The Ivory Gate, Part 1 of 2
Eugene C. Myers
Laura Greene pressed her face against the small window set in the steel door of Research Lab Three. The glass reflected too much of the bright light from the hallway so she cupped her hands around her face and squinted into the room beyond. She couldn’t see anything, and her breath fogging against the surface didn’t help. Frustrated, she took a step back and tucked some stray hair behind her right ear.
It was her first day on the job and Laura was already late. She ran her identicard through the reader and was not surprised to see the steady red light blink back at her in response. That’s three for three, she thought. Maybe she should go back to the security station and explain the problem. Surely they would let her in, or at least contact someone in charge.
Even though this was hardly her fault, she couldn’t help worrying that this would reflect poorly on her. Her father was always reminding her about the importance of a first impression. She resisted the urge to check her watch again. Seeing the seconds, then the minutes cycle past on the display only made her more nervous. Sorry, Dad.
Laura was here today because her father had wanted to do something to help her career. He had some connections at MenTec Research, so he had arranged all the details of the summer internship – except, it seemed, letting anyone know she would be starting today, or even finding out what it was she would be doing. Laura was glad for the chance to get some experience in her chosen field of cognitive psychology. She was anxious to prove she could find a job on her own merits rather than having it handed to her, but when her father surprised her with the news she had managed to swallow her pride. It would have been foolish to turn down the chance to work at MenTec Research and Technology.
MenTec had gained itself quite a reputation since it was founded twenty years ago. It was best known for its numerous breakthrough discoveries about the human brain. It was also infamous because a lot of people suspected that its projects were dangerous or, at the very least, highly unorthodox. Many believed that MenTec was funded by the government and a host of private sponsors, which used it to develop military technology and bioweapons. Laura thought it was natural to make wild speculations about a facility that operated under a cover of so much secrecy, but she didn’t believe these rumors herself. Even if MenTec’s researchers were involved in some questionable practices, whatever they were doing seemed to be worth the effort.
The biotechnology MenTec produced in the last two decades was on the cutting edge of medicine, and it had already benefited millions of people across the world. Every few years MenTec released an amazing new medical device, and its scientists frequently published papers that revolutionized the way the world perceived the brain. MenTec’s slogan was “Unlocking the mysteries of the mind.” Right now the only mystery Laura cared about was how to unlock this door.
Suddenly the door swung open and Laura barely leaped out of the way in time to avoid getting smashed by two-inches of steel. A man in a white lab coat stepped out and halted in his tracks. He looked to be in his late twenties. He had a clipboard tucked under an arm and a partially eaten bagel in one hand. He paused, his cheeks bulging with a bite he had just taken, and continued to look at Laura in surprise.
They probably don’t get many women around here, Laura grinned to herself. I should snap him out of it before he chokes. She flashed her identicard at him.
“I’m Laura Greene. I’m supposed to be starting here today, but my card didn’t work.” She hesitated, and then added weakly, “I knocked.”
The man abruptly came to life. He swallowed the unchewed mouthful of bagel painfully, and then grinned at her. “Sorry. I was in the Interface room and it’s kind of like being in another world.”
He hastily shoved the remainder of the bagel in a coat pocket and took the card from Laura, examining it curiously. “I’m Tim. Tim Parker.” He looked at Laura critically and handed the card back to her. “Nice picture, but it doesn’t do you justice. Sometimes it takes a little while for new staff to get into the system. When did you get the card?”
As Tim held the door open, Laura slipped past him into the small room and was immediately surprised at how low-tech it seemed. There was a plain desk, actually more of a computer cart, facing the door. On its surface was an ancient CRT monitor attached to a shabby looking computer with a keyboard and mouse. There was no mouse pad.
Along the left side of the room were a series of digital displays. The far wall had a wide window with a black curtain drawn on the other side of the glass, blocking any attempts to look in. There was a door on the right, labeled simply “Interface” followed in bold letters by “Authorized Personnel Only.”
“Last week. It came in the mail in a black envelope with the rest of my ‘Orientation Package.’” The rest of the envelope’s contents had consisted of a slip of paper with the address of MenTec, a badly outdated public relations pamphlet, a copy of MenTec’s charter, a history of MenTec’s accomplishments in science and medicine, and a non-disclosure letter. Laura had signed and transmitted the letter back to MenTec as agreement that she would not discuss any of MenTec’s trade secrets with unauthorized individuals, which included the media and competing medical facilities. As far as she knew, there were no competing medical facilities.
“Well, I’ll make sure that your card is activated by lunch. And I’ll requisition a phone for you.” He led her to the desk and looked at her apologetically. “And you’ll probably want a chair. I bet you can tell this took me a little by surprise.”
That makes two of us.
“Weren’t you expecting me? I received a message last night instructing me to report here, but I don’t really know what I’m supposed to be doing here.”
Tim sat on the edge of the desk, which creaked and buckled dangerously under his weight. He gave her a piercing look, making eye contact with her.
“I only meant that I never thought they would hire someone so...”
“Young?” Laura didn’t mean to sound confrontational, but she was used to being underestimated because of her age. She almost wished her parents had never let her skip two grades in high school. It had been difficult dealing with the pressure and competition from older students, who felt threatened because she was considered “gifted.” Men were even more critical of her because of her sex, so she felt she was constantly battling against two obstacles right from the start.
“He was going to say ‘attractive.’”
Laura turned to see a man standing in the frame of the door to the research room, with a bemused expression on his pleasant face. He appeared to be in his early fifties, at the youngest. Laura thought she recognized him, but she couldn’t recall where she had seen him before.
The man strode into the room, his stride betraying confidence and familiarity with the research lab. He obviously spent a lot of time here. When he reached the desk, he took Laura’s hand and made a slight bow. If Laura had seen anyone else pull such a move she would have laughed, but it seemed to fit this gentleman’s demeanor perfectly.
“My name is Richard Morris. I believe you were about to fall prey to one of Timothy’s classic lines, Ms. Greene.”
Richard Morris? Dr. Richard Morris, the famous cognitive neuroscientist? He had one of the biggest names in the field, so she shouldn’t be surprised to see him here. She hadn’t expected to interact with anyone really important, certainly not on her first day. It would be exciting if she could help this man with his research.
Laura glanced at Tim, who was now standing ramrod straight, almost at attention.
