I have to make this quick. I don't have much time. None of us do.
I'm going to be leaving out some details and changing others. I have no way of knowing which of you reading this is already working for them.
In fact, you don't know if you are either.
Christ, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning.
I'd known Brian since college. We lived on the same floor freshman year and had some intense Call of Duty battles while everyone else was out improving their social skills. He was an asshole, but he was my kind of asshole, and I took a liking to him.
He was a computer science major, and I was in the music school. To this day I don't know a damn thing about computers, but I would get a kick out of listening to him talk about that stuff. He did a lot of black hat hacking and would constantly make vague references to bizarre documents and schematics he would pull off of government computers. To me, they sounded ridiculous. Bioengineered doomsday viruses! Underwater experimentation labs! Laser cannons in space! I was convinced he was making it all up.
After graduation we both stayed in the city, but weren't able to see each other much due to our respective work commitments. We'd get together every few months or so, and he'd always have some new piece of government conspiracy meat for us to chew on. We got drinks over the summer, and he told me he was looking into something major, something called “Operation Stingray.” Serious security, even around the most innocuous references to it. A very, very big deal, he assured me. I nodded and challenged him to some drunken Team Fortress.
“Can't tonight, man,” he said, “but when I blow the lid off of this thing, I'm going to Pyro your ass like the old days.”
“Sure thing, Brian,” I said. “Let me know how that works out for you.” That was the last I'd heard from him for months.
Then, out of the blue one night, he texted me:
Brian: Need to talk. Meet me at [local restaurant] tomorrow at noon. Don't mention this to anyone.
Me: Sure man. Everything ok?
Brian: I don't know. Just please don't be late.
I chuckled. Always so dramatic. Lindsay rolled over in bed. “What's up, hon?” she said.
“Nothing, babe. Just Brian being Brian again. Go back to sleep.”
I got to the restaurant a few minutes early to snag a table before the lunch rush. Across the street there was a small protest going on outside of one of the big downtown banks. “Money for schools, not for bonuses,” they chanted.
Brian staggered in. Week-old scruff, pale and puffy skin, bloodshot eyes, sweat. I'd seen him like that a few times in college, but Christ we're supposed to be adults by now. He clutched a crumpled manila envelope with both hands.
“Morning, beautiful,” I said.
“Thanks for coming, man. I didn't know who else to call. I'm sorry.”
“Dude, relax, sit down.”
He glanced around the restaurant and took his seat. He didn't let go of the envelope.
“Were you followed?” he said.
“Listen to you, 'Were you followed.' Are you serious? Look, we can pretend to be spies but only so long as you don't actually creep me out.”
He reached into the envelope and pulled out a small white pill. He held it out to me.
“What the hell is that?” I said.
“Just take it.”
“Dude, I am not going to get fucked up with you in a crowded restaurant in the middle of the day.”
“It's not, it's... it's just a vitamin. Take it.”
“Since when did you become such a health nut?”
“Just fucking take it, man, please.” His eyes were wild and desperate, and they evaporated any trace of a smile from my face.
“Okay, okay, chill.” I took the pill and swallowed it. “Happy?”
He visibly relaxed and reached into the envelope again. He removed a stack of papers and placed them on the table. “I'll try to go over what I can. I don't know how much time we'll have, but everything you need to know is right in here.”
“Seriously Brian, are you going to tell me what I just swallowed?”
“It started about a year ago,” he said. “I was cracking some DoD contractors for shits and giggles, and I kept seeing the word Stingray being mentioned. Cryptic shit, like top secret memos that just said 'Stingray is a go,' stuff like that. I was curious, so I poked around for leads. There wasn't a lot to go on, but there were a few breadcrumbs that led to a facility out in the desert in bumblefuck Utah. DRS-117, they called it. Tiny place, a staff of a couple dozen with bullshit names like 'Jane Smith,' 'John White,' et cetera. Everything about this place was classified, and I mean everything. The fucking cafeteria budget was redacted.”
“Riveting. You've really outdone yourself this time, man.”
“Shut up and listen,” he said. “The place was a black hole. No info came out of there at all, save for a few emails sent to DoD heads that said, 'The project is proceeding on schedule.' I poked around for a while, and eventually I pulled the name of an 'applicant' they were interested in working with at DRS-117. Some big shot neuroscientist out of Stanford. A few days after I saw his name mentioned, there was a news report that said he had died in a car accident in the redwoods. A few days after that, a memo made the rounds saying that 'the new 117 project member is proving to be a valuable resource to Stingray's development.'”
A smiling waiter walked up to our table. “Are you gentlemen ready to order?”
“I think we'll need a few minutes,” I said.
“Not a problem, take your time.” The waiter lingered for a second. His mouth was smiling, but his eyes seemed to be studying us. He left and Brian continued.
“The Stanford guy was a big name in his field. He specialized in developing systems that could link the human brain with computer interfaces. His early work eventually led to the development of some new next-gen prosthetics.”
He leaned in and his voice dropped to a low whisper. “Here's the kicker. At the time of his 'death' he was working on a method for wirelessly transmitting electrical signals into the brain to stimulate neural impulses. Massively complex stuff, but the gist is that his system could project images, sounds, and sensations directly into the brain from a computer. Not just that, but depending on what part of the brain you targeted, it could create emotions, memories, even thoughts themselves out of thin air. His colleagues thought he'd lost his shit, but he maintained that the system would someday revolutionize mental health treatment. He thought he'd be able to diagnose specific malfunctions in an individual's thinking and fix them with a laptop. Of course, after the accident no one was able to locate any of his research. His hard drives had been erased, and his notes were missing from the lab.”
I rubbed my eyes. I wasn't nearly drunk enough to be listening to this shit, and I was starting to get a headache. “Not to sound uninterested,” I said, “but let's go ahead and order already. I'm not feeling so hot right now.”
“Try to focus,” he said. “I knew I needed to get more info, so I looked for a weak link in the communication chain. I found the information choke point, the one guy who was the direct liaison between 117 and the Defense Department. Everything went through him. Over a few months I got into every piece of computerized electronics this guy touched, and I waited. The guy was careful, very careful. It took a while, but eventually he slipped. He left an unencrypted video file on his laptop without password protection one night, and I snatched it up. When I watched it, I... well, here, see for yourself.”
He tapped his phone and handed it to me. The screen showed a large white room with a chimpanzee sitting in the middle eating from a bowl of fruit. Off to the side a man stood at a computer console. He was facing the camera. “Stingray experimental test subject number 117-011. Simple motor functions,” he said.
He tapped on the keyboard and the chimp stopped eating. Stopped moving at all, actually. It sat there completely motionless, like a doll. “Right arm,” the man said as he tapped a command on the keyboard. The chimp raised its right arm. “Stand,” the man said. The chimp stood up. “Take seven steps to your left.” The chimp did so.
