"Who are you?"
"Tiza…Tiza Mullins. It’s an honor to work with you Doctor Sousa."
"Work with me? Who said you were working with me?"
"Oh…um, I’m sorry sir. I’m the new technician."
"New technician!? Where’s Clement?"
"I don’t know Doctor. My supervisor just called me last night and told me to report to your lab this morning. I was naturally very excited. You’re a legend. Your breakthroughs in holographic psychology put this research center on the map and…"
"Yes, yes." Waiving his hand. "I assume you’ve been instructed to run the equipment…Liza?"
"It’s Tiza, sir. Of course. I was the next alternate."
"The next what?"
Clearing her throat. "Alternate, sir. When your first two technicians…um…left in less than a month, my supervisor began training backups."
"So you’re telling me I’m a crotchety old man who’s hard to work with?"
Nervous and a bit shocked. "No sir! Of course not. I meant…"
He interrupted. "Prepare the equipment. The first session begins in fifteen minutes."
* * *
The janitor arrived early to lab 9-A. Friday was normally his day off, but who could pass up five hundred credits to let the white coats ask a few questions. He wished he could be a lab rat full time. Cleaning toilets sucked.
The door was open and a nice woman greeted him. She seemed very young. Barely in her twenties. If he were thirty years younger…’What? What if I were 30 years younger? She’d still think I’m an animal from the old city.’ He smiled.
The janitor spent five or ten minutes signing release forms while the nice young woman ‘what did she say her name was…Tanya?’ fiddled with some equipment on the other side of the room. He had never cleaned this room before.
As the janitor was finishing, a tall white coat entered the room. This one seemed thinner and more arrogant than most.
"Good morning." He began. "I’m Doctor Sousa. I believe you’ve already met Liza. Do you have the release forms? Good. We’re just about ready to begin. As I’m sure you read on the sign-up sheet, we’ll be testing a relatively new invention of mine called the Holographic Cerebral Quantum Spectrometer. We’ll be showing you a series of images on the screen there. The device will record your cerebral response."
The janitor nodded without understanding.
"Now, on your application, you listed no bio enhancements…no implants. Is that correct?"
Huh…like he could afford that. "Yes, that’s right."
"Good. Any questions?"
"You’ll be here…in the room?"
"No, actually, we’ll be behind the mirror there. In the control room. I’m afraid it’s necessary in order to record a clean data stream."
"Do you have any other questions?"
"Um…am I the first person to do this?"
"No…no, of course not. We’ve tested the equipment on thirty one previous subjects. It’s perfectly safe, if that’s what you’re worried about. As you can read on the yellow release form, we’ll only be recording your responses."
After collecting and checking the release forms, Dr. Sousa and Tiza left the room. Tiza closed the door and followed the Dr. into the adjoining control room.
Clearing her throat. "Doctor…I’m not sure he understands what we’ll be doing."
"What’s your point?" He paused long enough to read the puzzled look on her face. "He signed the release forms. I never explain the procedure in detail. The subjects would never understand it anyway."
"But Doctor, you didn’t tell the man we’d be reading his mind."
Irritated, "I didn’t tell him we’d be reading his mind because we will not be reading his mind. I told him we’d be recording his responses and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing. Years of research and engineering allow me to interpret those responses with a high level of accuracy."
Becoming more irritated, "Do you have any idea what a powerful tool this will be for the field of mental health? Of course you don’t! Now shut up and do your job before I request the next alternate!"
Tiza silently retreated to her console and began the session. She played with the settings to avoid eye contact with the Doctor. He leaned, unnecessarily, into the mic and announced to the janitor "All right, let’s begin. Please focus on the large screen in front of you. All you have to do is watch. We’ll do the rest."
Images began appearing and disappearing on the screen in five second intervals. Nothing particularly exciting. A green field. A starving child. The New Dallas space lift. A cute puppy.
"Volume! Turn up the volume!"
Tiza winced and adjusted the volume. A sterile computerized voice began speaking the subject’s thoughts.
~ Trapped. The light burns. Sharp splinter in my eye. I would eat the light. Cool darkness has such a sweet smell. ~
Dr. Sousa slammed his fist on the console. "What are you doing?! I thought you said you knew how to run the equipment!"
"I do! The session is running fine."
"Running fine!? We’re getting gibberish! Do you honestly think looking at a picture of a puppy has caused that man to think ‘I would eat the light’?!"
"But Doctor, the readings are all within normal parameters. Check it yourself."