Apparently he had a lot of respect for Dr. Morris. More than he had showed her, at least. She realized she felt disappointed in him. Laura had hoped she and Tim would be able to have a normal working relationship without the sexual attention that followed her, unbidden, just because she was blessed with an extra X chromosome. No, it was more than that. She was disappointed in herself because she had liked him immediately. She knew she would have to learn to be a better judge of character if she wanted to be a good psychologist.
“It’s an honor to meet you, Dr. Morris,” she said. “I’ve read a lot of your work.” Or at least I will as soon as I get home tonight. Laura hated telling lies, even harmless white lies like this one, but she couldn’t stop herself. She wanted to make a good impression. Dad would be proud, she thought wryly.
“Have you really? No doubt it was assigned in school and you hated every minute of it.” Dr. Morris paused, talking almost to himself. “My papers are often far too boring to be of much use.” Laura thought that perhaps he was just trying to be humble, but there was something else. A hint of bitterness? Regret? Dr. Morris smiled softly and continued. “I guarantee the project we are working on will be much more interesting to you. Don’t you think so, Tim?”
Tim came around the desk to stand next to his mentor. He frowned slightly and spoke to Dr. Morris in a low voice that Laura could barely hear. “Doc, are you sure about this? This hasn’t been approved.”
Dr. Morris clasped a hand to Tim’s shoulder, and replied in a normal voice, clearly meant to include Laura in the conversation. “Tim, we’ve already discussed this. We need her on the project. We will get approval. In the meantime, I want Laura working here and you are to cooperate to the best of your ability.” Tim glanced at Laura, and then lowered his eyes.
Laura was troubled by the tension between Dr. Morris and Tim. She didn’t want to be the cause of any arguments, and it seemed she was not completely welcome here. Even if Dr. Morris wanted her help with his research, she suspected she would have to work with Tim, and that could get uncomfortable if he resented her presence. What have I gotten myself into?
Dr. Morris noticed the concern on her face. “Tim has been invaluable to me in completing this project. As long as he keeps his mind on his work.” Tim’s face reddened. “He still has a few reservations about bringing in another person to help us, but we all want this to be a great success.”
Laura still was not entirely relieved, but she appreciated the effort Dr. Morris was making to put her at ease. It did take some of the edge off her worries. “I’ll do whatever I can,” she said.
“When I requested you on this project I wondered if it would be a problem having you work so closely with Tim, but I trust once we get one of these androgynous white lab coats on you and keep you in separate rooms, we won’t have any further distractions.”
It was Laura’s turn to blush. She thought the outfit she carefully picked out this morning was conservative, but she didn’t really know what was appropriate in a laboratory. Soon she realized Dr. Morris was just teasing the both of them, to lighten the mood. He had a disarming charm about him that undoubtedly served him in his profession, and she already felt like she knew him.
Laura caught Tim staring at her, but she was unable to read the expression on his face. He didn’t trust her. He didn’t want her around, that much was obvious. Was he jealous? Threatened? Laura was amazed that she had been chosen for this job, and more amazed that Dr. Morris himself had picked her. Or maybe her father had more influence than she knew.
Almost reading her thoughts, Dr. Morris crossed his arms and continued to speak. “John Greene is an old college friend of mine. When he told me his daughter was interested in psychology and asked if I could find a place for you this summer, I knew I wanted you working with me.” Great. Now Tim knows that I got this job because my father knows his boss.
Laura couldn’t worry about that now. She would prove she was the right person for the job regardless of how she had gotten it. Maybe Tim would come around and see they would do a better job as a team than as rivals.
“Well, I’m very grateful for the opportunity, Dr. Morris. You won’t regret your decision.”
Dr. Morris concentrated on Laura’s face intently, and then smiled warmly. “I’m sure of that, Laura.” His voice abruptly became more serious, not unlike her father’s tone when he lectured her about leaving the TV on, or staying out too late, or not being ambitious enough. “For a little while, your work here might seem a tad bit mundane. There are still some clearances we need to get from higher up before we can bring you in on the project fully. Just remember that everything you do here will be as important as my own work, even if it doesn’t appear to be. I know I can count on you.”
He was right about one thing, it is mundane, Laura thought. Maybe all that had just been a pep speech, something to build team spirit and pride in her work. Laura was dismayed to learn that her job involved taking readings from the medical instruments in Research Lab Three every half-hour.
Hiding her disappointment, she had concentrated on Dr. Morris’ instructions as he demonstrated what information he wanted her to record and how she should enter it into the project database. Laura had caught on quickly; it was a small victory, but Dr. Morris hadn’t needed to repeat a single thing and she was sure he had been pleased. He had even mentioned more than once that he looked forward to assigning her more responsibilities as soon as he could arrange it. He hadn’t said anything further about the project or his current research before leaving her to her duties and rushing off to a meeting.
Tim was no help either. After Dr. Morris left he gave Laura one last quizzical look and an unreadable smile before retreating into the Interface room. She tried to sneak a glimpse inside as he escaped through the door, but she was unable to see anything. I’ll try to get some information out of him later, and maybe a look at that Interface room, she thought. In the meantime, I’d better try to be patient and stay focused on my work. After all, she was here to help as much as she could, even if that meant performing simple data entry for a day or two.
Laura’s watch beeped, reminding her to check the readings again. She slid her recently delivered chair over to the instrument panel. She carefully checked the first display, scribbled notes on her pad, and methodically moved to the next. From her biology classes she had immediately recognized this equipment as an assortment of different medical diagnostics.
She recorded the heart rate from a cardiac monitor and noticed with some relief it was showing up as normal. Laura suddenly wondered what she was supposed to do if the instruments indicated something was wrong. Judging from the number of instruments in this room, there was a lot of machinery hooked up to this person. He must be in pretty bad shape, whoever he was. Wherever he was.
Laura flicked her eyes at the bay window that dominated the far wall. The black curtains were still drawn, in direct defiance of her curious nature, but she had already decided the patient attached to all this equipment must be behind it. She didn’t think that MenTec’s facilities included hospitalization and patient care, but what else could be in there? There was no door leading to the mysterious room, but Laura concluded there must be a way in through the Interface room. They had gone to great lengths to keep a lot of things secret from her, but then why bring her onto the project at all? They didn’t need an eighteen-year-old college sophomore to record a bunch of numbers in a database.