The video cut out and started up again, apparently at a later date. The same setup as before. “Experimental test subject number 117-011,” the man said. “Emotional regulation.” He tapped on the keyboard and said, “Anger.” The chimp immediately flung the fruit across the room, and launched into an awful screaming rage. It rushed at the man and raised its arms to strike him. “Sadness,” the man said. The chimp collapsed onto the floor and moaned. It curled into a ball and pressed its face into its knees. “Fear,” the man said. The chimp screeched and scrambled into a corner of the room, wide-eyed and shaking.
Again, the video cut out. When it restarted, the man stared into the camera without speaking for a long silence. “Experimental test subject number 117-011,” he said at last. “Self-preservation override.” The man tapped away on his keyboard then paused for a moment, looking at the chimp. His finger hovered over a key. He sighed and pressed it. The chimp went motionless for a second, and then raised its hands to its face. The chimp sat there quietly as it tore its own eyes out.
The man looked into the camera. “Based on these results, I recommend moving into Phase Two immediately.” The video went black.
“What the fuck did you just show me?” I said.
“That's not even the half of it,” Brian said. “Pretty soon after I saw that video, I started talking with LaFarge. And that's when things really got weird.”
The waiter stepped up to the table again. Brian waved him off. “We still need a few minutes,” he said.
“I'm sorry sir, but there's a phone call for you.”
Brian frowned. “It must be LaFarge. I told him I was meeting you. Wait here.”
Brian and the waiter stepped into the back of the restaurant, and I sat there rubbing my temples. I wasn't in the mood to listen to conspiracy fantasies, and now it looked like I was getting a migraine. I decided that I was going to excuse myself when he got back. Conspiracy games aren't fun when you have a splitting headache.
I looked out the window at the protest. A waifish girl with blonde dreadlocks and a knit sweater was reciting slam poetry about the evils of greed. The ineffectiveness of it all would be comical if it wasn't so sad.
The waiter walked by again, and I touched him on the arm. “Listen, I'm afraid I'm not feeling well, and I'll have to step out. Please tell my friend I'm sorry, and I'll get in touch with him later in the week.”
“Not a problem, sir. Will your friend be arriving soon?”
“No, I mean my friend who was just here. The one you took back for the phone call.”
The waiter looked puzzled. “I'm sorry, sir, I'm not sure what you mean.”
“You've been sitting by yourself since you arrived.”
I looked at him. Was this kid messing with me? “That's not funny,” I said. I stood up and walked to the back of the restaurant. “Brian,” I called. “Hey Brian, are you back here?” I turned down the small hallway that held the phone and the restrooms. It was empty. I checked the men's room. Nothing.
I walked back to the front of the restaurant. “Okay, cut it out kid,” I said to the waiter. “Where's my friend?”
“I'm sorry sir. I don't know who you're referring to.” I felt eyes on me, and I looked around. The rest of the waitstaff were all standing perfectly still, starting at me with blank expressions. The waiter stepped toward me. “But there is a phone call for you,” he said. “Please follow me to the back.” The waitstaff advanced on me.
A thunderous crash sounded as a brick smashed through the plate glass window at the front of the restaurant. I looked out the hole and saw that the peaceful little protest had turned savage. Protesters were smashing windows and cars and attacking passersby. The poetry girl was standing in the middle of the street, staring into the restaurant with a crazed grin. We locked eyes for a moment before a police cruiser smashed into her, sending her flying in a cloud of red mist.
The restaurant erupted into chaos. Diners attempted to flee, knocking the waitstaff aside. I grabbed Brian's manila envelope from the table and jumped out the open window.
Police officers flooded the scene. They fired tear gas and beat the protesters bloody with batons. But it was all wrong. They came too quickly, almost immediately as soon as the protest had turned violent. As though--
As though they were waiting for it to happen.
I sprinted home and bounded up the stairs to my apartment. I flung the door open. Lindsay was slicing tomatoes in the kitchen, and she gasped when I burst into the room. I slammed the door behind me and locked it.
“Jesus, honey, is everything alright?” she said.
“I don't know. We have to call the cops. Something happened to Brian.”
“What? What happened?”
“He just disappeared. He went to get a phone call, then the waiters...” My head was throbbing, and I collapsed onto the couch.
Lindsay ran to me. “Honey, calm down. Just breathe. Everything's going to be fine, okay? Just breathe.”
I sat up, and she stood behind the couch. Her hand on my back made me feel better, and I relaxed a little. “You're right. I just... I just need to think. I don't even know where to begin,” I said.
I looked down at the manila envelope in my hand. I opened it and saw another, smaller envelope inside. I pulled it out and saw that the words “If anything happens to me” were written on the front.
“Just calm down,” Lindsay said, rubbing my shoulder gently. “Whatever it is, we're going to figure it out.”
I touched her hand and looked up at her reflection in the TV screen. “Thank you,” I said, smiling.
I looked back down at the envelope. I opened it and pulled out a stack of papers. On the top there was one with a single word written in black marker:
I looked up at Lindsay's reflection. She was raising the knife above her head, ready to plunge it into my back.
I fell in love with Lindsay the first time I met her. It was her smile that did it. Warm and sweet, with a sparkle of mischief behind the eyes.
She was wearing that smile as she held the knife over me, ready to plunge it through the back of my neck.
I leaped forward out of the couch just as she whipped the knife down. It slashed my shoulder open, and I fell onto the coffee table. I reached back to touch the wound and felt hot blood seeping between my fingers.
I rolled over and looked at her. “Jesus fucking Christ, Lindsay, what are you doing?” I stammered.
She was staring straight ahead, not even looking at me. Just gently smiling into nothing. Her head slowly lowered, and she looked into my eyes. “Everything is going to be alright,” she said. She walked around the couch, slowly and deliberately, her eyes fixed on mine the whole time.
I rolled off the coffee table and backed away from her across the carpet. “Lindsay,” I said, “put down the knife. I am not fucking with you right now. Put it down.”
“Just relax, babe,” she said. She walked around to the front of the couch and picked up the stack of papers from Brian's envelope. “You're going to be fine. Brian is going to be fine. Everyone is going to be taken care of.” She stepped toward me, the papers in one hand and the knife in the other.
I backed up into the exposed brick wall, and pain flashed across my shoulder. I stood up, breathing hard. “Stop,” I said. “Stop right there. Please don't take another step toward me, or I might have to hurt you. I don't know what's going on, but please don't make me do that. I love you Lindsay. Please stop.”
She paused a few feet from me. We stood in a thick silence. “You're such a sweeeeeetheart,” she growled in a raspy voice that froze my intestines. “Too bad it has to end like this.”
She rushed at me, waving the knife in front of her. I dodged to the side, grabbed her wrist, and spun her around into the wall. I pounded her wrist against the brick, trying to knock the knife loose. I felt a wet snap in the bone, and I gasped and looked at her. She was still smiling.
