Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
December 2017 / January 2018
 
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Saint Paul of the Pharm

by Joe Ollinger



Jacobs sits down on a stool in my lab, wearing the perpetual half-smirk of a man in upper management.

"Paul," he says, his power tie hanging loose as he leans condescendingly forward, "I know we've got our differences on this, but I need you to hand over all your research on ASHR-4. The board has decided to move forward with it."

"For what purpose?" I ask, perturbed. "Am I missing something here?"

"We in management think the drug has too much upside not to press on with it immediately. You know how long clearance takes." Jacobs chooses his words carefully, speaking with characteristic charm and polish. "We're confident the utility will make itself evident by the time testing is done."

"What about the trials we've already run?"

"What better testament to the formula's potential? You may not like the results in those particular cases, but you can't deny that the stuff can change lives."

That much is true. I shudder when I think of the handful subjects of the prelim tests. ASHR-4 made them obsessive, sent them into ritualistic behavior, gave them weird little OCD ticks, calmed them, gave them a false sense of certainty. The company will be paying for therapy for those test subjects for a while; maybe they'll adapt to life without it, maybe they won't.

"I want to talk to the board," I say, "They need to know the science. In my own opinion, ASHR-4 has no possible benefits as is. It needs to be re-worked from the ground up."

"The decision is already made, Paul." Jacobs stands up, straightening his jacket. "Have your research ready by this afternoon."

He flashes a friendly smile, then leaves. The airtight door snaps shut behind him.

Alone in the sterile cold of my lab, I let out a sigh of consternation. This is just the latest -- and probably the worst -- in a long line of ethically questionable choices by the board. I know that Jacobs's "let's see if we figure out something good to do with it" line was a lie. The consortium wants the drug for the purpose it was designed for: to make people more predictable, more compliant, to make the aimless focused and obsessive, to kill the distraction of skepticism.

This is the last straw for me. After seeing the prelim tests, I decided that the drug needed to die, and I was foolish enough to hope that the board might agree. But it's up to me now, and to hell with it if they fire me. I'll still get my severance.

I open the refrigerator and pull the vials containing the clear, innocuous-looking liquid. I pour all of them down into the sink, which drains into a hazardous waste holding tank, then flush the vials and the sink itself with several jugs of ethyl alcohol. I delete all the data relating to the drug on my lab computer, and then I rifle through my paper files and pull all the documentation on ASHR-4 -- all the formulation records, all of my notes on the chemistry -- and I toss them into the furnace. I slide the door shut, then hit the flames.

A second later I open the door and see nothing there. Even the ash has been swept away in the automatic disposal.

Satisfied, I leave my lab, walk down the hall, and take the elevator to the top floor. I walk right past the receptionist and into the corridor of upper management suites, and I storm through the open door of Jacobs's corner office.

He looks up from his monitor at me and takes a sip from a mug of coffee. His total lack of surprise deflates me a bit, just for a second, but I gather myself.

"I've decided that the answer is no."

"Sorry?"

"No," I say, "I'm not turning the research over."

"All your work is made for hire and the patents are owned by the company, Paul. The research isn't yours to withhold." Lines he's surely spat dozens of times.

"It's no one's now. I've destroyed all of it."

"You what?"

"That's right."

Jacobs places his mug of coffee down on his desk. For the first time I've seen, the perpetual charming smirk vanishes from his face. "Paul, you remember the formula, don't you?"

"Even if I do, you're not getting it."

"We could compel you to give it up, if we took you to court. And you realize that your theft and willful destruction of consortium property may open up, uhh, other ways for us to get that info?"

"Try it."

He makes a visible effort to compose himself, forcing feigned friendliness and professional courtesy. "Well, let's see if we can figure all this out. I'd like you to go down to human resources. We'll have a couple folks down there ready to discuss options. 'Kay, Paul?"

I shrug. I'll talk to a couple more suits, and then they'll fire me and maybe file some lawsuits. "Fine."

I exit his office and make my way back to the elevator. It opens when I call it, and I step inside and hit the button for the twelfth floor, which houses the HR office.