This was clearly some kind of probationary period. Dr. Morris had implied she was here for some purpose, something that perhaps she was particularly suited to, but he needed to get authorization for her on the project. It was probably standard procedure to keep new staff in the dark while they were evaluated for their trustworthiness and work ethic.
Couldn’t this whole experience be an elaborate psychological examination? What if she were the unwitting subject of some project? Laura shuddered at the thought of her being a medical experiment. Dr. Morris hadn’t treated her like she was his newest guinea pig.
Laura completed her log and wheeled her chair back to her computer. She began the tedious task of entering the readings and the times they were recorded into the database. Nothing had changed appreciably since the first set of data she had recorded half an hour ago during her training with Dr. Morris. Was that good? She had no idea what kinds of results were expected. Her mind continued to wander as she entered her last keystroke and logged out of the database.
Just because she was assigned this extraordinarily boring bit of work to do didn’t mean she couldn’t do a little research on her own. She quickly checked out the system configuration of her computer and the software installed on it. Despite the poor outward appearance of the computer she very nearly had a top-of-the-line workstation. For the task at hand all she needed was a basic web browser. She was on the internet in seconds and her real work began.
Laura’s first self-imposed mission was to find out more about Dr. Morris and MenTec. Tracking down information about him on the net was almost like a game for her, refining her searches and tracing dozens of links. Many of them were useless leads, and it was very difficult to separate truth from rumor. Nothing was more elusive than accurate facts about Richard Morris and his work. This challenge only spurred Laura on, and soon she was able to ferret out a reasonable history from the fragments of truth available to her.
Early in his career, Richard Morris had established himself as a leader in cognitive neuroscience, making major contributions towards explaining how neurons interact in the brain to derive thought and memory. To further his work he garnered support for the creation of a research facility dedicated to the study of the brain, and MenTec Research and Technology was founded. Laura hadn’t realized that Dr. Morris was so closely connected to MenTec. He had practically founded it, but she had gotten the impression that he reported to superiors regarding his project.
As his first effort under the auspices of MenTec, Dr. Morris had headed a team of scientists called Brain Trust. Brain Trust was devoted to completing the task of mapping the human brain. With Dr. Morris’ leadership they had succeeded. Building on the years of work preceding them, the Brain Trust researchers identified each area of the brain that contributed to human consciousness. This accomplishment was quickly surpassed when they discovered the neural pathways connecting these areas of the brain and correctly decoded the neurochemical language used to record memories and convey thoughts.
In the process, Dr. Morris had discovered a previously undetected cluster of tiny nerve cells near the base of the brain stem. He believed these cells interacted with signals from the reticular activating system to create the perception of physical reality in the mind. He nicknamed this region the Ivory Gate, after the mythological gate through which false dreams pass. Studies showed that when these cells are strongly stimulated during REM sleep or by artificial means, dreams or drug-induced hallucinations are almost indistinguishable from real experiences.
After the initial public and scientific acclaim for these amazing discoveries, there were a number of related advances in medical treatments and technology, many from within MenTec itself. However, it was soon discovered that Brain Trust had experimented on human subjects in order to acquire the data necessary to map the brain. MenTec insisted that the subjects had all been mental patients and epileptics who volunteered for the procedures.
There were no reported deaths or injuries, but at the time controversy over human cloning was still fresh in a lot of people’s minds. Comparisons were even made to the horrific lobotomies and split brain research popular in the mid-twentieth century. The public outcry that rose against human experimentation backlashed against MenTec, and especially against Richard Morris, who had headed the Brain Trust project.
Laura thought about that kindly man being condemned for his actions, actions that surely had benefited countless people in the last decade, and she felt outraged. Maybe she wasn’t exactly unbiased – psychology was all about studying human patients, to see how they thought and reacted emotionally. How else could you gather any useful information to be of any help to others? Didn’t the results matter at all, especially if no one had been hurt?
But someone had been hurt, if not physically then emotionally. After the incident, Dr. Morris had quickly disappeared from public view, burying himself further in his research. MenTec protected him from the prying eyes of the media and scientific community, and eventually he and his work were all but forgotten. It was only in the past five years that he had begun publishing his findings again – only a few times each year, and never twice in the same scientific journal. Laura tagged every paper she could track down for later reading.
Laura was surprised to find out she actually had read some of Dr. Morris’ work before, and it had been for a class assignment after all. She would have to dig up her Psychology class notes when she got home. She didn’t remember much from the paper they had read, but some of his ideas were beginning to seem familiar.
Dr. Morris’ latest focus was a continuation of his previous work, which was a risky proposition considering the reaction his research had received in the past. It did go a long way towards explaining the level of secrecy surrounding the project though.
Laura’s watch was beeping. How long had it been going off? She was already a minute behind schedule. If she kept this up she could probably count on boring administrative work in her mother’s law office instead of working at MenTec for the rest of the summer. Not to mention daily lectures from her father on the importance of a sense of responsibility if she wanted to get anywhere in the world.
Laura rushed over to the instrument panels and carefully but quickly jotted down the data, trying to make up for lost time. She noted with satisfaction that she was already able to get the work done more quickly than before. This wasn’t so bad after all.
Startled, Laura spun around and saw Tim leaning over her computer screen, idly tapping at the keyboard. He continued to “hmmm” in a loud obvious voice, without looking up at her. “Not one day on the job and already surfing the internet,” he said woefully, shaking his head slowly and feigning disappointment.
Laura stalked over to the desk and switched off the monitor. Tim’s face contorted into an exaggerated look of surprise as he finally took notice of her.
“Laura! Am I in your way?” Was he trying to be funny? He slid away from her desk before she could shove him out of it. She took her seat and placed her notepad in the exact center of her desk. What nerve he had. His attitude had altered considerably since their first meeting only a few hours earlier. What kind of game was he playing at?
“I assume it is acceptable to perform research on the Internet so long as it doesn’t interfere with my assigned tasks?” Laura spoke in a calm and controlled voice, like the one she used when her father was being especially unreasonable. She watched Tim’s reaction closely, in an attempt to read the thoughts behind his expression.
Tim grinned, stuffed his hands in his deep coat pockets, and shrugged. “Doesn’t bother me. You ready for lunch?” What the hell? Subtlety was definitely not one of his strong suits, but he had a good handle on arrogance, and certainly a talent for being downright obnoxious. In a way, she found his presumption amusing.