I threw her to the side, and she crumpled onto the floor. She laid there a moment, squares of bright sunlight from the windows making her look like a dream. I was seeing purple spots in the center of my vision, and a high-pitched ringing sound was spiking my brain like an icepick. It was wrong, everything was wrong. This couldn't be happening. I pressed my palms into my eyes. The pill. Something was in that pill that Brian gave me, and it was making me crazy. I have to wake up. That's all I have to do is wake up.
I took my hands away, and Lindsay was standing in front of me. The smile was gone. A guttural animal cry exploded from her and she swung the knife at my head. I ducked under her arm and shoved her waist as hard as I could. She staggered back and fell into the window. It shattered and she flipped over, clutching at the windowsill just as she went over the side.
I ran to the window and and grabbed her wrist just as she let go of the sill. The knife spun and flashed down to the street. Brian's papers fluttered through the air like snowflakes.
Lindsay looked up at me. The smile was gone, the rage was gone. It was just her. “Oh my god,” she cried, “Oh my god, what's happening?”
“Fuck, baby, hang on,” I said. My hands were sweaty and slick with blood. I squeezed harder and felt the bones twist and pop in her broken wrist.
She screamed and jerked her arm. My grip slid down to her fingers.
“Hold still,” I yelled. “Hold still. Reach with your other hand.”
“I can't, I can't, oh God don't let me fall.” She was shaking and gasping for breath. I tried to pull her up, but my shoulder screamed fire and gave out. She slipped another inch.
I was barely holding onto her fingertips. I looked in her eyes. Wet, red and frightened. I felt her fingers sliding from mine.
“Please,” she whispered.
Then she slipped.
I watched her eyes the whole way. Her scream cut deep into me, and she hit the pavement with a crack that will ring in my ears forever.
People on the sidewalk shouted and ran to her. They circled, and one guy knelt down next to her motionless body. He looked at the others. “She's alive,” he yelled. “Call 911.”
I ran to the front door of the apartment, grabbed my coat to cover her in case of shock, and flew down the stairs. I tripped and landed on my bleeding shoulder on the way down. I groaned and hissed through clenched teeth, but I scrambled to my feet and kept running. I got to the front door of the apartment building and shoved it open.
She was gone.
I turned and looked both ways on the sidewalk. There was no Lindsay, no crowd circle, nothing. People were walking up and down the street like nothing had happened.
I ran my hands through my hair. “What the fuck,” I whispered, “what the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck.”
I looked across the street. A man in a black overcoat and a bowler hat was standing there. We watched each other for a few long seconds. He held something in his hand. It was dark blue and shaped like a smartphone, but thin and translucent like glass. He touched it, and I felt something like a drill bit boring between the two halves of my brain. He's doing it, I thought. Somehow he's doing all of this.
I felt an urge foam up inside me, an urge to run across the street and beat him to spongy pulp. I could see his bloody face on the sidewalk in my mind, but a piece of paper blowing against my leg snapped me out of it. I picked it up. It was Brian's note from earlier: RUN.
I turned up the sidewalk, picked up a handful of papers strewn across the concrete, and I ran.
After a few blocks I stepped into a drugstore. I hid my bloody shoulder under my coat, and I purchased some first aid supplies. “Is there a bathroom I can use?” I asked the cashier.
“You're not going to shoot up in there, are you?” she said.
I walked into the bathroom and locked the door behind me. I patched my shoulder up the best I could, and I looked into the mirror. The headache was a rock hammer in my skull, and my eyes were starting to sting. I popped a few ibuprofen, but I doubted it would help.
I pulled out the papers I had rescued from the street: some MRI brain scans with certain areas circled and highlighted; a satellite image of what looked like a major city, though I couldn't tell which one; a sheet with a list of names, on which I recognized a few political and media figures; and a handwritten note from Brian that looked like the last page of a letter:
-out of the city as quickly as possible. Don't pack, don't talk to anyone, just get into your car and head to [nearby town]. Like I said, you have to find LaFarge. You'll know what to do then.
So I guess that's that. If you're reading this, we might not see each other again for a while. Maybe never, in fact. Just... just know that you were always my best friend, even if I never said it to you. There's no one else I can trust to expose these sons of bitches before it's too late. You're going to succeed where I failed. I know it.
Okay, enough of that. Whatever you do, find LaFarge.
Chalkboard fingers scratched my skull, and my head felt like it was going to split in half. I flipped the note over:
PS: Sorry about the pill, man. It keeps them out of your head, but it has some nasty side effects.
I looked in the mirror. An oily black liquid was trickling out of the corner of my eye.
Whatever you do, find LaFarge.
Brian's last words echoed in my mind as I made my way uptown. I held a plastic bag with some supplies I had picked up on the way: bandages for my shoulder, a small pocketknife, a flashlight, some bags of trail mix, and a bottle of water. Not much, but it would float me while I headed up north to look for LaFarge.
LaFarge. Jesus Christ, I didn't even know who this guy was, or how I was supposed to find him. Brian hadn't finished telling that part of the story yet before he... before they...
I shook my head. My vision was shimmering like the pavement on a hot day. The side effects of the pill were getting worse, and I didn't know how long they would last. I was seeing things now. Several times on the walk uptown, I thought I saw the man in the bowler hat reflected in a store window. He was never there when I turned my head, but I swear his reflection was getting closer.
I reminded myself it was just my eyes playing tricks on me. At least I hoped that's all it was. In any case, as long as the pill was working it was shielding me from their control devices. The real thing to be afraid of was the side effects wearing off. That's when I would really be in trouble.
Control devices. Mind control devices. It still sounded ridiculous, even after everything I'd seen that day. “There's a government conspiracy to control our thoughts! Everyone is in on it!” For fuck's sake, there are crackheads who think more rationally than that. What proof did I have? Brian's papers were gone, no one else could corroborate anything I'd seen, I was actively hallucinating at that very moment because of the pill. Oh my God, I pushed Lindsay out of the God damn window — or did I even do that? Was any of this real, or was I laying in a hospital bed, foaming at the mouth, shouting, “They're coming for my thoughts, don't let them get me”? Was the world really in danger, or had I just lost my fucking--
Whatever you do, find LaFarge.
“Okay, Brian,” I said to myself. “We'll do it your way. I'll head up north. If I don't find him, I'll get to enjoy insanity for the rest of my life. I've heard it's actually quite nice.”
“If I do find him... well, I'll figure that out when I get to it.”
I found where my car was parked, across the street from a dingy punk bar a dozen blocks from my apartment. There was always parking around there, because old punkers would sometimes smack the cars with barstools to relive their glory days. My car had a few new dings on it, but nothing major. I got in and set the bag down in the passenger seat.
My phone chimed. I pulled it out of my pocket and saw that my mom had sent me a text: “What's going on??? CALL ME!!”
I looked around. The street was completely empty, save for a mailman making the rounds. I looked back at the phone. It was a stupid risk. Stupid stupid stupid. But I had to try to warn her. I swiped it open and called my mom.
She answered, and I could hear the fear in her voice. “Honey, what's happening? The police just called me. They said something happened to Lindsay. Are you alright?”