The elevator goes down one floor, and two men step on. Younger guys, probably middle management. One of them presses the button for the lobby.

Just one floor down, one of them hits the emergency brake, and the elevators stops.

Oh, no.

"What are you doing?" I ask, fearing the answer.

One of them grabs me from behind. I thrash against him, flailing my elbows. I reach for a button -- any button -- but just before my fingers reach them, I am jerked backward. The other guy pins my arms behind me, and I am helpless. A hand clasps a damp cloth over my mouth and nose, and in seconds things go dim.

####

I wake up in a small room, alone. A backlit, brushed aluminum cross hangs on one wall, and on another is a wide painting of the Hindu god Shiva, surrounded by mystic imagery. Otherwise the room is empty, but for a single pitcher of water sitting in the middle of the floor. I assume that the water is not just water. Especially considering the room's decor.

Groggy, I stand up. "Hey!" I shout, figuring the consortium people have to be monitoring the room somehow, "Hey! This is illegal! It's kidnapping and false imprisonment. Let me go or there'll be consequences."

No response.

"You hear me?"

Nothing.

I try the door. Locked, of course, from the outside. I kick it as hard as I can. Pain shoots through my foot and ankle, but the door doesn't budge.

Frustrated and still feeling off balance from whatever drug they used to sedate me -- probably plain, old chloroform -- I lie down on the carpeted floor. I don't know where I am, but my guess is that the company thinks I will break if they leave me here long enough, and I intend to disappoint them.

After some indeterminable amount of time in peaceful silence, I sleep.

####

Thirst nags me awake. My mouth dry and parched, the pitcher of water in the center of the room grabs my attention, a crystal clear monument calling to me.

No. I can't. The company men put it there because they want me to drink it.

Or did they?

They must have. I have to assume that it's there for the purpose of somehow giving them the upper hand.

I can't drink it. They won't let me die of thirst in here. They wouldn't get away with it.

I lie back on the floor and wait.

####

Cramps echo through my abdomen. As my tongue and throat ache with thirst, the pitcher still calls to me.

Don't drink. Don't drink, don't drink, don't drink.

How long have I been here? Hours? Days?

"Hey!" I rasp, "Hey, I need to go to the bathroom!"

No answer comes in response to this desperate lie. Just the silence of the room, the religious art upon the walls passing silent judgment as the plastic oasis in the center of the room mocks me. Each breath is a struggle against the stiff pangs in my stomach and the soreness is my throat.

I can take it no longer. Defeated, I crawl to the pitcher, lift it to my lips, and drink.

The water is cool. It floods into me, washing back the irrational desperation, the feeling of certain impending death. I take deep, heavy gulps.

Pulling the pitcher away, I gasp as the fear of what I have done sinks in.

I sit and wonder for a moment what is going to happen to me. The satisfaction of my physical desire to quench my thirst is slowly washed away by dread.

And then I see that my hands are growing. Fingers elongating, stretching. This is unusual. Space warps around my arms, existence itself become wobbly and malleable.

When I look up, the first thing I see is the god Shiva. Not a painting, not some depiction, but the god himself, impossibly huge and distant, his arms writhing, his eyes all knowing. He is prepared to destroy the entire universe, to crush all that ever has been beneath his feet. But in his mercy he does not, as the machinery of cosmic wonders revolves around its center. I kneel in awe before him.

Stop, I tell myself. Stop. Something is happening.

I can feel Him. I can feel the presence of God. Within me, all around me. I am infinitely small before Him, and yet greater than I ever have been. Though I am but a speck in His vast creation, His love channels through me, and it means that I will never be alone, that my actions and my choices will never lack meaning.

I am a believer. What a fool have I been, that I question His existence! How my doubts must anger him!

But no, I feel the light surround me. I feel the swirling mist of pure love and forgiveness emanating from the walls of this holy chamber, this temple to the many forms of God. I fall to the ground and lie back, and the white stucco of the ceiling becomes an open sky of blossoming white clouds. Angels descend, weightless creatures of pure light, their spirits crisscrossing as they dress me in the formless armor of faith. This garb, I know, cannot be broken, cannot be torn or removed. It will lift me up until forever has passed and all that remains is the unknowable, and an eternity to endeavor to know it. I laugh, out loud, a joyous, relieved laugh that could only issue from a man who has crawled out from beneath the oppressive weight of sin and doubt, and entered the cleansing stream of faith and certainty.