“I’m not really hungry, and as you pointed out, I have a lot of work to do.” Her sentence was punctuated by the loud rumbling of her stomach. Maybe he hadn’t noticed. The amused expression on his face indicated he had.
“Not even just a little?” Damn. Her rejection had been mostly a reflex reaction, an automatic response that had become habit over the years. Laura hadn’t really thought about it seriously, but now that she did, she considered that it wouldn’t pay to make him more of an enemy than he had to be. And she did want some information from him. She looked at the clock and saw it was one o’clock already. She had only had cold cereal for breakfast, and it was probably about time for some real food. Besides, her mother always told her never to turn down a free meal.
Laura wondered if her mother’s advice included men like
Tim who were only after one thing, and then she decided the advice especially included them. All right then. She smiled and stood up to show her acquiescence. Was that a flicker of uncertainty in Tim’s eyes? He was quick at covering it up.
As they left the lab behind, Laura linked arms with the new focus of her psychological research, which clearly threw him off guard. It was always easier to collect data when the subject had no idea he was being studied.
That was a waste of an hour of my life and I’ve probably gotten food poisoning in the bargain, Laura thought as she collapsed in her chair in the lab and closed her eyes.
I have to tell Mom that the cost of some free lunches is too high. When Tim had “invited” her to lunch, she had not expected a meal at the MenTec cafeteria, which was cleverly called “Food for Thought.” If he was trying to impress her, he had failed miserably.
The food selection was dismal and its taste was even more unappetizing than its appearance. Laura suspected most of the staff brought their own bag lunches or subsisted on the high-calorie, low-nutrition snacks generously provided by the dozen vending machines lining the walls of the commissary. As health conscious as she tried to be, even she had been tempted to assemble a meal of chocolate bars and shrink-wrapped pastries instead of the dry burger and brown lettuce she had settled with.
The only thing worse than the meal was the conversation. Lunch seemed to have been a transparent excuse for Tim to grill her about her past work experience and her intentions at MenTec. Laura hadn’t known how to respond to his questions. She hadn’t been interviewed for the internship before, and she wasn’t sure whether Tim was just satisfying his own competitive curiosity or following orders. She was more suspicious that he had still been unwilling to reveal his role in the project, other than the fact that he wanted to make sure everyone acted in the best interest of MenTec.
As the questions had become more invasive, lunch had developed into a verbal sparring match that left her with a headache compounded with the beginnings of an uncomfortable stomachache. She had finally ditched Tim when he ran off to meet Dr. Morris.
Laura opened her eyes and pulled her chair closer to the desk. She sighed and summoned the strength to switch on the computer screen. Her headache disappeared as she saw what was on the screen and she straightened up to get a clearer look, the queasiness in her stomach forgotten.
A web page she hadn’t seen before was open in the web browser. As she scanned the page she realized she was reading a report about human experimentation at MenTec. It looked like more rumors, but as she remembered the curtained window behind her, Laura became uneasy. What better way to hide a human subject of some bizarre medical experiment? She was sure this page hadn’t appeared in any of her searches on Dr. Morris or Brain Trust, so she was puzzled where it had come from. Tim had been typing at her computer. Was this something he wanted her to see? Or had someone else been in the lab while they were gone?
Rumor or not, Laura wanted to take a look at this page in more detail, but right now she did have work to do. There was no printer in the ill-equipped lab so she sent the link to her computer at home for review later that night.
Laura continued the task of entering her collected data into the system, keeping an eye on the clock as much to make sure she didn’t miss her schedule as to count the minutes until she could go home and try to find some answers to the questions swimming in her head.
Dr. Morris leaned back in his office chair, eyeing Tim warily. Tim shifted uneasily in his seat, leaning forward to rest his hands lightly on the steel desk between them.
“Doc, I talked to her. I just don’t think she’s right for this.”
Dr. Morris sighed and reclined his chair further back until he was almost vertical. He focused his eyes on the ceiling, which unnerved Tim who was trying to maintain eye contact as he made his argument. “On what basis, Tim?”
“She’s inexperienced, impressionable, ambitious, spoiled, and nosy.” Tim ticked off these points on the fingers of one hand. When he finished, he clenched the fingers together into a tight fist.
“Those are exactly the qualities we were looking for.”
“She’ll ruin us.”
Dr. Morris’ chair suddenly snapped up and he stared at Tim. The angry spark in his eyes was a contrast to the soft voice that issued from his lips. “Which is more important, the project or us?”
Tim drew in a sharp breath. He knew a trap when he heard one. He knew what Dr. Morris would want to hear, but he didn’t always agree with the man’s point of view. Richard Morris was a brilliant man, but he was growing soft. If they pulled this off it would be a climax to his already illustrious career, but Tim’s career was just beginning.
“The project, Tim,” Dr. Morris continued. “Isn’t the project greater than both of us combined? Greater than MenTec?” Dr. Morris could see he wasn’t getting through, but he wanted Tim to understand. He needed Tim to understand. He couldn’t do this alone, not anymore. “This needs to end soon, one way or another. I would prefer it to be on our own terms.”
“The Board won’t like it. They’ll stop us.”
“Damn the Board! They are already talking about pulling the plug, but we can’t let them do that. They think we’ve learned everything we can, but we know that isn’t true. It’s our responsibility to bring this to its proper conclusion. They’ll thank us when we’re done, as long as we continue to keep things quiet.”
Tim wondered if “keeping things quiet” included bringing in an outsider to work in the lab. He didn’t know how to respond to Dr. Morris’ idealism. A lot was on the line, and he wasn’t sure he could afford to continue taking these risks. He could understand why Dr. Morris wanted to complete his research without interference, but it seemed like a lot of trouble for so little payoff, with the potential for no payoff at all.
“We don’t even know if this can work. We don’t know what she can do, if anything,” he said. “Why her?” Tim was cooling off now, like he always did. He wanted to be convinced, and Dr. Morris would convince him. He could still do at least that much.
“I have a good feeling about Laura Greene. I have great confidence that she can bring us success.”
Tim replied softly, beaten. “You wouldn’t even let me try first.”