“I'm fine, mom. I need you to listen to me. Grab a bag, pack what you need, and drive out to Aunt Clara's right away. Don't stop, don't wait for anything, just get out of the house and go as quickly as you can.”
“What on Earth are you talking about? Are you in trouble? Tell me what's going on.”
“I can't. I'm sorry, but I really can't right now. I'm mixed up in something big, and they might try to hurt you. I'll explain later, but just get to Clara's and tell Uncle Jim that he has my personal permission to shoot anyone who trespasses on his land. He'll love it, trust me.”
“Who's trying to hurt you? Is Lindsay alright?”
I swallowed. “Lindsay is fine, mom, it's just... Brian and I have been looking into something, and I really don't have the time to explain further--”
“I knew it had something to do with Brian. That boy has done nothing but stunt your potential ever since you met him. He's a lazy creep, and he smells like stale potato chips. I don't know why you ever decided to spend time around--”
“Mom will you just fucking listen to me?” I shouted. “I'm in danger. Lots of it. And that means you're in danger too. Get out of the house and get somewhere safe. Now. Do you understand me?”
“How dare you. I never thought I'd see the day where my own son would be shouting obscenities at me from outside a filthy bar like an animal.”
“Oh my God, mom, will you just stop and listen to—wait, how did you know I was outside a bar?”
A silence on the other end. “We only want what's best for you, dear.”
The driver side window exploded as the mailman punched through it with clenched fists. He reached in, grabbed me by the jacket, and pulled back hard. I shouted and punched at his head, trying to knock him away. He barely flinched under my blows, and his hands were vice grips on my collar.
I grabbed the steering wheel and pulled myself away from the window. I reached toward the passenger seat. The knife was just beyond my fingertips. With my other hand I felt for his face and squeezed my thumb into his eye. His grip gave way just a bit, and I grabbed the knife. Fierce adrenaline pumped in my veins as I flicked the knife open and stabbed frantically at his face. He held on, his eyes unflinching and cold like a wolf's. He pulled harder, and I felt myself going through the window. A sick terror raced through me, and I stuck the knife hard into his neck. He let go and clutched at the wound. I opened the car door into his gut, and he fell backward onto the street.
I jammed in the keys, shifted into gear and gunned it down the street. I looked in the rearview mirror. The man in the bowler hat stood next to the crumpled mailman, and he watched me drive away. Maybe it was my imagination, but I thought I saw him nod at me as I sped off.
Late in the day I reached the town Brian mentioned in his last letter. It was an old coastal town, about two-hundred miles outside of the city. Quaint little place. I remembered Lindsay and I had stayed at a bed and breakfast there once when we were first dating.
I ditched the car in a wooded area a few miles outside of town and covered the rest of the distance on foot. I had tossed my phone out the window after I got away from the mailman, and all I had in my pockets were a few crumpled dollars and the flashlight.
In the distance I saw the old historic lighthouse that was the town's trademark. It stood watch on the rocky shore, still vigilant, even though it hadn't been used in years. The sleepy little town took shape as I moved closer to the shoreline, and I walked down the silent main street in the afternoon light. During the tourist season this street would be humming with families shopping for souvenirs and eating greasy battered seafood. Now though, the place was cold and deserted, and the sound of my own footsteps was making me nervous.
Find LaFarge. Well gosh Brian, couldn't you have given me a little more help than that? What am I supposed to do, walk into the town pub and ask if anyone knows him?
I turned a corner and saw the one business in town that was open: The Pink Coral Bar and Grill.
I sighed. Fuck it.
I opened the door and felt all the eyes in the room size me up immediately. Dainty little pretty boy from the city, their eyes seemed to say. I remembered why I hated this place.
I took a seat at the bar and ordered a drink. My head was swimming and I rubbed my eyes with my thumb and forefinger. When I looked up, I could see the man in the bowler hat reflected in the bar mirror in front of me.
I gasped and turned around. Nothing.
“Woah, relax there buddy, we're not gonna bite,” the bartender said, and a couple of the guys laughed. I forced myself to laugh too, in a sad attempt to look normal. “What brings you out this way? Sightseeing?” the bartender asked.
“Yeah, just taking a drive up the coast to relax a little,” I said.
“Well, you sure look like you could use it big guy.” More laughter.
“Hah, yeah I guess. Hey listen, there's an old friend of mine who used to live out here. Haven't seen him in years. Name's LaFarge. Do you know if he's still around?”
The bartender cracked a wide grin. “Hey, this gentleman's looking for LaFarge,” he called out. The barflies cracked up, and everyone turned to look at me. “Yeah,” the bartender said. “I guess you could say that old nutcase is still here.”
“Do you know where I could find him?”
“Sure,” the bartender smiled. “Only one place to look.”
I stood in the graveyard in the fading light, looking down at the simple headstone in front of me:
February 19, 1951
July 22, 2011
Together we will shine into the darkness
“Okay, Brian,” I whispered. “I found him. You said I'd know what to do when I found him, and I did. So now what?”
I walked out of the graveyard and back toward the town. I had to have missed something. Maybe LaFarge was just a code name or something, and I had to contact him a different way. Maybe there was another LaFarge in the town, and the bar hicks were just messing with me.
Or maybe I really was crazy.
My head was starting to feel better. The pill was wearing off. Either I was crazy, or they'd take over my brain soon. Either way, I was at a dead end.
I kicked a plastic cup with a lighthouse logo down the sidewalk. Tears clouded my vision. Of all the places for the story to end, why did it have to be here? Why did I have to meet my doom in a bullshit, little, tourist-trap town full of assholes peddling shitty food, cheap souvenirs, and stupid plastic cups with cheesy lighthouses printed on the--
Together we will shine into the darkness.
I ran toward the old lighthouse as the pink sunlight faded from the sky. The wind whipped my coat along the rocky path to the base. I flicked on my flashlight and found an old door rusted into the side of the lighthouse. It was locked, but a few good kicks knocked it open.
I climbed the stairs up to the lantern room and shined the flashlight around. It was pitch dark and dusty, and the crumbling remains of the lantern sat like a flayed skeleton in the dark.
I looked around. Aside from the ancient equipment, there was nothing out of the ordinary. Great. Looks like I had just added destruction of property to the long list of crimes I'd be arrested for. I turned back toward the stairs.
A pair of heavy hands clamped down on my shoulders and threw me back onto the ground.
I cried out, but a black form held me down and covered my mouth. I felt the cold metal of a knife against my throat.
“What are you doing here? Who sent you?” a voice demanded.
The hand moved from my mouth, and I stammered, “My friend—Brian—he told me to come,” between gasps of air.
The hand grabbed my face and moved it from side to side. The body stepped off of me and pulled me to my feet. “Sorry about that,” the voice said. “I had to make sure it was you and not just them using your brain. Can't be too careful these days.”
“Who are you?” I said.
He stepped into the moonlight. “My name is Sebastian LaFarge. You and I have a lot to talk about, my friend.”
“So,” LaFarge said, “what's the plan?”
