderful evening, and passed through the staff lounge with an attitude that was both militant and strangely funereal.
“Holy shit,” hissed Susan. “What a weirdo. Was he the guard?”
“Well then, this looks like our chance.”
The two of them abandoned their drinks at the counter and sped back down the halls in a half-run. Meeting the guard in person solidified the prospect of discovery, but it also filled them with new anxiety. When they arrived at the door they were looking for, its retinal scanner glittered with the suggestion of the taboo, and a sign on the door read, “BIOLOGY STORAGE, C-2.”
Christopher eyed the retinal scanner. “How are we going to get in?” he asked.
“It looks like we’re in my department,” said Susan. “So really, this should do the trick…” She stooped in front of a retinal scanner and propped open her eyelid with her fingers. There was a metal ‘click,’ and the door popped open. “Being team leader has perks. Are you ready?”
Christopher squared his shoulders and said that he was, and when Susan pushed open the door he was blinded by fluorescence. It was a long time until his eyes adjusted, but once they did he was surprised to see that the room beyond was almost completely bare. To the side there was a table with a few things on it, and in the middle of the room there was a chair. It was the chair that caught Christopher’s attention. It was made of metal and bolted to the floor, and its polished surface seemed to burn in the hot radiance of the room. There were stirrups at the legs and clamps at the arms.
Christopher let out a low whistle, then remembered where he was. “We’re definitely looking at people here. This chair must be to control seizures, right?”
Susan approached the chair slowly. She ran her hand along the back but recoiled from the warmth. “Probably,” she said. “Except I don’t know why they made it out of metal. I actually didn’t even know we had this room, a room with nothing but a chair stuck to the floor. And these…” Susan pointed out the other two doors in the room. They were locked not only with the typical retinal scanners, but with padlocks. “What’re those about? Why don’t I know about this?”
Christopher could see her suspicion mounting and looked to assuage it. “Relax,” he said. “Human tests have always been part of the plan, so of course we’ve got a room for it. The real question is finding out who’s been using it without permission.”
“It just looks so sinister, you know? I mean, we’re inventing mind control, and then you see these super-bright lights, and metal chairs and guards dressed like janitors. You start to wonder, right?”
Christopher put his hand on Susan’s shoulder. “Whoever’s using this space isn’t supposed to be here. We know that. You’d be the first to know when the human trials start. That’s why we’re here. We just need to figure out what’s going on and tell the company, and it’ll be alright.” He made a motion over to the table. It was bare except for a slender black notebook and what looked like a clunky kind of pistol. “Let’s figure out what we can.”
The ‘pistol’ confounded them for a moment. It had a trigger but no barrel to speak of, and its heavy frame was amateurishly constructed. Squares of cheap aluminum had been soldered together to make its casing and it wasn’t until Christopher, with an experimental press of a button, released an antenna from the front of the device that he realized what it was: a miniature Mesmis. He had to swallow his offense. He’d built the model they’d used in the demonstration and worked long nights to get it as small as he had. To see it reduced even further, compacted by means beyond his understanding, felt vaguely like betrayal.
“This must be the model they’re using,” Christopher said carefully. “Our spy must have enough information to build their own. Or maybe this is just a prototype that I…haven’t heard of yet.” He picked up the device and looked over at Susan, but it was obvious that she wasn’t listening. She was hunched over the notebook on the table, her long hair obscuring her face. Finally she picked up the book and glanced over at him with a strangely flat expression.
“Listen to this,” she said. “Session One: Subject uncooperative, as expected. Denies connection to White Cobra Gang despite evidence to the contrary. Experimental linguistic module was added to Mesmis, but failed to produce confessions. Session ended due to health concerns. Sedatives administered and data on the linguistic module’s performance was submitted.”
“Session Four: A breakthrough. While the linguistic module is still in development, we were able to use the Mesmis to acquire the subject’s signature on a statement professing involvement in the gang. The statement was drafted based on our speculation, but is legally binding and, more importantly, the subject no longer denies his own involvement. He remains uncooperative regarding other members and gang properties.”
“Session Seven: Subject refuses to identify other members or assets of the gang. Through use of the prolongation data retrieved from the Hansen-37 experiments, we were able to use the Mesmis to recreate traditional interrogation methods. Despite this, the subject did not disclose any information, and the relaxed parameters led to a brief altercation between the subject and Lieutenant Wagner. Session ended due to noise and injuries.”
“Session Eleven: Used new linguistic module to extract confessions regarding the involvement of other suspected gang members. Complete notes attached next page. Despite success of the module, encourage Aria to continue the motor-control route pursued by Dr. Susan Smith. The linguistic module seems much more stressful, and nearly fatal levels of sedative were necessary to end this session safely. The company assures us that the data we have provided will make it safer to use in the future.”
“Session Fourteen: Subject is no longer uncooperative. Shared locations of several gang members and properties along the southern Arizona border. Full notes attached next page. The company is willing to house the subject for a few more days while his arrest and delivery to court are organized.”