The drug, I remember. ASHR-4. That is why I am here.

Think.

The drug's effects were not like this. No visions, no hallucinations, just compulsive tics and a strengthened faith in religion. Whatever is going on here is beyond the scope of what the drug does.

Schizophrenics suffer delusions, but antipsychotics make them go away, make things normal. Depressive patients with anhedonia can't taste food fully and can't find the humor in jokes, and sometimes antidepressants let them experience these things normally. These illnesses are not so rare -- half a percent and somewhere between three and nine percent, respectively.

Atheism is less than three percent.

Is a firm belief in the nonexistence of a higher power an illness? A disease that prevents you from experiencing God?

White clouds blanket the air around me, and a sudden realization falls upon me like rain after a drought. I am here because the hand of God has touched my scholarly mind, and given me the vision to bring joy. I am his prophet. I am the messenger who will share his glory with those who, like me before this epiphany, doubted his wonderful presence.

The room spins around me, and I find myself transported to a dry country road in the hills of Judea, in the heat of the day. Dust blows across my ankles, rolling low in the soft breeze along the wide dirt path. I am my namesake before he took his name. I am Saul of Tarsus, and I am traveling to Damascus.

A glowing cross hangs above me, a steely icon silhouetted against a hot, crisp sun. The light blinds my eyes for an instant, but I squint and close them tight, and when I open them again I can see, and the cross is still there. Impossible, self-evident, for the first time for me the image has meaning. The light from behind it is the sun, but it is also the streaming glory of heaven. There is something there, something unexplainable. I stand and put my hands upon it, and I shudder as I feel the holy spirit enter into me.

No longer Saul of Tarsus. No longer Paul Hildevrandt, M.D., PhD, pharmacologist, atheist. Now Paul the Apostle, Paul the Bringer of Faith, Saint Paul of the Pharm Lab. I have holy works, and no longer shall I refuse them.

"I confess!" I scream, my voice as loud as the trumpet of an archangel, "I confess these sins of mine and assume this duty!"

I fall to my knees and weep, tears cleansing me like the water of a baptismal as they run down my face.

I turn to see that the sky has opened, and three figures approach me through the squarish breach in the clouds. They lift me up by my arms and take me with them.

####

The comedown is gradual at first, then sudden. I have no idea how much time has passed when I realize where I am. I am sitting in Jacobs's office, in a comfortable chair across the desk from him. He repeatedly tosses a stress ball against the wall, catching it as it bounces back at him. The door is closed, and we are alone.

I find myself grasping the arms of the chair I am sitting in. I am on edge. Anxious and jittery. A feeling of vulnerability permeates me, and I cannot escape it. A cold feeling. A feeling that I am small and helpless, and that ultimately nothing that I do and nothing that happens to me matters.

"What did you do to me?" I demand, my voice shaky.

Jacobs tosses the stress ball aside flippantly and leans forward, that friendly half-smirk of his etched on his face. "How you feel about god right now, Paul?"

"I'm an atheist."

These words shock me as they cross my lips. I have not believed in the fairy tales of religion since I was a young boy. But something happened to me in that room they took me to, and now the idea of an existence with no god doesn't sit so well. Am I mentally ill? Is this atheism some shortcoming in my abilities to perceive?

I desperately wish that to be the case. But the certainty that faith is irrational remains within my mind. For the first time I understand what it really means to be alone in a vast, uncaring, irrational universe, and it's horrifying.

"What have you done?" I ask again, growing angrier even as my stomach turns, maybe from the ordeal, maybe from hunger, maybe from fear.

Jacobs smiles slightly wider and places in front of me two tiny bottles of liquid. I snatch them and examine the labels.

ASHR-4 Sample 48118. 50 mL.

Lysergic Acid Dyethylamide 1% 50 mL.

The religion drug -- my drug -- and hallucinogenic acid. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what's been done.

"Why?" I ask.