He was a big, hefty son of a bitch, with a bushy mustache and a mop of stringy gray hair. Heavy dark bags sagged under his eyes, and he reeked of BO and wood chips. I have no idea how he was able to ambush me without my smelling him first.
I blinked. “What do you mean? Brian told me to find you. I assumed you had the plan.”
LaFarge shook his head. “Brian is the brains. I'm just the eye candy. Where is he anyway? Is he on his way?”
My eyes sank down to the floor. When I looked up, LaFarge's expression had turned grim. “Damn it,” he said. “I guess that means Phase Two is underway.”
“How much did Brian tell you?”
I told the story of everything that had happened to me: Brian's disappearance, the riot outside the restaurant, Lindsay attacking me, the man in the bowler hat, everything leading up to us meeting in the lighthouse.
LaFarge shook his head. “Well, you managed to make every stupid mistake you possibly could, but at least you're still alive. Maybe that's why Brian trusted you, because he knew you were lucky. It certainly wasn't because he thought you were smart.”
I could see why he and Brian got along. “Well if we don't have a plan, then we should at least get out of this lighthouse,” I said.
“Agreed. I've got a safehouse a few hours from here that should do until we figure out our next move. But first—” he reached into his pocket and took out a white pill. He held it out to me. I hesitated. “Don't worry,” he said, “it's a much milder version than the old batches. Won't drive you crazy, for one thing.” I swallowed it.
We headed back toward the town in the cold moonlight. LaFarge held a strange device in his hand, a mess of soldered electrical components. He glanced at it from time to time. I looked around nervously as we walked the silent streets.
“It's okay,” he said, looking down at the device. “The town's clean. Not a single Stingray for a few miles in any direction. And they only have an effective range of a few hundred feet, so we're in the clear for now.”
“Stingray. Is that what they call the mind control device?”
“Nothing gets by you, kid.”
“How do you know so much about it?”
LaFarge let out a short, bitter laugh. “Because,” he said, “I helped create it.”
I climbed into the cab of LaFarge's rusty pickup truck, and we drove off into the night. He stayed to the country roads, and the branches made checkered shadows on his face as he spoke.
“2008 scared everyone,” he said. “Until then the US government had been living in a world of make-believe. We had defeated communism and stood alone as the world's last great superpower. We were the capstone on top of the global pyramid, free to enforce our will as we saw fit. There were cracks in the armor. The Towers, Iraq, Katrina. But to the people in charge they were just a few bumps in the road. No reason for alarm. Just tweak the strategy a little bit, put a black guy in the White House, that'll calm 'em down.
“But in the fall of 2008, the financial crisis hit. Global commerce stopped for a few days. Stopped. For a terrifying moment, the whole system looked like it could unravel. And every economist with a brain was saying the same thing: this is only the beginning. The old boys in charge had finally seen truth. They'd been having a picnic in a minefield, and the first one had gone off.
“In the 30's it was easy. The great engine of American industry was still churning, and there were enough resources to pull the whole world back from the brink. Not anymore. Whatever resources exist are concentrated in the hands of people who refuse to give them up. Maybe a few old billionaires would fund cancer research to win points with Saint Peter, but by and large the financial elite had told Washington, 'We aren't paying for this mess. Figure something else out.' But it was a riddle without an answer. Who could stabilize the system? China? China is a house of cards, one real estate bubble away from collapsing like the Soviet Union. India is a backwater pretender, and the Russians are digging for oil like a smackhead poking around for that last vein. No, there would be no New Deal, and history shows that when a government can't govern, eventually the people rise up.
“Democracy and commerce were no longer compatible. One of them had to go. So a plan was hatched. Funds were allocated. A tiny research station was built in the desert. All of it authorized by a top secret memorandum detailing the three phases of a desperate project: Operation Stingray.
“I was brought in for Phase One: testing and experimentation. I'm an engineer by trade, though I had dabbled in biochem in my youth. I detested the idea of working for the feds, but the money they offered was unbelievable. I flew out to Utah and walked through the doors of Defense Research Station 117, thinking I had won the lottery.
“It was weird from the beginning. They gave us a few vague directives, but never told us what we were actually working on. We weren't allowed to fraternize with anyone outside our immediate team, and we were under constant surveillance day and night. Eventually a bunch of us confronted the principal investigator, a man known to us as Dr. Dreiser. We told him it was ridiculous to expect us to accomplish anything when we didn't know what we were making. So he arranged a demonstration.
“He sat us all in front of a table with a mouse cage on it. He wheeled in a bizarre contraption on a cart and started typing on a keyboard. The mouse froze still. Dreiser typed something else and the mouse very slowly began to eat its own paws. I was shocked and sickened, and I looked at Dreiser's face. He was grinning. The frightening, inhuman look of a man drunk on power.
“We were horrified. Several of us demanded to be taken off the project. But Dreiser told us all the same thing: you signed a contract. You belong to us.
“After that, they clamped down. We weren't allowed to call home, go outside, even talk to each other about anything other than the project. They posted armed guards in every room. It was surreal and frightening, like something out of the Twilight Zone.
“Then one day, they woke us all up and told us we had completed our contractual obligations and were free to go. We packed into the back of an old army truck and drove away. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised when the driver stopped the truck, ordered us out, and told us to march into the desert. He sprayed gunfire into our backs, and we collapsed forward in a bleeding heap. I was the lucky one. The shot went through my shoulder, missing everything important. I laid there on the ground as the soldier approached us. He popped two into the heads of every man down the line. I waited until he was at the guy next to me, then I sprang up and wrestled the gun from him. I gave him two to his head, then drove away in the truck.
“When I got back to civilization, I saw that the news was reporting the deaths of every member of the project and their families, all killed in tragic accidents. Car crash. House fire. Accidental drownings. I had apparently suffered a massive heart attack. But I was the only one whose family hadn't died with him. It was a message. Dreiser was saying, 'Don't even think of coming forward, or your wife and son will pay.' So I stayed in the shadows, determined to find a way to shine a light on this whole thing.
“I've been on the run ever since. They brought in a new team after us, and now it looks like they've moved on to Phase Two.”
“What's Phase Two?” I asked.
“What do you think? Field operations. Crowd control. Targeted assassination. Using the Ray to eliminate enemies and prevent the masses from congealing into any kind of a threat. It's a remarkably simple feat. That riot you witnessed, for example. They didn't need to take over everyone's brain to do that. That was probably a single Ray turning up the aggression of a handful of the protesters and setting the whole thing off. That's all they need, the ability to control a few key players at a few key moments, enough to tip things in their favor 51% of the time. With the proper planning, you can control a whole city with a skeleton crew of maybe half a dozen Rays. Put a crew like that in every major city, maybe infiltrate a few foreign governments, and, well... I'm sure Dreiser thinks he can control the whole world like that. The scary thing is he might be right.”
“Who's in charge of it all?” I asked.