He couldn’t really do that if he wanted to. Dr. Sousa had always relied on technicians and engineers to handle the hardware. "Are you absolutely sure? We’ve never gotten this kind of nonsense before."
"Yes sir. Absolutely sure."
Dr. Sousa leaned into the mic again. "OK. We’re going to have to restart the session. Just sit back and relax and please focus on the images. Think about what you see. What thoughts do they bring to mind. Give us a few minutes to reset."
The janitor nodded.
"Reboot the system and let’s try this again."
Once the system was up, Tiza began the session from the top. Field. Child. Space lift. Puppy. The thoughts droned.
~ So hungry. I want the piece. The piece I found. Big animals are wasteful. The burning. Splinter in my eye. ~
"I’m sorry Doctor. Maybe we could…"
"Shhh! Could this be real? Maybe this guy is an outlier. Keep it running."
Dr. Sousa leaned into the mic once again. "Are you concentrating on the images as I instructed?"
"Yes." The janitor responded.
"Are you hungry? Did you have breakfast this morning?"
Puzzled. "Um…I didn’t eat this morning."
Dr. Sousa stepped away from the mic. The thoughts continued to drone inside the control room.
~ I would eat the light. The piece is mine. She knew that. I had to kill her. She was soft, but the piece is mine. ~
Tiza shifted in her chair and mumbled. "Outlier? More like a psycho."
Dr. Sousa reached for the nearest phone. "Yes, I’m calling for Doctor Barker please." Pause. "Hi Karen. It’s Juan. I’ve got a session running here you might want to see. Yes, 9-A. Bye." He hung up the phone and rubbed his hands together. "What have we got here?"
* * *
By mid afternoon, the janitor was starting to get annoyed. This thing was supposed to go for about an hour. He had spent the better part of six hours in this bright, sterile room. The first two he watched the monitor. Since then, they had not asked him to do anything, just let them observe him. Of course, he would have left long ago if they had not offered to double his pay. He had missed his kid’s boola game, but it was worth it for the extra credits.
Two large men dressed in white stood outside of lab 9-A. There was now quite a crowd inside the control room. Several doctors were conferring in the corner while Dr. Sousa discussed the janitor with the center’s director, Dr. Thayer. The computerized voice continued its paranoid, often incoherent ranting in the background.
~ Squeezed it. Others know the way. Get the piece. Back to the pile. Must hunt. Can’t let big-fast get us. Must be sneaky. ~
"This is tremendous, Doctor Sousa. It would’ve been months…maybe years before we could begin field trials. And bam! This gift falls in our lap."
"I know, sir. I can’t believe it. We’re calibrating the system on indentured staff and it just so happens one of them is a clinical case. He’s clearly paranoid, delusional, possibly schizophrenic. To say nothing of his homicidal tendencies."
"Do you think he’s actually killed anybody?"
"It’s difficult to say at this point. At the very least, we’ll have to call the police."
"Yes, definitely. Have someone do that right away. I’ll begin the paperwork to have him committed. Good work Doctor. I never dreamed we could have clinical results this quickly. This will allow us to accelerate delivery to market and come in well under budget."
Dr. Sousa followed Dr. Thayer out of the control room and into the hallway. As Dr. Thayer walked away, Dr. Sousa motioned to the two large men. They entered the lab carrying restraints. One of them snarled at the janitor "Come on, sicko. You’re gonna be staying for a while."
* * *
Late that night, Tiza was locking up the lab and control room. The police were gone. The Doctors were probably out celebrating. She had a clammy, nauseated feeling in the pit of her stomach. She couldn’t stop thinking about the way the janitor was screaming and crying as he was dragged from the room. But, he clearly needed help. He was a danger to himself and others. She thought about his family.
"Lights." The room darkened as she closed the door.
Tiza headed for the elevator to the surface. The shuttles were fewer and far between this time of night. She hoped she wouldn’t have to wait long. The elevator arrived with a ding. She paused for a moment as she tried to remember turning off the control room equipment. "It won’t hurt anything," she said and stepped into the elevator. As the doors slid together, she let out a sigh, "Surface."
In the empty darkness of lab 9-A, a small scratching noise came from behind a maintenance panel. Squeezing through a thin ventilation slit, the rat fell several inches to the floor.
~ No more bright burning. Cool darkness has such a sweet smell. So Hungry. ~
It scurried across the room to a small crack in the wall. Inside, it began to nibble the crust of bread it had found a few days earlier.
~ The piece. ~
H.W. Bromley is a frustrated writer trapped in a corporate suit.
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