Susan flipped the page and then slowly closed the notebook. She stared at it in her hands for a long time. “Christopher,” she whispered. “We can’t be part of this. This isn’t safe. This isn’t legal.”
Christopher pinched the bridge of his nose and wiped away the sheen of sweat that he found there. He was cold and nauseous, and when he closed his eyes he was assaulted with visions of dead mice. He tried to focus on the light and silence of the room. “You’re right,” he said at last. “I don’t want you to be, but you’re right. We can’t be here. But who can we tell? The company already knows.”
“The police,” said Susan firmly. “They’ll be able to stop this.”
But Christopher only shook his head in irritation. “You read the report. The police already know. Companies don’t go after gang-members, and you can’t just ‘organize’ an arrest without having an idea of what’s happening here.”
“Who’s above the police, then?” Susan asked. She threw up her hands. “The FBI. We’ll go to them. Somebody has to know!”
Christopher started to pace. “The FBI could work. But we’ll have to be careful. We can… We can leave an anonymous tip when we get back. Tell them how to find the room. Then they can check it out.”
“An anonymous tip? You think they’re going to believe you like that? Mind control doesn’t even exist yet! We need evidence. We need… We need the notebook, and that!” Susan pointed at the miniature Mesmis in Christopher’s hand.
“What? We can’t take these with us! Then they’ll know what we’ve done!”
Christopher made a gesture to their terrible surroundings. “They did all of this for a gang member. A regular criminal. What do you think they’d do if they found us running away with experimental gear? We need to be careful, Susan. Besides, we can’t be public about this. What about our careers?” Arguing had warmed Christopher’s blood, but the silence that followed his words chilled him. Susan stared at him in disbelief.
“Did you really just say that?” she said.
“I only mean…” Christopher began.
Susan shook her head. “No, listen. You’re great, Christopher. I’m glad you helped me get here, but you’re wrong about this. There might be an actual person behind one of those locked doors. Do you get that? An actual person that our company is ‘housing’. We need to get the FBI to help us out, and that’s not going to happen without evidence. I hope you’re with me, but…I’ve got to do this regardless.” Susan pulled the notebook to her chest and started walking towards the door.
“Wait!” called Christopher. “This is just going to make problems. We can find another way to get the authorities involved, just—Wait!” Susan stopped in the doorway and looked at him. She waited a moment, but when he didn’t follow she made a small gesture like a wave goodbye and Christopher saw her start to leave. It was then that he remembered the device in his hand. It was strange and heavy and it frightened him, but as Susan stood on the brink of the unknown it seemed to radiate certainty. Almost without thinking he lifted the device, pointed it at her, and pulled the trigger. “Susan,” he found himself whispering. “Come back here.”
Christopher’s heart fell into his stomach as he spoke, and as he watched Susan stand immobile in the door the silence of the room seemed to swallow him. Cold sweat soaked his shirt, but his knuckles whitened around the trigger. “Susan,” he said again, louder this time. “I’m asking you, please come back here.” And then Susan moved, turning around and marching towards him. She knew better than to fight the device; her movements were smooth and efficient, but in her face Christopher saw the truth. Her brilliant eyes were slitted in contempt, and her lips twisted with anger and disgust. She advanced until she was nearly on top of him, and when he recoiled from her snarling face she followed him with implacable intent.
“Stop!” cried Christopher, and with a shudder Susan obeyed. She loomed over the table in the middle of the room, her eyes burning as she stared at him. She still clutched the notebook against her chest, and now her fingers flexed along its spine. Christopher took a long, unsteady breath, and spoke as if into a vacuum. “I’m sorry, Susan. I don’t want to do this, I just can’t let you leave with that thing. We’d risk our whole careers if you did. Do you understand? Please, I don’t want…” Susan watched him in baleful silence as he took another breath. There was a terrible pressure on his chest. “Put the notebook on the table,” he said weakly, and he winced at the sound of her slamming it down. Already he could see her fingers reddening with the force of the blow.
“I know this isn’t right,” continued Christopher. “But I hope that one day you’ll forgive me. Until then, I just want you to know that I’m with you on this. I’ll help you report it and everything. We just have to be more careful.” He looked away from Susan and a sudden feeling like bravery swept over him. The blood crept back into his finger as he relaxed, ever so slightly, his grip on the trigger. “It’s going to be okay,” he said. “But right now we’ve got to go. I’m going to take you down the hall, and then—” Christopher was interrupted by the sound of a man clearing his throat, and the budding confidence withered in his chest. The custodian was standing in the doorway. His cart was absent, but in his hand and pointing almost politely at the ground was a matte pistol capped with a silencer. He smiled, and his teeth seemed to glitter in the light.
“Excuse me,” said the custodian gently. “But I’m afraid this room is only for people attached to the project. I’d appreciate it if you’d put the equipment back on the table.” He spoke to Christopher as though he were a child, and as panic tightened around his lungs it was mingled with a sense of creeping shame. He looked at Susan as if suddenly remembering who she was, but there was nothing familiar in the paralyzed contortions of her face. She was like a stranger to him, alien and distant, and the heavy reality of Christopher’s situation seemed to press in around him. Eventually he lowered the Mesmis onto the table, and was guiltily relieved when Susan returned to motion not all at once, but with a long and trembling sigh.