LaFarge shrugged. “Ostensibly it's under the Defense Department, but I don't know how much sway they really have. A couple of them got spooked and tried to pull the plug a few months ago, then promptly died by apparent suicide. Maybe the president is calling the shots, maybe he's under the Ray like everyone else. The closest thing to a leader the project had was Dreiser, and he was more mad scientist than anything else. But you're already well acquainted with him, I believe.”
“The man in the bowler hat?”
“Bingo. He's a real ruthless SOB. The thought of a man who loves power that much being given a blank check for it frightens me more than anything about this whole situation.”
I stared out the window. I had been too scared to ask the real question. I took a deep breath. “So if it's a three phase operation... what's Phase Three?”
LaFarge shook his head. “Whatever it is, it's big. The largest wing of the facility was behind a door marked 'Phase Three Development.' Dreiser was the only one I ever saw go in or out of there. There were whispers and rumors, but no one had any idea what he was doing. All I know is that if Phase Two is already being implemented, Phase Three must be nearing completion.”
We pulled off the road onto a long gravel driveway leading to a tiny cabin deep in the woods. LaFarge shifted the car into park. “Listen,” he said. “I know this is a lot to take in. I know it seems like you've set yourself against overwhelming forces. But they aren't invincible. There are weaknesses. They've made the Ray a handheld, but the tradeoff is that its signal is weak. They have to be near you for it to work, and that limits its effectiveness. And there's the pill. I had to dig up a lot of old biochem knowledge to create it, but it seems to work. If we can figure out a way to mass produce it and get it to the public, we can turn the tables.
“And most importantly,” he said, “we have the truth on our side. That was the one thing that kept Brian going, the fact that he was shining a light into the darkness. When he told me he was going to try to bring you to the rendezvous, I knew that he must have seen something in you, something that told him you would devote yourself to doing the right thing. He trusted you, so I trust you.”
He opened the door. “So come on,” he said, “we have a lot of work to do.”
That was a few weeks ago. Since then we've been hard at work, improving the formula for the pill and spreading the word to whoever will listen. We've been on the move, staying at the various safehouses LaFarge has scattered across the country. There've been a couple close calls, but we've managed to stay ahead of them.
I'm sure most of you think I'm crazy, but I wrote this to get the truth out there. There are still lots of unanswered questions, chief among them the nature of Phase Three, but I'll continue to update as we uncover more information.
I'm sitting here now, waiting for LaFarge to get back from town with supplies. It's been a tremendous weight off my shoulders to tell all this to you guys. I feel less alone knowing that there are others out there who share this burden of knowledge. Maybe some of you will help us resist, help us start the ripple that will become the tsunami strong enough to defeat the whole operation.
It's strange. I'm looking out my window at the trees and even though I know full well what we're up against, I feel strangely hopeful. I'm hopeful that we'll be able to turn things around, that we'll spark a movement too big for them to control, that we'll be able to wake the people up and tell them the tru—
No, no, no, no.
Lights outside the window.
A helicopter, voices, soldiers, breaking glass.
The bowler hat.
They found me.
Dear Jesus God help me.
They found me...
The truck ground to a halt. “Home sweet home, maggot.”
A gun butt jammed into my bruised ribs, and I fell out onto the pavement. Blood and mucus ran down my mouth, and I spat between clenched teeth. The inside of the hood smelled like rotten meat, like I was in my own little world of death.
“On your feet.” Gloved hands squeezed my broken collarbone and hoisted me to stand. I wheezed and hacked up something that tasted like rusty iron.
I shuffled along the pavement, the shackles on my swollen ankles and wrists only giving me a few inches of movement. There was a hole in the hood, and I could see a few things. Bright lights, guard towers, armed soldiers with dogs. Fifty feet in front of me the man in the bowler hat walked toward a large set of double doors. The doors opened as he stepped through, and the guards inside saluted him.
The gun butt struck me again, and I picked up the pace. As I walked through the double doors, I could read what was printed on them: DRS-117.
I stood naked in a fluorescent room while a guard sprayed me down with freezing water. He turned the hose off and laughed at my shivering form. “Rat in a sewer,” he said, and tossed me an orange jumpsuit.
I was led to a cell the size of a closet and shoved inside. The heavy door slammed shut, and I looked around. The room was completely bare, save for a stone toilet in the corner and four surveillance domes in the ceiling. I sat down on the cold metal floor and put my head between my knees.
“No sitting,” a voice said from somewhere, and a jolt of pain seized my body. Electrical current ran through the floor, and I struggled back to my feet. I stood, paced, stood again for what must have been several hours. I tried to lean against the wall, but the floor zapped me again. My feet were numb. I staggered and swayed and fought to keep my balance. Finally my legs gave out, and I collapsed onto the ground. I braced myself for the pain.
The door opened. “He wants to see you.”
Two guards led me through a maze of brightly lit corridors. Men in lab coats and military uniforms hustled to and fro throughout the facility. When they passed me, their eyes would dart downward, avoiding my gaze.
We came to a long hallway with a door at the very end. As we approached, I saw another man in orange step out, flanked by his own set of guards. My vision was blurry and distorted, but there was something familiar about him. I squinted and focused as he drew nearer.
“Oh my God, Brian, are you okay?” I shouted as we passed each other. His head lifted, and I got a good look at him. His face was sunken and hollow, covered in bruises and fresh scars. His lips were white and cracked, and part of his ear had been torn off. But it was his eyes that frightened me. Dark and empty, the soulless eyes of a man being broken apart. He looked through me instead of at me, and then turned his head back down. The guards pushed me forward.
We entered a tiny room, and I was strapped to a metal chair. The man in the bowler hat stood with his back to me, facing the wall. There was a long silence.
“The human animal,” he said, “is a remarkable creature. Not for his inventiveness, or his reason, or his ingenuity, or any of the other fabricated qualities for which he congratulates himself. No, the human animal is remarkable for one reason and one reason only: his sheer capacity to delude himself. Specifically, his ability to pretend that he is not an animal. He imagines that he is above the natural world, separate from it. He creates a fiction of laws and morality to convince himself that he is a being closer to the gods than to the filthy earth. But man is not made of air. He is made of meat, and he screams when that meat is torn from him. He cowers when threatened and groans when beaten. Man is an animal like any other, and there is only one law that governs animals: the right of the strong to rule over the weak.”
He turned around. His pale, wrinkled face would look frail if not for the crazed fire behind his eyes. “You've caused a lot of trouble for us, young man,” he said, coughing into a handkerchief. “I don't like to have my time wasted, and you've wasted a lot of it.”
“Where's LaFarge?” I said.
He smiled. “LaFarge never stopped working for us. He just stopped drawing a paycheck. His task was to find weaknesses in the operation, and he performed it admirably, even if he didn't realize it was helping us. Once we know how the pill functions we'll be able to develop the next generation of Stingrays so that nothing can keep us out of your heads. Of course, we still have some research to do, but we will learn all that we need to when we dissect his brain.”
I struggled to free myself from the chair, but the straps held me tight. “You son of a bitch,” I shouted.