Dr. Morris stood up from his chair and came around the desk to kneel beside Tim. “You’re too close to the project. You know what this is going to take, and you know she can do it. You just don’t want to give up control over the situation.”
Tim nodded. Dr. Morris was right. Tim didn’t like to take chances, and he didn’t like to work with so many variables determining the outcome of the project. “You’re right. I’ll help, but I don’t like it. And I don’t like her. If the Board finds out, I’m covering my own ass.”
Dr. Morris grinned, but his face betrayed no triumph at prevailing against Tim’s stubborn attitude. The difficult part was still ahead of them. He stood up, massaging his sore kneecaps. “I wouldn’t expect anything less.”
“So how was your first day, honey?”
Laura usually looked forward to dinner discussions with her folks, but not today. A formal dinner suddenly seemed a great inconvenience when there was a lot of material she wanted to review, and her appetite hadn’t yet returned from lunch. The mostly thawed tuna casserole in front of her made her stomach gurgle in protest and she pushed the dish away from her. Besides, she didn’t feel she could sit through all the questions about the internship, patiently spitting out the automatic responses about how great it was and thank you very much for the opportunity and yes I think Dr. Morris is amazing. So she didn’t bother trying.
Laura looked at her father and mother in the split-screen holo display in the center of the dining room table. They both looked so tired from a long day at work, but they were trying their best to be attentive, and she really did appreciate the interest they shared in her life.
“It was great, Dad, but actually they gave me a lot of stuff to review to get up to speed on the project I’m working on.” Translation: can I be excused?
She knew they would both understand. After all, it was their devotion to their work that kept them away at their respective offices almost four nights out of every week. Her mother couldn’t bear to leave her law offices to someone else to run, even for an evening, and her father seemed to enjoy trading stocks internationally into the wee hours of the morning. But every night at six o’clock they all conference-called in wherever they were, to at least give the family a chance to feel like one. It had worked for as long as Laura could remember.
“That’s my girl,” her father said with a broad grin, which nearly hid his disappointment. Laura’s mother smiled too, and pushed her graying blond hair away from her eyes.
“Don’t overdo it, Laura. It’s just an internship.”
Her father’s face became red.
“Just an internship? Emily, don’t tell her things like that! This is serious work, just as important as your legal cases. More important if she wants to build a future for herself.” Laura and her mother laughed and her father eventually joined in. Her father’s overbearing concern for Laura’s future had quickly become a family joke, but to his credit he never let it bother him. It only gave him the excuse to keep on digging at her.
“Your father’s right. Seriously, Laura, are there any cute boys working at the lab? I think your father would have been just as happy shipping you off to a nunnery for the summer.”
“I resent that. I just think our daughter should concentrate more on making a life for herself than on making babies. There’ll be plenty of time for that after she’s had a career.”
Laura shrieked with laughter.
“Making babies? Dad! Come on, I haven’t even had a real date in almost a year.” Today’s lunch definitely did not count.
“Which is exactly what I’m worried about,” her mother replied. “I would remind your father that if I had waited until after I had established my law practice, he’d still be a bachelor. Laura, youth is wasted on the young and if I still had a figure like yours...”
This could go on forever. Why did dinner always have to turn into a vaudeville act in their house? She had important things to do tonight.
“OK, guys. I’ll let you work this out. Dad, make sure Mom doesn’t sign me up as an e-commerce bride until the end of the summer. Mom, try to convince Dad that I am a responsible daughter, even if my nubile teenage body is a hormone factory. And remind him that there is such a thing as contraception.”
With a wink that could be meant for either of them, Laura thumbed the button that disconnected the call. That had been satisfying. She left the dining room and climbed the stairs to her room, imagining her father’s reaction to the unthinkable notion that his daughter might not be as noble and pure as the idea of her that he was protecting. That should keep them busy for a while.
Laura entered her room and the motion sensors switched on the overhead light and powered up her computer. As the machine whirred to life, Laura went to the bookcase and looked for her notes from the class on Dr. Morris’ radical theories about making new connections to the mind. At least, they had seemed radical at the time. Something sure was going on at MenTec, and Laura suspected the amount of secrecy about this project and Dr. Morris’ slow reappearance in prominent science journals must mean they were making some kind of progress.
She leafed through the pages of her binder and collapsed into her desk chair. She absentmindedly signed onto domiNet and keyed in her password as she skimmed Dr. Morris’ article.
Soon Laura was completely absorbed in the paper. In it, Dr. Morris criticized the ongoing research and development of artificial intelligence, which was still far from a reality. He described the adaptation of that technology to better purposes, such as communicating with the brain in unconscious patients. He also explained that technology could correct neurological damage in the brain, and even supplement the functions of the brain with a synthetic nervous system. Laura was beginning to think there might be more to Dr. Morris’ research after all.
Halfway through the article, something occurred to her. As far as Laura knew, the complex neurotechnology Dr. Morris cited in his article hadn’t been developed yet. Yet the article described the procedures as though they were already fact. Contact through a direct neural link to the brain just wasn’t possible, even if the continuing research on the Ivory Gate turned out to be correct.
It’s probably just a stylistic approach he takes with his scientific papers, Laura thought. Treating your theories as proven scientific principles would definitely make them seem more convincing. Or maybe this built on one of his other papers, and in order to understand it you needed to make assumptions about technology proposed elsewhere.
Turning her attention back to her computer, Laura quickly scanned through the list of sixteen new messages in her mail inbox. The usual spam, some e-mails from her friends that could wait for now, and the link she had sent herself from work. She clicked the link first, and as the web browser opened the web page she noticed the last e-mail in her inbox was from someone she’d never heard of before. Jason Reed. That didn’t ring any bells. Maybe someone from school? She opened it up and immediately sighed.
Let’s chat, it read. I think we have mutual interests and we can help each other. Yeah, right, she thought.
The last line of the message was a link to a private chat room at a popular net forum. Disgusting. Laura hated getting these random solicitations from strangers on the internet. That was still one of the biggest problems with the internet – it gave a lot of freedom and allowed people to interact with someone in any part of the world, but there was a loss of identity and a lack of real, personal connections with other people. That kind of loneliness led to invitations like this one.
She shouldn’t be so harsh. In junior high she had found herself in one of those chat rooms. A guy had proposed cybersex with her and she figured what the hell, she’d play along for a bit. At first it had seemed exciting, but she had soon found that it made her feel uncomfortable.