“There,” said the custodian. “Much better. Really, this is all my fault. Neither of you should have been able to come in here. Please, accept my apologies for the oversight and any…” he paused, “trouble that it’s caused.”
Christopher watched Susan stretch the life back into her limbs. Her face had relaxed, but as she massaged her muscles it became no more familiar than it had been moments ago. The custodian looked on with strange concern as Susan straightened, and in the uncompromising light of the room Christopher felt suddenly alone, like a small and embarrassed stranger.
“What now?” asked Susan. Her voice was cool and measured.
“Now,” said the custodian, “it’s time for me to close up the building.”
“And all of this?”
He made a dismissive gesture. “In the morning this will all be gone and it won’t be a bother to anyone. Beyond that? I’m sure we’ll get back to business as usual.” He slipped the pistol into his uniform. “If you’re ready, I’d be happy to escort you to the door.”
Susan finally glanced at Christopher, and the look in her eyes made him want to squirm. There was anger in that look, but more unsettling was the careful judgment that was being carried out behind it. She looked at him like he was an insect or a particularly frustrating specimen. She was evaluating him.
“Thanks,” said Susan at length. “I think I’d like that.” She stepped towards the door and allowed the custodian to lead her into the dim hall beyond. For a moment Christopher feared that they would leave him alone, leave him to broil in the uncompromising whiteness of the room, but the custodian cast an expectant look over his shoulder and with a strange flood of relief Christopher trotted after him. The custodian terrified him, but his eyes were knowing and the pistol tucked into his uniform stifled the threat of any further confrontation.
◊ ◊ ◊
That night Christopher and Susan parted without words, and when Christopher arrived at work the next morning he found a piece of paper taped to his office door. A message printed in tiny type hung over a field of blank white space. Christopher, read the memo, please report to room 983 on the ninth floor. Christopher had never been up to the ninth floor of his building, and he wondered leadenly if he was going to be fired. He was, at any rate, ready for it. The evening left him sleepless, and now the world around him seemed dreamlike and unfamiliar. He passed his coworkers in a quiet haze and allowed the elevator to shuttle him upwards.
He emerged onto a floor that seemed identical to all of the others. It had been ‘decorated’ with the same utilitarian spirit, but when he finally arrived at room 983 and lowered his eye in front of the retinal scanner he was surprised to find the door open onto his office. At least, it looked like his office. And it had all of his possessions in it, arranged precisely the way he’d left them. His diplomas were plastered over the south wall, his desk was properly facing the window, and all of his disheveled papers were sitting in their respective heaps. It was an uncanny reconstruction. The only things out of place were on his desk: an officious-looking letter and the detector that Christopher had built. Christopher brought the memo slowly up to his eyes.
In light of recent events and as a result of your stunning personal initiative and loyalty to the company mission, management has reassigned you from the research team of Dr. Susan Smith. While Dr. Smith’s team will continue researching the direct manipulation of motor neurons, your abundant talents will be assisting us with a new and exciting direction for the Mesmis project: the development of a linguistic module that allows for the communication of abstract commands. You have thus been assigned to the research team of Dr. Philip Wagner as an Assistant Developer. A full description of your duties has been emailed to you, but one of your first duties will be to help stage the first public demonstration of this module. We have scheduled the demonstration for two weeks from today, and advise that you speak with Dr. Wagner to hammer out the details.
We hope you enjoy your new position, and thank you again for your invaluable service and dedication to our cause. If you ever need anything as you settle into this new department, please remember that we are always here.
Christopher set the memo back onto his desk and stepped over to the window. The only thing different about his office was that it was five stories higher, and the whole of the company parking lot sprawled beneath him. Susan told him once that she wanted her car to match her eyes, and so she’d had it painted a lurid green. It was a frankly hideous color but it was impossible to miss, and now, as Christopher looked down over the glittering rows, it was conspicuously absent.
He hoped she was safe. He sincerely did, but as he stood there in the window he also found himself hoping that her mission failed. He pictured what would happen if the FBI got involved, and images flashed through his mind of stern-faced investigators tearing apart his office, of sweating alone and trembling beneath an over-bright lamp. The prospect of more confrontation, of dredging up yesterday’s events, sounded all at once terrible, futile, and exhausting. It was better if she failed, he realized. He just hoped that she was safe.
In time, Christopher returned to his desk, and as he sat he relished the familiar creak of his leather chair. It was strangely refreshing to be back in his office, even if it was technically a reconstruction, even if someone must have studied precisely everything about it. There was a soothing realness to it, and the uncertain fog that had swallowed his morning began to evaporate. He set his hand down over the mouse of his computer and for a while he just sat there, flexing and flexing his fingers, soaking in the promise of the day ahead. There was work to do: brilliant, tantalizing, and rewarding work. What happened after that work was finished was out of his hands. As his confused memory of yesterday faded, what else could he do? Christopher reached down to power on his computer, and prayed that nothing else would change.