"How do you feel?"

"Awful." I shoot back, "How do you feel?"

"I'm fine, thanks." Jacobs leans back dismissively in his cushy leather chair. Motioning to the ASHR-4 as I put it into my shirt pocket, he say, "That's the last of what we've got, and we can't figure out how to make the stuff. That, buddy, is why need you on board."

"Why would I help you, after what you've done to me? Wait until the police hear my story."

"They won't believe you. No evidence anyway. And that's all beside the point. We're fairly sure you can't make the drug yourself, without our equipment and materials."

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying," he says, emphasizing each word with contractual clarity, "that if you help us formulate it, we can supply you with what we formulate."

It's been clear all along, but for the first time, I say it out loud. "You want to use the drug to control people."

Jacobs shrugs. "Hell is the absence of god, right?"

"The answer is no," I reply, "Nothing has changed. The existence of any kind of, I don't know, higher power, is uncertain and practically unlikely." Even as I say it, the words chill me. The knowledge of frightens me on some level deeper than I ever thought I could feel things. "I won't help you do this, and eventually the dependency will wear off."

"There are good uses for the drug, Paul. We're trying to help people." He speaks with the self-assured tone of a salesman, but I find myself wanting to believe him. "Think of all the suicides we could prevent. Think of all the depression and sadness we could end. Think of all the criminals we could rehabilitate, the relationships we could heal."

I stand and I walk out of his office. No one tries to stop me as I walk to the elevator, hit the button, and step on. As it descends, I can feel an emptiness within me. Not just in me -- in the world, in everything. I have no greater purpose than to live and die, and after it's all over I'll be forgotten, and everyone I know will go the same way. There are no good reasons to do any one thing or any other -- no good, no bad -- only the faceless history of human affairs, which may or may not matter in the long run. I have always known these things, but for the first time, they trouble me. No. More than that. They are crippling me, drawing me down into some kind of personal abyss.

I reach into my shirt pocket and draw out the little bottle of liquid. I run my fingers over it, contemplating the horrible power of what lies inside. I know for certain that I should destroy it, as I destroyed the rest of my research.

I would do anything to stop the existential cold. In the grand scheme of things, what will it matter anyhow? I cannot help myself.

I unscrew the cap and drink it down.

The elevator continues to sink, and thoughts and worries still swirl within my head. Be reasonable, I tell myself. Who are you to decide that there is no god? Who are you to decide that all of existence is meaningless?

Idiotic, really. Where did everything come from? The laws of science, the mysteries of the universe and its workings, from where did they spring? If not from some unknowable source?

The memories of my experience in the room -- my drug trip -- flood back. Something happened to me in there, something more than the chemical effects of the hallucinogen. Maybe I became a better man.

The drug has taken effect again. I know it, logically, but it doesn't matter. Free will was given to us by the only one who could give it, and I exercised that will by drinking from the bottle.

The elevator doors slide open at the lobby. A whole world waits beyond its plush confines, a world of people in need of help, a world of people struggling with desperation and uncertainty and questions. By tomorrow, I will be one of them again.

But perhaps that's not me. Perhaps I have been chosen. Perhaps the divine within me has guided me to make this choice -- of my own free will -- to be the bringer of faith to the world. They cannot formulate the drug without me. Only I can save those who need to be saved, those who want to be saved, those who don't know that they want to be saved. It is up to me, and crystal clear as a well-tuned church bell, my purpose in life is now obvious. I hit the button for the top floor, and the doors close, and the elevator ascends again, carrying me upward as though rising toward the heavens.

The great, wondrous power that lies at the edge of mankind's understanding has called upon me. I will answer that call. I will put my boundless faith into bottles and it will go out into the world, and it will enter into those who most need it. It will cure the desperate, the faithless, the nonbelievers. It will save those who do not yet know that they wish to be saved. This is my purpose, for I am their patron saint.

THE END


© 2012 Joe Ollinger

Bio: Joe Ollinger is a a graduate of the University of Southern California's screenwriting program who currently works as a reader and story analyst for an Academy-award winning filmmaker. This is his first published story.

E-mail: Joe Ollinger

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