She had gotten embarrassed and signed off before things went very far. She’d also thrown out all of her romance novels right afterward. The rational psychologist in her told her that this experience was responsible for her distaste for other people who pursued sexual relations on the internet. Because she had been ashamed of her interest in it, she assumed cybersex was wrong and denounced it, when really it was probably a lot more healthy and safe than real sex, with less of the emotional baggage.
Psychologist, analyze thyself.
Somehow this didn’t seem like the usual invitations she’d received. For one, the e-mail address was strange. Like the name Jason Reed, the domain was unfamiliar. It looked like the message had been routed through several different domains and encrypted to prevent detection. Weird. Some new spamming software to prevent mail clients from blocking the address probably did this. She deleted the message. She had more important things to deal with.
Laura switched to her web browser, anxious to read more about the supposed conspiracy at MenTec.
Jason Reed stepped out of the shower into the steam-filled bathroom. His mother always warned him not to take what she thought were surely scalding hot showers, but he ignored this as another one of the things she invented to nag him about. She was never around enough for her concern about his health to be really convincing, and besides, he found hot showers refreshing. Cold showers just numbed his skin, but he could feel a hot shower all over. And he could feel it inside – a warm feeling not created by the heat but by a sense of total relaxation and comfort that he couldn’t quite explain.
Slicking his hair back and sliding on his steamed glasses, Jason grabbed a towel and pulled opened the bathroom door. As a gentle fog spilled into the hallway, he dripped his way along the length of it and toweled himself off. One of the advantages of his mother’s absence was he didn’t have to worry about walking around the house naked.
He entered his room and slung his towel over the desk chair. His computer was still humming comfortingly, a psychedelic screen saver splashing across the screen. Pulling on boxers and socks, he sat down, careful not to drip on the keyboard. Once again, he began his ritual checking of e-mail.
He had gotten six new messages in the last half hour, but not one from her. For some reason this depressed him. All she was to him was a name. Not even that much. Right now she was just an e-mail address that he had spent a good part of the afternoon tracking down, with no hint of who she was, what she was like, or whether she would like him. But she was also the hope of a connection with another person, perhaps a connection that might become a friendship. Maybe something more, he couldn’t help thinking.
Who was he kidding? What possible reason could she have for returning an e-mail from a stranger? Maybe he could have phrased it differently – he had had no idea what to write to get her attention. He checked his server’s log for the thirtieth time that day, to glimpse the evidence that someone had logged into his page for a short time in the early afternoon.
He had been surprised. Shocked might be a better way to describe it. After the website went live a year ago he had logged hundreds, followed by thousands of hits a day. Then, suddenly, they dropped off to nothing and no one had accessed the page for the last six months. Until today.
That alone had warranted an investigation into the identity of his mysterious visitor. From the IP address he had determined that the server request originated from MenTec itself. Curiouser and curiouser. Digging around in their server had been easier than usual. There was a lull in their anti-hacker security and he had no problems circumventing their cursory blocks and data restrictions. But there was only one piece of information he had wanted.
He had painstakingly followed every connection, every bit of data, until he had finally discovered an e-mail sent from the computer that had accessed his page. Greene, Laura. He had even located her picture in the identicard files. The picture was not very flattering, but it was still obvious that she was beautiful. He had always been a sucker for blonds with a terrific smile. Especially her smile.
Of course, he didn’t know many girls like that, and none of them so far had been interested in pursuing a romantic relationship with him. Even the women he regularly met online were never interested in meeting in person. Maybe things would be different with Laura. First they would have to settle some business. That was much more important right now, but who knew where things might go afterwards?
Jason glanced over the entries in the server log, and his heart skipped a beat. There were now two records, one from earlier this afternoon, and an active one from only a few seconds ago. She was online right now, looking at his web page. He didn’t even dwell on the fact that this probably meant she had read his e-mail and decided to ignore it. He was going to get her attention. This should be easy for him. She was in his playground now.
Laura was absorbed in a colorful description of MenTec’s efforts to harvest coma patients for their brain research, when suddenly the page she was viewing vanished from the screen. Annoyed, she refreshed the page, which no longer seemed available. She checked the domiNet connection but found it to still be active. Maybe the server hosting the page had gone down.
She could check it again later on; she had plenty of leads to follow up on already. Stubbornly, she refreshed the browser again and was rewarded with a new page. It was a nice lavender shade, with dark blue text running across it: Did you get my e-mail, Laura? It was signed Jason.
Laura tilted back her chair and stared at the screen for a full minute, numb with disbelief. What was this? She was not used to being personally addressed by web pages on the internet, and there was that name again. This Jason was certainly persistent. Part of her wondered if he might be some secret admirer of hers, but she still couldn’t put the face with the name. He obviously knew her though, and she didn’t like letting someone else have the upper hand. She would take the bait long enough to find out who this Jason was.
She retrieved the deleted message from the trash box and followed the chat room link it provided. Signing in using her real name, which she usually avoided on public net forums, she was given access to a private room with only one other user logged in: Jason.
Letters scrolled across her screen. I’m sure you’re wondering why I’ve gathered you all here tonight, Jason typed.
Laura suppressed a grin. She could already tell that this guy had an interesting sense of humor, one she wasn’t yet sure if she appreciated. He certainly doesn’t score points for originality. Laura pulled her chair closer to the keyboard and phrased her response. I couldn’t ignore your invitation, no matter how much I tried.
Well, I’m glad you came. It was pretty lonely in here by myself. Here it comes, she thought. He’s more persistent than most, but he has only one thing on his mind.
She didn’t have time for it. Let’s get down to business.
What do you want? How do you know who I am?
I did research, just like you. I’m just a little better at it. Jason obviously didn’t have much experience with endearing himself to people when he wanted something. Laura was sorely tempted to log out now, ignore this kid, and go on with her work. But she didn’t. After a few moments had lapsed, Jason continued.
Sorry, I didn’t mean that the way it came out. Sometimes machines can be a little too damned impersonal.
Laura cracked a smile at that, and typed a response. That’s just what I was thinking. That’s still one of the problems with the internet. Or one of the benefits.
What I meant was, I noticed you accessing my page, and you’re the first one in a long while. I also noticed you work at MenTec, which sort of raised a few red flags for me. What do you do there?