He stepped toward me and studied my face. “Please,” he said, “call me Dreiser. You and I are going to be working very closely in the coming days. The pill's effects are still protecting you, but that's just as well. I'm going to be doing this the old fashioned way.”
He gestured to one of the guards, and took a rubber club from him. He raised it above his head and smashed it onto my left hand. Bones splintered and white pain shot up my arm. I clenched my jaw. I wasn't going to scream. He struck me across the mouth, and teeth clattered on the stone floor. He struck my knee and the crack reverberated up my thigh. But I gave him nothing.
I panted hard. “That all you got?” I said.
He smiled. “Excellent. Truly excellent. I knew there was something special about you.” He gestured to the guards. “That's all for now. Take him away.”
The guards unstrapped me and lifted me up. I hobbled to the door. As we left the room, Dreiser called to the guards, “Send his friend back in for another session.”
Electric pain jolted me awake. I had passed out, though I wasn't sure for how long. I scrambled back to my feet as the guards entered to carry me away again. They laid me on a metal table with straps holding me secure. Dreiser sat next to me, softly running a hand through my hair. He held a handkerchief to his mouth and coughed into it for several seconds.
“Phase One was the most difficult,” he said at last. “The science was years behind where we needed it, and the most brilliant minds on the subject weren't exactly enthusiastic about the goals of the project. Nowadays we can point the Ray at them and make them do what we want, but back then we had to use more traditional methods.”
He dipped a small needle into a dish of clear liquid and inserted it into my arm. Fire erupted in my veins, and my whole body burned with blinding agony. My hands dug at the table until my fingernails cracked. After an eternity of screaming anguish, the pain subsided.
“Phase Two was relatively simple, by comparison,” Dreiser said. “Our first field agents were experts in human psychology, but we soon learned that that was unnecessary. As I said, humans are animals. When they're hungry, they eat. When they're scared, they run. When they're angry, they kill. If you know what buttons to press, you can make them do whatever you like.
“Stimulus,” he said as held up another needle, “response.” He inserted it into my arm, and I felt barbed-wire in my veins again. My vision darkened around the edges, and the room started to float away. I thought I was dying, until cold water splashed on my face, bringing me back to reality.
“No, we didn't need experts,” Dreiser said. “We only needed men with the strength to pull the trigger. Of course, the project was still far from complete. There remained the possibility of a mass movement too large for us to control. The same problem that confounded leaders from Caesar onward still plagued us: how do you break the mob's will once and for all? We were determined to press onward until we had solved the final equation of history.”
My lips moved in a breathless whisper. Dreiser leaned in and pressed his ear to my mouth as I struggled to make a sound. At last I was able to force out a few choked words:
“What is Phase Three?”
Dreiser laughed as he prepared another needle.
My mind floated back from an unconscious void, and I slowly regained my senses. I was strapped into a chair again, sitting under a pool of light in an otherwise dark room. As the fog lifted, I became dimly aware of the presence of another person in the room with me.
“I'm sorry, baby.”
My head shot up. “Lindsay,” I called, “Lindsay, where are you?”
She hobbled forward into the circle of light. Her head was shaved bald, and a jagged scar ran over her scalp. Her arm was in a cast, and her left foot was twisted and bent.
“Jesus, Lindsay,” I said, my eyes watering. “Please believe me, I never wanted to hurt you. Dreiser, that fucking monster, he's doing it. He's doing all of it. Oh God, Lindsay I'm... I'm so happy you're alive.”
She moved closer. Her eyes were soft and sad, and she gently touched my cheek. “I'm so sorry,” she said.
“It's okay, Lindsay, I'm sorry too. I know it wasn't really you. I know that Dreiser was the one who—”
She shook her head. “No, baby. I'm sorry that I don't love you anymore.”
Dreiser stepped in from the shadows. “There's nothing you have that we cannot take from you,” he said. “Do you understand? Everything you own, everyone you love, even the things inside your own head are ours to take or leave as we choose.”
He ran a finger down the nape of her neck. She closed her eyes and moaned softly.
“I will take things from you for as long as you fight me,” he said. “I will strip you down to nothing if I have to. I will carve you down until I find your soul, and I will smash it to bits. And then, when you are completely hollow, I will have a final task for you.” His spotted hands ran up her arms, and she sighed.
I shook my head. “Lindsay, listen to me. You have to fight it. It's not you right now. He's inside your mind. He's making you do things you don't want to do.”
Dreiser smiled at me as he unzipped her dress. “She certainly looks like she wants to, doesn't she?”
He made me watch.
I stood in my cell. He's trying to break me, I thought. He doesn't want information, even if I had any to give. No, he wants to conquer my mind, and he wants to do it without the Ray. He wants to reduce me to a simpering puddle, and, when I am kissing his feet and pleading for mercy, only then will he kill me. Well, I am not going to let that happen. He can torture me to the brink of death, and, with my last ounce of strength, I will spit in his fucking face. If he kills me, he'll do it knowing that I defied him to the end. And if I can do it, others can too.
“We're the same, you and I,” Dreiser said, pushing me down the corridors in a wheelchair.
I scoffed. “I'm nothing like you.”
“Really? Mind control isn't new. Organizations all over the world have been practicing it for centuries, albeit in primitive forms. Psychological warfare, brainwashing, propaganda. And you, my boy, are a born propagandist. Or do you think we hadn't seen this?”
He handed me a tablet with a web browser open. I looked at the top of the page: “Operation Stingray is in effect. God help us.”
“It was really quite amusing,” he said. “You published your story for the public to read, believing that you were striking a grand blow for freedom. You thought you could galvanize your readers to action and spark a mass movement to overthrow us. You believed you would change the world.”
He turned a corner and wheeled me down a long hallway. At the end was giant steel door flanked by two armed guards. Printed on the door in huge bold letters were the words, “PHASE THREE DEVELOPMENT.”
“It's time for you to see something,” Dreiser said.
The doors opened, and we entered a massive, dome-shaped room with a raised dais in the center. The dais had a semicircle of keyboards and control panels around it. I looked around and saw that the inner surface of the dome was covered in hundreds and hundreds of dark monitor screens.
Dreiser stepped onto the dais and tapped a key. One of the monitors lit up. It showed a young woman looking into the screen, applying makeup. A female voice was speaking softly. She spoke in rapid, broken sentence fragments, and she talked about her classes, her mother, the laundry, and a television show, all simultaneously.
The image was odd. It was clear in the center, but fuzzy on the edges. It flickered dark every few seconds. Suddenly it panned downward to show a bathroom sink. A hand picked up a tube of lipstick, and the image flicked back upward. The woman began applying the lipstick. I realized she was looking in a bathroom mirror. Was she wearing a camera somehow? It was almost as though I was looking through her—
I gasped as I realized what I was seeing. Dreiser grinned. “The first generation of Stingrays were quite limited.” he said. “They allowed us to transmit commands and little else. But the newest versions are wonders of technological innovation. Now not only can we transmit whatever we like, but we can observe and manipulate all brain activity as well.”