I only started today, Laura typed. I’m just an- Wait a minute, why was she answering his questions? She backspaced and continued. You’re wasting my time. WHAT DO YOU WANT?
I want to get out the truth about MenTec and I think we can help each other. You’re on the inside, you can find out things.
I’ve read some of your conspiracy theories. Do you really think they could carry on that level of research without anyone finding out about it?
Something must be going on. Tell me how easy was it for you to find out anything about MenTec, or the experiments they performed on human, living brains, twenty years ago?
He had a good point there. It had taken a lot of effort to find what she had. When she thought back, she hadn’t learned anything really interesting, barely more than superficial details about the kind of work they did. It did appear that MenTec had succeeded in erecting a wall around itself from the public eye. Why would they do that unless they were involved in something questionable?
That’s stupid, she thought. They don’t want their discoveries to be misused or misunderstood again, that’s all. After the unfavorable response they received after their last breakthrough, who could blame them?
I know they have used volunteers, patients who they tried to treat for medical illness or disease, she admitted.
Did you know that some of those patients died?
Laura drew in a sharp breath. Everything she had read about the experiments indicated no one had been harmed as a result of the procedures attempted on them, which was why she found the whole controversy ridiculous. If someone had died, that was another story. If it were true.
Can you prove it? Laura waited in anticipation, and when she saw his response she felt a mixture of relief and disappointment.
No, he typed. I did manage to download some classified files from the MenTec database, but before I could do anything with them they erected new security and somehow deleted the files from my computer. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true, though.
How convenient. Laura frowned at the screen, wishing that she could see Jason face-to-face and determine if he was lying or not, and so he could see that she was not remotely amused. He was right, the computer is too impersonal.
That’s not very convincing, Jason. If that is your real name. There. That might be abrupt, but at least he knew what she was thinking and it was a challenge to him to establish his identity and what his stake in all this was.
I know who I am, he typed, but what about you? What was that supposed to mean, she wondered? Now he was just trying to be cryptic. He continued typing. I don’t know how involved you are in the project, but someone purposely led you to me. You’re probably being used, but I don’t know why, or how.
Again, he had a good point. If his page had been blocked against visitors, possibly by MenTec, than why and how had the web link been supplied to her? Laura shook her head. This job was not turning out the way she had expected. She noticed he had continued typing for a while and the text was threatening to disappear off the page. She hurried to read it.
I’ll be honest with you. I don’t like MenTec. I don’t like doctors. For all their science and their lofty goals, they couldn’t even save my father. And when he died, MenTec snatched up the body and used it for their experiments and their research, and he didn’t even get a proper burial. The same thing would have happened to me, but I was lucky.
Laura was taken aback by this sudden bearing of the soul, from someone who was practically a stranger. Isn’t this what she was good at? Isn’t this what she wanted to do, find out people’s problems and help them, even if the story was just a well-crafted illusion or perhaps was really grounded in fact? There was certainly a personal motivation to Jason’s actions, which made it easier for Laura to understand him and even empathize with him.
It at least made him seem more real to her, and maybe she was starting to care after all. She didn’t know what she would do if she had had to grow up without her father. Once in awhile she had wished he would let her live her life in her own way, but she never wanted him out of it permanently.
Laura typed slowly, as if to convey the awkwardness of the question. Can I ask what happened?
It’s a long story, he typed, but when I was 5 my mom, dad, and I were in a car accident. My mother came out okay, but my father died. I ended up in a coma for a few months. I never even got to see him before he- I was unconscious, but I remember a lot of what happened around me. The doctors were pressuring my mom to let them try some kind of experimental technology on me, but she refused. They said I would never wake up, but my mom held on and prayed, and I woke up a year later. The doctors didn’t care about me. They couldn’t wait for me to die so they could use me like another lab animal.
Laura didn’t know what to say. I’m sorry, she typed, and immediately regretted it. It had come almost automatically, but when she thought about it, she really was sorry. She just wished she could have thought of a less obvious response.
It’s okay. I remember some of what happened, but the details are hazy, and it’s been a long time. I just don’t want to see this kind of thing continue. I’m sure MenTec is still doing it, and I want it to stop.
Laura wasn’t opposed to human experimentation per se, and even if people were dying, she wasn’t positive that the sacrifice wasn’t worth. Mankind as a whole could benefit from the research, and the patients she knew about were in pretty bad shape already.
In the past, cognitive scientists had discovered a lot through experimenting on human subjects. By cutting through the nerve fibers connecting the left and right hemispheres of the brain, effectively splitting the brain, they had been able to learn how the two sides of the brain communicated with each other and the rest of the body. Understanding of the human brain had made a tremendous leap as a result, and no one had been harmed.
This wasn’t exactly the same thing. Coma patients couldn’t volunteer for a procedure, nor could they refuse it if they wanted to. Laura decided she needed to have more information before she could act on anything. She remembered the blocked-off room and the medical diagnostics she was responsible for monitoring, and suddenly Jason’s suspicions rang true. She would have been curious even if Jason weren’t interested in what was going on. Maybe she could talk to Dr. Morris.
All right, I’ll see what I can find out, but I don’t make any promises. I’m just an intern right now and I don’t want to get in any trouble.
Jason’s words appeared on the screen in a rapid blur. He must be excited, and for some reason Laura felt that she was pleased.
I’m betting if anything weird is going on they won’t be able to keep it from you for long. Just keep your eyes open. I don’t want you to tell me anything you’re not comfortable with.
Recalling Jason’s first message to her, a thought occurred to Laura.
You said we could help each other. I know what I can do for you, but what do I get out of this?
There was a long silence, until Laura wondered if Jason had disconnected from the chat room.
You get to save your career. If I’m right about this, you don’t want to be connected to MenTec. There was a pause. And if that’s not enough, you get to save lives. I’ll be in touch.
Jason signed off. Somehow he had figured out how to get through to her, and he knew what motivated her. It was telling that he had picked out that she was concerned about her success, which she now equated with her work at MenTec. His afterthought about saving lives had its desired effect; it shamed her. She stayed in the empty chat room for a while, wondering where all of this would lead her.
The answer was not forthcoming for another two painfully long weeks, during which Laura continued her duties monitoring the medical equipment. She was unable to reach Dr. Morris the entire time. Tim grudgingly told her Dr. Morris was busy meeting with his superiors about advancing the project to the next phase, which she would surely be involved in. Laura took encouragement from that, but still found it difficult to wait to find out what was going on.
She felt a little like Nancy Drew at times, faced with a mystery bigger than herself. Bigger than worries about what to wear, where to eat, what movie to see with her friends on Friday night. Unfortunately, she was not very good at sleuthing.
Whenever Tim took his breaks, Laura unsuccessfully attempted to enter the Interface room. The room was always locked and she worried that her repeated attempts with her card would trigger some kind of security breach, but she tried anyway, on the off chance that the door would magically open for her and reveal its secrets.
She asked Tim many times to show her what he did, feigning wide-eyed interest in him and his impressive work, but he told her she would have to wait until Dr. Morris gave him permission to release that information. Laura even considered the possibility of “allowing” Tim to seduce her, so she could steal his identicard while he was sleeping and sneak into the Interface room on her own. The opportunity never presented itself. While she didn’t think sex with Tim was entirely unappealing, she attributed this lapse in judgment to being bored at work and slightly rebellious against her controlling father. Nancy Drew had never slept with the enemy to solve a mystery, had she?
Laura continued to read through Dr. Morris’ body of work, finding a lot of it dry and technical, but also looking for information that supported Jason’s claims. There was a lot of evidence that Dr. Morris had worked with and studied coma patients for a time in his career, mostly focusing on using neurotechnology to communicate with them directly through a synaptic relay to the brain.
Laura also managed to pass the time communicating with Jason, who true to his word had stayed in touch. He had contacted her the next day, and they had kept up a constant dialog since then, sometimes through e-mail, but more often through the chat room. If Tim noticed her internet activity, he didn’t say anything.
Jason never mentioned their first “conversation” again. He was leaving it up to her to volunteer information, if and when she ever came up with any. Instead, they talked about everything else – what they liked, what they didn’t like, what they wanted to do professionally, philosophy, and eventually even dating.
Laura found it easy to open up to him. Maybe this was another benefit of the information age – everyone wants to connect to someone else, and the internet makes it possible to make a more personal connection because it is so impersonal. She didn’t really understand this contradiction, but Jason told her he had made a lot of his friends on the internet.
This wasn’t anything new to her, and it didn’t have the stigma associated with it that it had during the beginning of the whole internet revolution, when this would have been seen as unhealthy anti-social behavior. More and more high school and college courses were online, because there was little overhead to a virtual educational institution. These days there were just fewer opportunities to interact with people in person. Let alone those of the opposite sex.
At the end of those two weeks Laura knew she would no longer be helping a stranger if she told him what she discovered, she would be doing a favor for a friend. The cynical side of her thought that maybe this was exactly what he he’d planned, but she didn’t really care.
One of the daily games that evolved between her and Jason was picking different names from mythology to use as their chat room handles. Today she was logged in as Pandora, and Jason was Pygmalion. For the last half an hour they had discussed the moral implications of creating a woman to serve as a love slave.
Still, you have to admit, it’s pretty perverted, Laura typed.
Why? Jason responded. He loved her.
Because...because he made her.
Isn’t that what we all do? We look for that one person we can be a match with for life, but we create an ideal image in our minds that no real person can ever live up to. So when we meet the person who comes closest, we take them and try to change them to make them closer to what we want them to be.
Laura pondered this. She thought she saw a hole in his argument, and decided to widen the opening a little. Doesn’t that contradict what you said before about soul mates? Do you still believe we each have one person that perfectly complements us?
Well...yes. Aha. He was hedging. Maybe Laura would win this round after all.
Yes? Laura poured all the sarcasm she could into that one word. Jason knew her well enough by now to read between the lines.
OK. Yes, I think there is only one person in the entire world that we can be really happy with. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to change them. And a lot of the time, our soul mate isn’t the person we think would be a perfect match for us. Life and love are full of surprises.
Laura knew Jason well enough to read between the lines too. He was taking this a lot more personally than she had expected. Maybe she was too. So, you meet your soul mate and then you make her into your fantasy woman?
Um. Right. But in Pygmalion’s case, he made his fantasy woman first and then she became his soul mate.
See, I have a real problem with that. Did Galatea really have any choice in the matter? How do you know she was his soul mate? Just because he made her, he got the girl when she became real. It would have been much more interesting if she had dumped him and ran off with the painter next door.
But the gods blessed their marriage! Jason’s typing paused. I kind of like happy endings.
What if we never meet the person meant for us? That’s kind of depressing.
The words came from him slowly, thoughtfully. Then you either settle for the next best thing, or you stay alone all your life. I think that’s the best thing about the internet. It increases your chances of meeting the right person.
Doesn’t it also increase the likelihood that you’ll form a different image of the person from what they’re really like? This was getting weird, and a little uncomfortable. Laura could see where this was going.
Is that why you don’t want to meet in person yet? That wasn’t an accusation, just a question. And when Laura thought about it, it was a damn good observation. She didn’t know why she was so reluctant to see if they could take their relationship to another level. Their relationship? Was two weeks in a chat room a relationship? Did she want it to be? She admitted she felt something for Jason, but was it love or just curiosity?
Not for the first time Laura wondered what Jason looked like. He’d already hinted that he had hacked her picture out of the MenTec computer records, which she found less frightening than she would have two weeks ago. Did he like how she looked? She didn’t enjoy having these superficial thoughts, and was even less comfortable that she was having thoughts along these lines more frequently lately.
Suddenly, Laura was startled by a hand on her shoulder. She looked up and Tim was standing next to her, pointedly looking away from the computer monitor so she would know he wasn’t trying to read over her shoulder.
“We just got approval to bring you in on the project. Would you like to see the Interface room now?” he asked flatly, as though she hadn’t been begging for that very thing all week.
Laura could barely contain her excitement.
“Are you kidding? Of course! Just give me a sec...” Tim was already walking away, and Laura hurriedly typed a farewell to Jason.
gotta go, could have some info soon. later. Signing off, she jumped up from her desk and rushed over to the door that Tim held open for her. As she stepped through, she felt a bit like Pandora herself, the object of her curiosity finally revealed to her. She only hoped the door wasn’t letting out the evils of the world while she remained inside as what, hope? She chuckled to herself and took a look around.
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