He typed a command into the keyboard. The woman looked into the mirror and her expression hardened. Her inner voice became grim and anguished. She said she hated herself, her life was painful and meaningless, she would always be alone. The woman's face twisted, and a film of moisture distorted the image. She looked at a razor blade. She picked it up slowly with trembling fingers and held it to her wrist.
“Imagine,” Dreiser said as the monitor faded to white. “Stingray antennas covering every inch of the globe. Imagine countless minds at our disposal, ready and willing to perform whatever tasks we choose. Imagine wielding complete omniscience and omnipotence over all of humanity from this very platform. What is Phase Three? My dear boy, Phase Three is nothing less than the power of God.”
He touched a key and the entire dome of monitors lit up. I looked through the eyes of people all over the world. A man shopping in a crowded market. A doctor performing an operation. A woman bicycling down a desert trail. A fighter pilot in the skies. An infant laying in a crib.
“You believe that you can lead the people in a revolution against us,” Dreiser said. “Tell me, what will you do when we have six billion cameras showing us everything we need to see? When every living creature serves us, and their thoughts become tools we use to enforce our will? What will you do when we delete the word for 'resistance' from human memory with a keystroke?”
I stood in a white room. The world was thick and distorted, like I was underwater. Was I dreaming?
Brian sat on the floor near the opposite wall. His head was down, and his hands clutched the back of his neck. I called to him, but the sound was lost in the curdled air. I ran to him, my slow motion body heavy and aching. I called again. I needed to warn him about Phase Three and the danger facing the world. I finally reached him, and he looked up.
His eyes were completely black, and his face was a grimace of fear and pain. He shrieked like a frightened animal, and he bounded away on all fours. He cowered in the corner of the room and screamed.
Dreiser's voice whispered in my ear. “Animals,” he said.
I walked to Brian and begged him to snap out of it. I searched his eyes for any trace of understanding or intelligence. Any trace of my best friend. But his eyes held nothing but primal fear, the unthinking look of a beast in danger. The look in his eyes was like a claw hammer to my heart. He had been broken. He was gone.
“You are alone,” Dreiser said.
I sank down to the floor. Yes, I was alone. Totally, helplessly alone. Dreiser was right. He had taken everything from me. Everyone I cared about. Every hope I had. Everything.
No. Not everything. I had one thing left. I had the rage that burned in my chest when I thought of his face. I had the image of his bloodied corpse that hung in my mind's eye like a mandala. I had my hate. I would find a way, somehow, to get my revenge on him. And if I couldn't, then I would kill him every time I closed my eyes. That was the one thing he couldn't take from me. The one thing that would be mine forever.
“We've reached the end of our time together,” Dreiser said.
We sat across from each other, separated by a small metal table. My body was weak and quivering, but I forced myself to hold his gaze. He coughed and hacked into a handkerchief, and when he pulled it away from his mouth, I could see a reddish goo inside it.
“I cannot break you,” he said. “I have tried everything at my disposal, but still you defy me. The others have broken. Your lover, your friend. Even LaFarge begged for his life in the end. But no matter what I do to you, it only hardens your resolve. I can see in your eyes that your fury cannot be extinguished. It sustains you. It keeps you whole.”
He leaned forward. “But anger is a lie, my boy. It makes you feel strong in moments when you are most weak. No, it's time for you to learn something about the true nature of power.”
He pulled a gun from his hip and placed it onto the table.
I laughed in spite of my aching ribs. “That's it? You're going to kill me? Be my fucking guest. But do it knowing that you couldn't beat me, you bastard.”
Dreiser grinned and shook his head. “You misunderstand me, son. This isn't an execution. This is a job interview.”
He stood up and walked over to me. He unfastened the straps on my arms, and he sat back down.
“The human animal is weak,” he said. “Weak of body, weak of mind, and, above all, weak of will. He tells himself fairytales about the 'indomitable strength of the human spirit' because in his heart, he is ashamed of his weakness. He knows that he will crumble if placed under the slightest bit of pressure.”
I lifted my shaking hands from the straps and rubbed my wrists.
“But you, my boy, you are different. I saw potential in you from the very beginning. A fighter's spirit. A fierce survival instinct. An iron will that can withstand any attempt to destroy it.”
I placed my hands on the table.
“Just the kinds of qualities I've been looking for in my replacement.”
I looked at the gun.
“I'm old. This line of work takes its toll over time, and I don't have it in me to see Phase Three to completion. We are on the cusp of a new day in history, and we need a leader with the strength to pull the species forward, triumphantly, into the glory that awaits.”
I touched the gun with a trembling hand.
“The parasites in this facility are worthless. Yes-men and bureaucrats. Spineless worms who couldn't wield true power without a memorandum telling them how to do it. No, we need a God-king, a Pharaoh. Someone with the vision and the will to reign over the churning masses like Poseidon over the seas.”
I felt the gunmetal warm to my touch.
“Someone who knows how to kill without mercy.”
I closed my hand around the grip.
“All great men have a virtue they cling to above all others. For some it is honor. For some it is love. For you it is vengeance. You will be the God of the Old Testament, raining punishment upon the wicked in cleansing fire. Your hate will light the way.”
I lifted the gun.
“It feels good, doesn't it? The power. Imagine wielding this kind of power over billions. That is your destiny, my boy. That is what awaits you.”
I touched the barrel of the gun to his forehead.
“Yes. That's it. I remember now. I remember the first real taste of power I held over another human being.”
I cocked the hammer back.
“I had that exact look that you have now.”
My hand was calm and still.
“That very same look.”
It's amazing what a shower, a shave and a filet mignon can do for your outlook on life.
I looked up from the Phase Three control dais at the dark world of monitors. I reached my bandaged hand to the controls. The doctors had patched me up and injected me with something to take care of the pain in my broken body. I had them thrown in the prisons afterward, along with half of the facility. Anyone who so much as looked at me while I was in custody would be getting an important lesson about loyalty.
Technicians were working on Brian and Lindsay, trying to reconstruct their minds from the mush that Dreiser had reduced them to. They were making progress, though it would be a while before they were at full mental capacity. They asked me if I wanted them back as they were, or if I wanted to make any improvements. “Mostly as they were,” I said. “Maybe make Brian a little less caustic, and give Lindsay more of a sense of humor. And they both should probably lose any negative associations they might have with the project, now that things have changed.”
I touched the control panel, and the monitors lit up. Dreiser was wrong. I would prove that. Phase Three is an incredible tool, a tool that could be used for the betterment of all humanity. I could end war, poverty, and suffering for all time. I could lead us into a paradise, a perfect world free from want, or fear, or death, or any thoughts that could cause pain. Dreiser wanted to use it for evil, but I would change the world for the better. No, he was wrong. I'm nothing like him. Nothing.
I looked at the monitors. A world of minds ready and waiting to receive my input. I looked around me. And I smiled.